“What’s a Dead Poet Got to Do With It?” by Nancy Pickard

Nancy Pickard is a winner of multiple Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards; a Shamus and Barry award recipient; a four-time Edgar nominee, and an author whose work has made many best-of-the-year and notable-books lists. EQMM is proud to be able to say that her stellar career began in our pages. Her first published fiction, “A Man Around the House,” appeared in December 1981, in our Department of First Stories. Nancy is a writer many other writers could (and no doubt do) learn from—and that’s not just EQMM’s opinion; the New York Times says she “has the storytelling gift,” and The Boston Globe says “Pickard writes richly textured fiction about families and relationships, about hatred and lust and love, about loyalty and betrayal, and most of all about the corrosive power of secrets.” But in this post the Kansas author’s focus is on what she has learned, and is continuing to learn, from other writers. It’s eye-opening.—Janet Hutchings

The other day I was talking via email to that exemplary mystery writer and human being Ed Gorman, and I told him that I was tired of killing people. This, as you may imagine, was not a happy revelation for a woman who has made her living doing just that for nearly thirty-five years. But it turns out that even a hit woman, a.k.a. mystery writer, can get her fill of homicide.

That didn’t mean that I wanted to stop writing about murder altogether, perish the thought and pardon the pun.

What it meant was . . .

I didn’t know what it meant.

That’s why I contacted Sir Edward the Wise.

“I still want to write mysteries,” I e’ed him, “but I find myself more interested in investigating forgiveness than punishment. I want to write deep-feeling, generous-hearted books that might be, for lack of a better way to say it, a positive companion to their readers.”

I told him that when I’m entering new writing territory I like to study how other writers do it, so that I won’t reinvent a wheel and so that I can learn from my betters. I whined to Ed that I was having a hard time finding stories that dwell on life and death and yet resolve themselves with something closer to wisdom and mercy than to punishment and revenge.

“You might want to read some Ray Bradbury,” he wrote back. “If ever there was somebody who wrote big-hearted books, he was the guy.”

So I went to the library and picked up some Bradbury because Ed said so, and of course he was right. In writing and life, Bradbury was a force of positive nature. His stories are, indeed, loving, big-hearted, and boon companions. From the first page of this reading assignment I began to feel happier and more hopeful that new kinds of stories wait for me to write them.

When Ed sent me off to science fiction for inspiration, I started wondering if other mystery authors learn how to write, in part, by wandering outside the aisles of our genre to pluck books from other shelves. I thought, well, of course they must, but I suddenly wanted to know exactly what they have learned and from whom.

So I asked a few crime writers if they’ve ever been kicked in the head—otherwise known as having an epiphany—by authors who will never show up at Bouchercon, Malice Domestic, or Edgar Week, but would more likely attend a science-fiction convention, or fantasy, or romance, or Western, or a literary conclave.

First, I asked a couple of Edgar Award winners, “Have writers in other genres taught you how to be a better mystery writer? And if so, how?”

Margaret Maron (Bootlegger’s Daughter) said that the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay taught her the value of the specific over the generic.

“With Millay,” Margaret said, “it’s not just a ‘blue flower.’ It’s an iris, a forget-me-not. It’s not a vague herb garden. With her, you smell the tansy, the rosemary, and the lavender. If my writing has a sense of place, I learned it from her.”

Anyone who has read Margaret’s short stories and novels knows that Maron learned well from Millay.

Margaret also told me that it was a science-fiction writer—Robert Heinlein, she thinks—who taught her to appeal to the senses on every page.

“Every page?” I asked her, in a tone close to flabbergasted horror. “Good God, Margaret. I think I’m doing well if I can get all five of them at least once into every scene!”

“Yep. EVERY page,” she affirmed, but emphasized that she didn’t mean a writer should try to cram all five senses on every page. (Whew.) “I try to evoke at least one of the other four senses (other than sight) on each page. It’s easy to show what the character’s seeing, but what is he hearing, smelling, tasting, touching? I don’t always succeed but I do always try.”

Which made me think I could test if that might improve my pages, too.

Next, I asked T.J. MacGregor (Out of Sight), who told me that she also learned from a poet. “The poet Anne Sexton taught me that even taboos work when they are emotionally charged.”

“What do you mean?” I asked her, my ears all a’perk.

“I mean that Sexton wrote about abortion, incest, adultery, masturbation, menstruation, drug addiction,” Trish said. “These days, it’s the stuff of TV talk shows, but back then people didn’t talk about this stuff in polite conversation. Sexton showed that if you write from an authentic emotional place, readers will flock.”

Trish also said that it was from reading Stephen King that she began to understand that “regardless of genre, all terror is first conjured in your head, your heart, and in your body’s reactions to what you imagine you hear, see, feel, taste, smell.”

Of course, I asked Ed Gorman, too. (His latest mystery novel, Riders on the Storm, is getting wonderful reviews.) In addition to writing mysteries, Ed also writes out-of-genre—Westerns and horror, among others—so I’m guessing his own books cross-pollinate each other. But he said his most valuable lesson came from F. Scott Fitzgerald over in the literary aisle: “What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.”

Gillian Roberts, (Anthony Award winner for her Amanda Pepper mystery series) also took inspiration from a master.

“I was most influenced—or would love to think I was—by Charles Dickens, in his enjoyment of his characters, his love of them no matter how strange or even despicable they are. He was in love with and sympathetic to the human condition. I so hope some of that rubbed off on me.”

