That Essential Fourth "W"

Jeanne Matthews was born and raised in Georgia, where owning a gun is required by law in certain places and “he needed killing” is a valid legal defense to homicide.  Jeanne’s debut novel, Bones of Contention, published in June, 2010 by Poisoned Pen Press, features a conniving Georgia clan plopped down in the wilds of Northern Australia where death adders, assassin spiders, man-eating crocs, Aboriginal myths, and murder abound.  Jeanne currently resides in Renton, Washington with her husband, Sidney DeLong, who is a law professor, and their West Highland terrier.  Her next novel, Bet Your Bones, is due out in June, 2011.

www.jeannematthews.com

Who, what, when, where, why, and how.  That’s the formula for reporting a news story that I learned when I studied journalism at the University of Georgia.  It’s the basic formula used by police investigators and it’s the framework for telling almost any story, whether true or fictional.  Cicero is credited with coming up with the concept of the Five W’s.  Unfortunately, it didn’t work out so well for him.  The Roman emperor Octavian chopped off his head and exhibited it at the Senate rostrum with a spike stuck through the tongue as a warning to other citizens tempted to ask too many troublesome questions.  Cicero’s hard luck notwithstanding, if you’re going to tell a story, you’re going to have to deal with the Five W’s.

For most fiction writers, creating the “who” is paramount.  And once the characters have been established and dropped onto the stage, the mischief that they get up to, or the “what” and the “why,” have to be developed.  The fourth W is “where” and a writer’s development of setting and atmosphere is as important as his development of characters and plot.  There is an integral relationship between character and setting, whether the character is a native reflecting the attitudes and customs of his environment, or an outsider observing and reacting to the strange ways of a foreign land.  Place and culture go to the very essence of character.  Not only do they shape the character’s personal view of the world, they set the mood of the story and provide the historical, political, and social context in which the action takes place.  If the writer chooses to set his story in a place with a raging war or a revolution or an erupting volcano, the location may supply the catalyst for the plot.

Mystery fans enjoy a bit of armchair travel along with their ration of murder.  The writer’s challenge is to make the reader see a place without pictures, to make him smell it and hear it and want to hang

Coming June 2011

around in it for a few hundred pages without boring him with long, tedious descriptions or sounding like the geography teacher he hated back in high school.  Both expository detail and dialogue convey a sense of place.  The trick, as Elmore Leonard astutely advises, is to leave out the parts that people skip.

Appreciation for place comes through best if the writer is in love with her chosen setting and either knows it intimately, or wants to know it.  I fall into the latter category.  I set my first novel, Bones of Contention, in the Northern Territory of Australia because I wanted to learn everything I could about that amazing, little-known corner of the world and the Aboriginal myths it has inspired.  I set my second novel, Bet Your Bones in Hawaii because it’s a place that Americans presume to know, but beneath the hype of the glossy travel brochures, there is a complicated Hawaii that the casual tourist rarely sees.  It is, after all, a conquered land.  Americans overthrew the beloved Hawaiian queen in 1893.  Some might be surprised to learn that resentment still smolders under the surface of Paradise, along with a jones for gambling and the subterranean fires of Pele – the vengeful goddess of the volcanoes.  As the locals will tell you, those who dis Madame Pele do so at their peril.

Bet Your Bones, published by Poisoned Pen Press, is due in book stores in June.

That Essential Fourth “W”

Jeanne Matthews was born and raised in Georgia, where owning a gun is required by law in certain places and “he needed killing” is a valid legal defense to homicide.  Jeanne’s debut novel, Bones of Contention, published in June, 2010 by Poisoned Pen Press, features a conniving Georgia clan plopped down in the wilds of Northern Australia where death adders, assassin spiders, man-eating crocs, Aboriginal myths, and murder abound.  Jeanne currently resides in Renton, Washington with her husband, Sidney DeLong, who is a law professor, and their West Highland terrier.  Her next novel, Bet Your Bones, is due out in June, 2011.

www.jeannematthews.com

Who, what, when, where, why, and how.  That’s the formula for reporting a news story that I learned when I studied journalism at the University of Georgia.  It’s the basic formula used by police investigators and it’s the framework for telling almost any story, whether true or fictional.  Cicero is credited with coming up with the concept of the Five W’s.  Unfortunately, it didn’t work out so well for him.  The Roman emperor Octavian chopped off his head and exhibited it at the Senate rostrum with a spike stuck through the tongue as a warning to other citizens tempted to ask too many troublesome questions.  Cicero’s hard luck notwithstanding, if you’re going to tell a story, you’re going to have to deal with the Five W’s.

For most fiction writers, creating the “who” is paramount.  And once the characters have been established and dropped onto the stage, the mischief that they get up to, or the “what” and the “why,” have to be developed.  The fourth W is “where” and a writer’s development of setting and atmosphere is as important as his development of characters and plot.  There is an integral relationship between character and setting, whether the character is a native reflecting the attitudes and customs of his environment, or an outsider observing and reacting to the strange ways of a foreign land.  Place and culture go to the very essence of character.  Not only do they shape the character’s personal view of the world, they set the mood of the story and provide the historical, political, and social context in which the action takes place.  If the writer chooses to set his story in a place with a raging war or a revolution or an erupting volcano, the location may supply the catalyst for the plot.

Mystery fans enjoy a bit of armchair travel along with their ration of murder.  The writer’s challenge is to make the reader see a place without pictures, to make him smell it and hear it and want to hang

Coming June 2011

around in it for a few hundred pages without boring him with long, tedious descriptions or sounding like the geography teacher he hated back in high school.  Both expository detail and dialogue convey a sense of place.  The trick, as Elmore Leonard astutely advises, is to leave out the parts that people skip.

Appreciation for place comes through best if the writer is in love with her chosen setting and either knows it intimately, or wants to know it.  I fall into the latter category.  I set my first novel, Bones of Contention, in the Northern Territory of Australia because I wanted to learn everything I could about that amazing, little-known corner of the world and the Aboriginal myths it has inspired.  I set my second novel, Bet Your Bones in Hawaii because it’s a place that Americans presume to know, but beneath the hype of the glossy travel brochures, there is a complicated Hawaii that the casual tourist rarely sees.  It is, after all, a conquered land.  Americans overthrew the beloved Hawaiian queen in 1893.  Some might be surprised to learn that resentment still smolders under the surface of Paradise, along with a jones for gambling and the subterranean fires of Pele – the vengeful goddess of the volcanoes.  As the locals will tell you, those who dis Madame Pele do so at their peril.

Bet Your Bones, published by Poisoned Pen Press, is due in book stores in June.