Guest Post: Donnell Ann Bell

Keeping it Real – Or Not

“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”

Corrie ten Boom, Clippings from My Notebook

Hi, Mysteristas, it’s great to be back again.  I have a topic that constantly concerns me regarding my writing. It’s been a nagging voice in my head, it’s frozen me at times, and I’d love your thoughts and opinions.

I’m a worrywart – in life and in my writing.  It’s a personality thing, and I struggle to control that useless emotion.

I also prefer to wriBuried Agendas - 600x900x300te about real places.  I like to ground a story in realism and tell a fictional story within those surroundings.  However, we’re warned constantly as writers that if something bad happens in your book, make it a fictional place.

That’s exactly what happened in my recent release, Buried Agendas.  My mind kept revolving around one central idea. What would happen if a chemical was created that never should have been created?

Worry number one was that I wasn’t qualified to write such a book.  Being married to a chemical engineer does not make you one. But the good news is when you’re a writer, and an idea takes hold, if your muse is powerful enough, it squashes uncertainty.

When the idea simply was driving me mad, I contacted Region V’s EPA, and asked about a chemical I wanted to use.  A wonderful agent in its office sent me all kinds of information on the formula I was curious about.  The reports detailed that many years ago, the chemical in question was so prominently used; that it had been in production for so many years, caused so many ill-effects, that it was eventually taken off the market, EPA-banned, and the site on which it was created turned into a superfund site.

Wow.  What had I gotten myself into?

I tried to dismiss the idea, but my muse refused to abandon the story.  The brainstorming and the research continued.  To be fair when the EPA was obviously on one side of the issue, I contacted plant chemists, plant managers , underground tank experts, lawyers and doctors.  Pretty soon, I had a novice blueprint of what I wanted to write.  Therefore I chose a novice protagonist in which to tell my story, and as I try to do in every book, I did my best to tell the story through the characters’ eyes, while keeping the author’s viewpoints to herself.

Needless to say, the setting in Buried Agendas is completely fictitious, but I do try to ground it somewhat in reality.

If you want to write a story, work around those nagging naysaying doubts.  They say, “Write what you know.”  I’ve always said I know enough about topics to be dangerous.  But I’ve a curious mind, and I’m a storyteller.  Worry or not, the story has to come first.

I wonder if I’m alone in this.  Do you keep it real? Are you a fearless creator?  Does doubt ever grab you by the throat and silence your muse? How do you combat it? Do you stick to what you know, or, like me, do you become absorbed in a topic until you have no choice but to get it down in print? Tell me your creation stories.  I’d love to know.

Okay, Mysterista Readers: Donnell is giving away a copy of Buried Agendas to one commenter, trade paperback or digital, winner’s choice. Let’s hear what you have to say!

***

Donnell Ann Bell grew up in New Mexico and today lives in Colorado.  A homebody at heart, she concentrates on suspense that might happen in her neck of the woods – writing Suspense Too Close to Home. She is the author of The Past Came Hunting, Deadly Recall and Betrayed, all of which have been e-book best sellers. Buried Agendas is her newest release. Along with veteran police officer Wally Lind, Donnell co-owns Crimescenewriters, a Yahoo group putting law enforcement experts together with writers. Donnell loves to hear from readers. Like her on Facebook or contact her via her website www.donnellannbell.com   

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33 thoughts on “Guest Post: Donnell Ann Bell”

  1. Donnell,

    Great post. I’ve written both ways – real (so real one of my Beta readers suggested I change a setting so as not to annoy) and imagined (or at least as I imagine a real setting might have been – it’s long since razed so who’s going to argue?). Your research sounds amazing and I think a thriller based on the possibility of reality is much more compelling!

    Good luck with Buried Agendas! I’m looking forward to reading it!

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  2. Hi, Julie, I’m so glad I’m not alone! Hmm. did you take your Beta reader’s advice? I can’t imagine annoying unless you were slamming the place. I once read a Sandra Brown novel in which she talked about a restaurant in Fort Worth that I had just been in the previous week. Talk about grounding in your setting. People who’ve read my books have enjoyed reading about Colorado Springs, Albuquerque and Denver.