There was a time, though, when Gillian wrote general fiction (Mendocino) under her real name, Judith Greber. And where did she find out-of-genre inspiration then? In the Mystery aisle! “Susan Isaac’s first book hit me over the head like a mallet with the idea that you were allowed to be funny (or try to be) in a book, even in a mystery.”

By now maybe you have a mental image like the one I’m getting of writers of all literary persuasions roaming bookstore aisles and magazine racks to learn from any writer who has something to teach them.

It’s a process of feeding, seeding, and cross-pollination.

Did I get cross-pollinated, so to speak, by reading Ray Bradbury’s classic novel The Martian Chronicles for the first time? Well, I guess I did, since I now am nearly finished with the first science-fiction story I’ve ever written! I got so much pleasure out of doing it. No character got murdered, either, no crime was investigated, and nobody went to jail.

Oh, I’ll go back to mowing people down. In fact, I’ve already killed a couple of characters since writing that story. But the ending of this new story is not the same as it would have been before I read Bradbury.

Can reading authors out of my own specialty really make me a better mystery writer? I think it just did.

So, thank you, Ed Gorman, Sage of Iowa.

My spaceship, traveling through mysterious time, feels steadier now.


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9 Responses to “What’s a Dead Poet Got to Do With It?” by Nancy Pickard

  1. Hayford Peirce says:

    I’m pretty sure that Margaret Maron is slightly mistaken when she says she learned about trying to put something about all five senses into each of her scenes. She says she learned this from the great science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein. If you read Heinlein, you will see that he almost NEVER has ANYthing remotely close to sensory writing in his scenes. She is undoubtedly thinking of an almost equally great S.F. writer named Poul Anderson. Anderson specifically SAID that he tried to invoke all five senses into his scenes. When it worked, it was fine. But he could overdo it in some of his stuff and it was, at least to me, painful to read. “He felt a warm breeze on his cheek as the murmur of the stream clashed with the bright reflection from its waters that made his eyes squint, just as the sweet smell of lemon blossoms came to him on the westerly wind.” Give me Heinlein anytime….

    • I think you may be right, Hayford Peirce, and from now on, I’ll give Anderson the credit. I was reading a lot of SciFi short story writers at the time, and I know it came from an essay one of them wrote, but couldn’t remember which one. Poul Anderson feels right. So thank you!

      • Hayford Peirce says:

        It would probably be easy enough to find the exact reference — I have a lot of stuff about writing S.F. And Google would undoubtedly turn it up eventually. I remember once, years ago, coming across a passage in an Anderson story that was so egregiously awful in its use of the five senses that I copied it out and sent it to Ben Bova as an example of how NOT to write! A writer parodying himself….

  2. Hayford, thanks so much for checking in with that astute and funny observation. As for your example: oh my! All five senses in one sentence if we count the indirect taste of lemon! That may be a record.

    While I doubt that we can ever know who it actually was who inspired Margaret, her point remains true–that a writer from another genre made her a better writer in her own genre.

  3. Good piece, Nancy. And I think the wider we read and the more we experience life the more we can bring to our corner of the writing world.

  4. Thank you, Paul. I absolutely agree with your observation, and I think it holds true even for writers such as Emily Dickinson who, while appearing to spend her life “confined” to the house, was so deeply immersed in her domestic life and so fantastically observant of everything that she essentially created a larger world within that small one and took us there.

  5. Great piece, Nancy, with lots to think about and explore. Thanks especially for the concrete examples. For a couple of very different reasons, my goal just now is to deepen each character — even though a mystery is almost always described in terms of plot. (And I’m not ignoring plot. But still.) When I need to remind myself of the “how,” I look at John Le Carré’s George Smiley books, where even the most tangential character crossing George’s path evokes a response in this protagonist that resonates with the act of caring about “small lives” and small changes. I look at how Le Carré can take a sentence or a paragraph and pull forth emotion and intention. I don’t expect to ever write espionage, but I still want to keep my “YA” mysteries pulling toward this example of evoking our human vulnerability — and courage.

  6. Hi, Beth. Thank you so much for your example of how other writers teach us even when they don’t write what we write. I, too, love the Smiley books and the depths of character that Le Carre plumbs. You’re making me want to go back and reread and re-learn from him. You might like to know that I look to YA novels for inspiration and so do many of my adult-fiction writer friends. YA authors seem bolder, to me, than most adult-fiction authors are in putting their characters’ “character,” so to speak, right out front in plain sight. Maybe they can do that because they’re writing about teenagers whose emotions are less hidden and closer to the surface. That kind of thing–more overt emotionality–could seem over-wrought, but a lot of YA writers seem to have a knack for doing it with a delicate touch and great taste so they can pull it off without sentimentality.

  7. Olive-Ann Tynan says:

    Nancy, how interesting to read your post! I learned about alternative worlds long ago with the Dan Dare Pilot of the Future comics and later discovered the genre was called science fiction, a beautifully evocative term. The first SF story ever—and this is open to huge debate—may be Lucian of Samosata’s True History written around the year 200. Lucien’s characters effect interplanetary travel on cobwebs, swap eyeballs and copulate with trees, although the author’s main purpose may have been to satirize a work written about ten centuries earlier; Homer’s Odyssey. Its hero, Ulysses, fought, inter alia, with a one-eyed, man-eating giant and a witch called Circe who turned men into pigs. (Circe’s island is still called by that name today and I can see it from my window). But SF probably goes back all the way to the cave, many cave drawings suggest aliens and space travellers. May the Force – the writing Force that is—always be with us.

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