Monday, June 18, 2012

Authors and Architects

Just thinking this morning about the similarities between authors and architects. Both put a lot more time, effort, and detail into their work than is ever evident in the finished product. An architect designs a building, and the people who visit and live and work in it never give an instant's thought to all the details that went into creating it—the planning, layout, materials, framing, plumbing, lighting and electrical work.

The same is true of books. There's so much that goes into the components of every book's plot, setting, characters, mood, and tone that the reader is never conscious of. Each book is the like the architect's design of a single structure, and the writers of series are like the architects of subdivisions. Series have special problems to contend with not generally found in “stand-alone” books, and which are seldom if ever apparent to or considered by the reader.

I write two mystery series—the Dick Hardesty mysteries, and the Elliott Smith paranormal mystery series. I'm fourteen books into the Dick Hardesty series, and the awaiting the release of the fourth Elliott Smith mystery. Each book of a series must stand on its own, so as not to totally confuse a reader who may step into the series with the most recent book, or anywhere between the first and most recent. Therefore, while regular followers of the series already know who the main—and many of the secondary—characters are, each book in the series must reintroduce everyone in some way for the sake of the first-time reader.

With a stand-alone book—that is, one not a part of a series—the primary and secondary characters and settings are simply accepted as part of the background. In a series, however, recurring characters—and especially settings—take on a special significance and must be consistent from book to book. Keeping track of them is essential, and can be confusing for the writer.

The Dick Hardesty series is set in a city which does not exist in any map, but with which the regular reader has become familiar by seeing them reappear in book after book. The recurring characters, appearing in nearly every book, take on lives of their own for the regular reader, and become like old friends with each reappearance. I have deliberately never given a physical description of Dick, leaving that to the reader's imagination, and I've been delighted over the years to have notes from readers describing him to me.

The Elliott Smith series is set in modern-day Chicago, which makes the entire setting issue easier. But I still have to be careful lest a reader catch me up in a geographical or chronological error.

Perhaps the major difference between architects and authors—at least this author—is that while the thoughts begin in the mind, the intricate details of a building must be set down in blueprints before the actual construction begins. Admittedly, some writers do the same thing with their manuscripts, but I do not simply because, for me, writing is fluid and the plot and characters often send me off in directions I'd not anticipated when I began. To know, as I wrote from detailed notes, exactly what was coming next would take the spontaneity, and much of the fun, out of the process. I truly enjoy “reading” my books as I write them. And this, of course, compounds all the inherent problems. I find myself spending a great deal of time going back in the manuscript to add details, clues, sometimes introduce a new character, and/or make small—and sometimes major—changes to accommodate new thoughts that pop up during the writing process. The trick is to do it in such a way that the reader won't even be aware of the changes made. Not to do so would be equivalent to an architect having doors open onto brick walls.

Were I an architect, I'd not be a I.M. Pei or a Frank Gehry or a Louis Sullivan. I am not a writer of “literature.” I leave literary skyscrapers and monumental structures to more accomplished writers, though I like to think that all my books have some meaningful flourishes/elements of social relevance...I've written of vengeance and vigilantism, alcoholism and AIDS, bisexuality and the afterlife, plagiarism and greed. But overall, I prefer to write the equivalent of small, comfortable cottages in which I hope the reader will feel at home. And I'm happy with that.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to check out his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs ( ).


Donna Brown said...

Since I have both designed a home of my own and written a book, (I'[m working on my second book) I can totally relate to this blog.

Dorien/Roger said...

Wow, Donna...a woman of many talents! Good luck with your writing! (And thanks for taking the time to post a comment.)

Kage Alan said...

Having been to Chicago a number of times, I love that you put local locations in the Elliott Smith mysteries. It takes me right there and your attention to detail through the characters is precisely what sets it apart from other novels I read.

Dorien/Roger said...

Thanks, Kage. The problem with having the setting of a real city is that if you make up a building or a business in a certain area, there are people who know the area might say "that's not right!" This doesn't happen with the Dick Hardesty series, where no one can challenge it.