    Diamond, Texas is my first fictional setting, but darned if I don’t look for it on the map 😉 Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

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  3. I’ve taken “write what you want to know” to heart as my mantra. My Laurel Highlands stories are set in a real place, so I have to do a lot of research for that. I cannot put the Fayette County courthouse anywhere but East Main Street in Uniontown, you know? But I do try to dump my dead bodies in either public places or fictitious settings. I’ve had a lot of “but I don’t know anything about X” moments – usually I go out and learn about X. Of course, when i started writing police-procedural, that was the HUGE “but I don’t know X” moment. But I love writing it. And fortunately, every time I’ve needed a cop or a lawyer to answer a question, I’ve found very friendly, helpful people.

    I’m working on another book set in Niagara Falls – close to where I grew up. So yeah, there’s a lot of “writing what I know” but I don’t let knowledge (or lack of it) get in the way of the story.

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  4. Mary Sutton, so you’re a fearless creator. Fantastic. So public places. This brings up such a good point because I want a kidnapping to occur outside of a library in a real place, and I’m worried about that having an ill-effect on the library. I’d love it if you’re still reading if you’d tell me what kinds of things you’ve let occur in a public place. Thanks for stopping by!

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  5. Write what you know is good advice . . . up to a point. But let’s face it, every writer is super familiar with one or maybe two careers, but if all your protagonists had the same career, your readers would get bored. Unless you’re writing a series and the same protagonist with the same career is in each book, then you have to branch out sooner or later and start researching other careers and areas of expertise. As for places, that’s a toss-up. I like writing about places I know, I can go there, take dozens of photos, mention shops and streets that locals there will recognize. That was always one of the things I enjoyed about Robert Parker’s Spencer series – I knew Boston and the outlying suburbs and it was fun to think, I know where that is! But it’s also neat to create a place that’s a little here and a little of there, all the things you liked best or thought intriguing about places you’ve been. But if you write a historical, even if like Boston, it’s been there in the time you’re writing, you really can’t know exactly what it was like, sounded like, or smelled like or looked like so with all the research in the world, there’s still a bit of make it up going on. The only thing I find jarring is a place I know well and the writer includes a location in a contemporary that I know has been gone for years or in a historical it’s a place that didn’t exist for another 100 years.

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  6. Ah, Skye, kind of like Ken Follett admitted doing in one of his novels. Using a vehicle before it was created. It happens, I suppose. In The Past Came Hunting, when BBB bought the book, I went back and checked my research. I learned the women’s prison was no longer in existence and had relocated the to Denver and Pueblo the year before. I’m so grateful I check and recheck my research. Excellent points. Thanks for sharing your expertise, and I love Robert Parker!

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  7. Great blog, Donnell. I have used both real places and fictional. Sometimes I’ll use a real place but fictionalize some of it. I have used several real restaurants in real cities, but nothing bad happens in them. I’m from FT Worth Texas, so I have a number of books set there as well as Dallas. I try hard not to mention anyone I know, though!
    I find it easier to model my town on an existing town, then fictionalize the town and move it a little away from the actual town. But as Harlen Coben has said (paraphrased) “It’s fiction. I make it up and then worry about research later.”

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  8. Great article, Donnell! When I did my first arson book, BAPTISM IN FIRE, all I knew about arson was you lit a match and held it against something that would burn. Then men on a big red truck came and put it out. So, where did I get off writing a book about a crazed arsonist?To fuel my forray into the subject of arson, I spoke with one of the top arson investigators in the country, several fire department chiefs, a few firemen, and even the manager of the electrical department at Home Depot. I now own a couple of dozen books on fire, arson, and a handbook used by a firefighters’ school. I also have one on how to build a number of incendiary devices. I have now written four books using arson in the plots, the latest of which is THE LAST MOVE. Had I not taken that step to write beyond my field of knowledge, these books would never have gotten written. If a writer wants to grow, they have to take that giant step outside their comfort box. I think, as writers, we have to write about something we know nothing about, otherwise our books become humdrum and cookie cutter replicas of each other. The secret, as you and I discovered, is intense RESEARCH.

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  9. Ah, Eve and Elizabeth, you two are experienced pros. Eve, I obviously have it back***wards. I research to death! 🙂

    Elizabeth, if anyone ever breaks into your house, they’ll be screaming for the hills when they see all those arsonist books. As someone who read The Last Move, I truly admired and appreciated your know-how which you spread seamlessly throughout that book.

