Monday, October 05, 2015

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

When I took my first journalism class in college, the professor pointed out the key to every good news story. Each, he said, must answer six basic questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how, and do so as concisely as possible. 

I always loved the story of the fledgling reporter who was assigned to cover the death of a local socialite who had committed suicide after attending a party. He submitted his story, which his editor rejected as too long, citing the six keys. He re-did it, cutting it considerably. The editor rejected it as too long. Three more attempts were also rejected. Finally, in frustration, the writer submitted the following. "Socialite John Smith, 48, attended a dinner party Thursday evening. He then took his hat, his coat, his leave, a taxi to his home, a gun from his drawer, and his life." I think he was fired.

I suspect that's why I never went into newspaper journalism, and why I don't even write short stories anymore: brevity may be the soul of wit, but when it comes to writing, I find it next to impossible to be brief.

A novel must answer the same key questions as a news story, but has the luxury of allowing the writer to take as much time as he ("No, no!" Political Correctness admonishes sternly, "He or she!" To which I reply, "Screw Political Correctness.") needs to do so. Also, whereas in a news story, the keys are most usually given in the set order of who/what/when/where/why/how, a novel can be much more flexible in the order of the questions/answers to suit the writer's whim.
As a general rule, of the six questions, the “who/what/why/how" are probably more important than the “when/where”—and this is especially true in mysteries. 

Probably because each of my fiction books is part of a series (two, actually) the "who/what/why" are the primary questions—the "when/where" are more or less constant from book to book. The “how" varies widely. And on closer analysis, it is really the "who" which is the most important. All my books are primarily character driven, and it is they who bind each of the series together.

I love writing series because by having the same characters return, book after book, set in the same surroundings, the readers can—and I sincerely hope, do—become more personally vested in them and their development. That many readers have said that they consider the characters as real people and friends is about the highest compliment a writer can receive. It's reached the point, for me, of considering each subsequent book in the series to be simply another chapter in the continuing story of the characters' lives.

But writing a series presents certain challenges as well. It's very important that someone who has never read any other book in the series not feel as though they have no idea of who these people are. So each book has to include a subtle reintroduction of the secondary characters and locations. However, each book can be read alone, in any order, without overly confusing the reader as to what's happened in previous books.

Many people understandably want to read a series in the order written, to get an idea of the development of the characters from book to book. The unfortunate death of the publisher of the first ten books of the Dick Hardesty series, and the dissolution of the company, meant that as the first ten books ran out stock, they became, in effect, out of print. Luckily Zumaya Publishing picked up and continued the series with the 11th book, and began reissuing the out of print titles. This created something of a logistical problem which could have been more serious were it important to read them all in the order published. Faced with what could be a considerable logistics problem trying to squeeze ten “unexpected” titles into the publishing backlog of its own original titles, Zumaya kindly turned the entire series over to Untreed Reads publishing, which is reissuing it in the order written, with the first four already available. (Book #5, The Good Cop, will be reissued on October 13.) We are on track to have the entire series, including a new one, back in publication by late 2016 with minimal inconvenience to you as the reader.

A writer's life, regardless of which form he specializes in, is not an easy one. Come to think of it, no one's is.
Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (, which is also available as an audiobook (

1 comment:

Kage Alan said...

I never wanted to delve into writing short stories because I felt they restricted where I generally wanted to take a story, which took time. However, I found that the more I wrote, the more I actually enjoyed them because I only had to accomplish one thing with each story, versus multiple things. It could be a slice of someone's life. My thought now, though, is that each story, short/novella/novel, is as long as it needs to be.