Monday, June 6, 2011

On Writing, Part X — The Other Taboos, Politics & Religion

Before you write that first crime fiction novel consider a few things. What follows is the tenth in a series of short articles about what you might want to consider as you put pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard.

Over the years I’ve attended a number of writers’ panels. And I can’t count the times I’ve heard a mystery writer say: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union,” Loosely translated, it means: “Don’t preach.” I agree — for the most part.

It is an understatement to say that your protagonist is likely to be against murder and kidnapping of innocents and corruption in general. There is widespread adherence to the notion of genuine law and order as well as the so-called Judeo-Christian ethic even among those who prefer not to think of themselves as law and order types, or Christians, for that matter. But we send messages whether we want to or not.

To the extent that the message you send is little more than a propaganda statement for your belief system, the Western Union warning is apt if slightly anachronistic. On the other hand, when writing about crime, aren’t we writing about, in some fashion, right and wrong? Or more to the point, good and evil? Is there any kind of book available in the marketplace innately more about politics and religion than crime fiction?

Many writers, except those whose goals are to simply create wonderfully clever puzzles, set their dramas in as real a world as they can manufacture. And those of us who attempt to create real worlds do so from a world view, maybe an accurate one, maybe not. Who’s to say? It’s a personal world view. And that is my point. We cannot help but drag our political and religious beliefs into our writing. What we must be wary of is letting them lead. For a reader, it is still the story and the characters. It is still the suspense and the sense of place. If telling a good story takes a backseat to creating advocates or followers of certain political or religious outlooks, it is doubtful you have a good book. You might as well have written a manual. However, if your view of the world is subtly and well-woven into a fine story, then you may have created a real winner, perhaps a book that is not only enjoyable to read but also worthy of discussion.

Not too incidentally, when I was young and in high school getting my heavy, mandatory dose of Western European literature, we spent a huge chunk of the time with the plays of George Bernard Shaw. What I admired most about his writing was that he gave the “bad” guy not only most of the good lines, but also a very convincing argument in support of his evil ways. If nothing else, Shaw made wrestling with the devil a fascinating challenge. We must do the same whether it is because of or despite the message.

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