    Thanks for stopping by you two!

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  10. I blend real places with imaginary ones to fit the needs of the story. Three of my books are set in South Carolina and I love it when readers contact me to say they felt like they were “home.” I also get tickled when they try to figure out which “real” setting I used as a basis for an invented location. (When you turn a serial killer loose on a college campus, a fictional place sounded like a good idea!) Because I knew the South I used in my books, moving between the real and imaginary was easy.
    Your research for this new story is impressive! For my newest story, I interviewed people who filled many of the key roles to get their perspective and to see if the conflicts I envisioned existed. The level you went to is in a special category. Can’t wait to read the story.

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  11. Thank you, Cathy! Well, then, what an excellent point you make. You obviously could have used the university — it’s a public place, but I agree you chose wisely. I love it when I read a book about places I’ve been. Coming home. Great way to phrase what goes through a reader’s mind. Thanks for stopping by!

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  12. Your book sounds great, Donnell! Adding to my list right now. Thanks for visiting us today.

    I love researching things–to the extent that I have to make sure that I don’t drift off into research mode and forget to write! 🙂

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  13. A deadly chemical? How great Donnell! And what fun to be able to research a new subject. My mysteries are set in the fictional town of Monroe, California, but my characters move around, visiting Sacramento, San Francisco, the Peninsula and Monterey, so I use streets, stores and restaurants that I’m familiar with.
    My paranormal romances, OTOH, are absolute fiction (at least I don’t know any real vampires), but they, too, are set in some real areas. There’s a scene in SNAP: New Talent where an attempted abduction takes place in the flower market on Ile de la Cite in Paris. Real place and just steps from the Metro. And the vampire family’s headquarters is a castle in Hungary, a country I’ve spent some time in. Right now, they’re primarily in Kiev and Moscow. I’ve never been, but it’s like a mini-vacation researching those cities. Now, if I could just go…
    Have to add Buried Secrets to my TBR list.

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  14. Welcome back, Donnell! It’s a great question that you’ve posed here. I tend to go with what I know in some way, though as I’ve completed more manuscripts, I’ve gotten a bit more fearless. I have a few ideas, though, that are up on a shelf because I’m waiting for my brain to be ready to tackle them.

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  15. Thank you, Cynthia, and thank you and the rest of the Mysteristas for allowing me to talk about this subject. It’s one that stymies me every time I sit down to write a book — heck, all the way through the book and beyond!

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  16. Michele, thank you so much for sharing. Hungary! I’m glad you can’t see my face right now because it’s an ugly shade of green 😉 I’ve been so consumed with getting things right, I just couldn’t envision a fictional town resonating with readers. Point in fact, it does, and I’m so relieved. Thanks for stopping by today!

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  17. Ha! Sarah, honored to be your guest today. But here’s the deal. If I wrote about only what I know, it would be a very concise, small book. What I love about writing is it broadens our knowledge base, and keeps us mentally sharp besides… all right.. sharp — er. Thanks for having me today and for sharing your thoughts.

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  18. Hi Donnell, I’m with you. I keep it real. In terms of setting, I much prefer to have visited a place so I can write about it. The only place I haven’t been to that I’ve used as a setting is India (and Atlantis, of course). It helps so much.

    As for other things, I do a lot of research, too. I read a lot about say Egyptian mythology for one book or the history of the Moravians for another. You’ve really got to know what you’re talking about to write a good book. People don’t realize how much work goes into fiction.

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  19. Donnell, in the most-recently finished book, I have a dead body found in the county courthouse in the public defender’s office. I also have a draft of a short story where the body is found at the construction site of a new overlook at Ohiopyle near the Yougiogheny River (I think they finished it last spring?). I also am working on a book where the body is found in the gorge below Niagara Falls and includes flashback scenes to an unnamed chemical plant (there are lots of those in Niagara Falls).

    I have used real restaurants and such. But if I’m going to have employees doing naughty things or crimes committed, I try to stay away from real places because no one wants their business to be known as “the murder scene from that book I read.” 🙂

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  20. Great post, Donnell! I’m lucky, I guess, that all my years at a police department are so useful in writing. You not only learn the interesting cop stuff, but you learn a little bit about a lot of other stuff through the people you deal with. I once learned more than I ever thought I’d want to know about charity auctions when a woman who put them on was carjacked, but I ended up using it in a book eventually.

    As for locations, I tend to use fictional locations in real areas. IOW, the town my characters live in doesn’t exist–and yes, I check maps to be sure–but the area is accurate, and anyone who knows the place will probably be able to figure out just about where the fictional part is in reality. Which is a contradiction, I realize. 😉

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  21. Theresa, I wonder how people who write fantasy do it. They must be so visual and intuitive. 🙂 I find that if I see if and actually touch it — believe it or not I’ve never been kicked out of museum, I can grasp the scene more. But, hey, we have to use our imagination sometime, so being a small town girl, creating Diamond came pretty natural to me. Just want the reader not to think it’s too far fetched, ya know? Thanks for commenting and sharing your opinion.

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  22. Mary, thanks for getting back to me. Love it. A body in the court house, sounds like my kind of read 🙂 Yep, if there have been chemical plants already in existence, I don’t know how readers can dismiss that an event can’t already happen. Niagara Falls, never been there. On my bucket list! Thanks for answering my question.

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  23. Donnell, I’m a worry wart, too, and I have to keep reminding myself that it’s fiction. Sometimes we’ve just got to make stuff up for the sake of the story, and that’s okay as long as we can suspend disbelief, right? 🙂 I do try to keep negative stuff in a fictional place, though. Looking forward to checking out your book!

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  24. Justine: you are in so much trouble. I didn’t know your background was law enforcement. What a great resource for writing. All you have to do is ask…yourself 🙂 Yes, interesting how our everyday experiences end up in a book. I’ve been a volunteer victims advocate and many of these experience never will. I can relate to how you search the map to ensure a town doesn’t exist. Funny thing, in my mind, it now does. Thanks for stopping by!

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  25. Hi, Sue! Oh, a woman after my own heart. Greetings, fellow worry wart. Yes, I tell myself it’s fiction, it’s fiction. Worrywart, and now I’m talking to myself. Next blog post — do writers have to be half-crazy? Thanks for commenting and telling me I’m not alone.

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  26. Hi, Donnell, I could so understand your post. Yes, I too am a worrywart. I deal in details…can’t see the forest, but the individual trees are clear. I also agree with you. I write about a fictional place, Endurance, but it is grounded in my little town in west central Illinois. While I fictionalize names and places, I try to keep it real. Both of my mysteries, (one not published yet), have historical aspects, so I’ve done a great deal of research into the history of our little town. I want the book to sound realistic, but I also want an imagined place. I think it must be working, because “Three May Keep a Secret” just came out on Kindle, and one of the former inhabitants said that I really nailed the habits of the people…slow, frustrating drivers…a city square that is actually a circle and no one knows how to drive around it….So I am grounded in realism but then–the best of all worlds–I get to make stuff up. Good for you. Keep it up.

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  27. Susan, what an ultimate compliment that one of the residents said you nailed it. I can just see this place from your description in your comment. You’re good! Best wishes with Three May Keep a Secret! Thanks for stopping by and sharing.

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  28. Thought provoking post, Donnell. I like to write what I DON”T know. If I wrote about what I knew, I’d bore myself to death. Also, within the parameters of factual material, say forensics or legal matters, I rarely worry about what I write. It’s fiction. I’m in the middle of writing a book that’s based on a twenty-five-year old real unsolved art heist, and I’ve added a disclaimer that everything but the crime itself is fictitious. I actually wrote it ten years ago, but I was afraid to publish it. So maybe I did worry about that one. In the end, you owe your readers a good story, and I know that’s what you give them. Stop worrying.

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  29. Polly, thanks so much! And you’re so right about the worrying. I wish I could be more like you with your steadfast tenacity, but there’s only one Polly Iyer. Thanks for the smile. Still, don’t you have to do your best to make it as believable as possible? Thanks for stopping by.

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  30. Absolutely, Donnell. I worry about getting the absolutes correct–the technical facts. Everything else is open to interpretation. It’s just as important, more so, to make your characters believable, even if they’re in unbelievable situations. Writers are called on that ten times more than on a stray technicality.

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  31. Thanks, Polly, thanks everybody for stopping by and thanks Mysteristas, and here I was a big old worrywart that nobody would visit. You rock!!! The drawing will be open for a few more days. Can’t wait to see who wins Buried Agendas!

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