Writing to Cultivate Emotion

Reavis Z. WorthamIn a Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews said Reavis Z. Wortham’s debut novel, The Rock Hole, is “an unpretentious gem written to the hilt and harrowing in its unpredictability,” and listed it as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” Burrows, the second Red River Mystery, received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly saying: “Wortham combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” The Right Side of Wrong recently received a Starred Review from the Library Journal that called this third novel “a deceptively meandering tale of family and country life bookended by a dramatic opening and conclusion.” Vengeance is Mine has received a Starred Review from Booklist, and said, “It’s a real corker. This very entertaining novel, set in 1967, is reminiscent of Donald E. Westlake’s Mob comedies The Fugitive Pigeon (1965) and The Busy Body (1966).

Wortham has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, and is the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine. He and his wife, Shana, live in Frisco, Texas.

I’ve learned a lot about writing since my first novel, The Rock Hole, was released in 2011.

“Wait, you mean writers don’t appear fully grown and covered with hair and the knowledge of what makes a book tick?”

Correct. Funny, ain’t it? I started writing as a side-profession in 1988, by self-syndicating outdoor humor columns for dozens of Texas newspapers. The columns came at a time when I was looking for a creative outlet, and I found my “voice” by accident. I was re-reading Robert Ruark’s Old Man and the Boy while at the same time absorbing anything I could get my hands on by humorist Patrick McManus.

I always have a number of books going at the same time. In fact, you can get an idea how my mind works by clicking on this link…


…or here


and typing in Reavis Z. Wortham.

The two writing styles somehow gelled, and by adding my own flavor, the humor columns became a hit. Writing humor is hard, and most “humor” articles and books…weren’t. Humor is a tricky thing, but I was making people laugh and come back for the next installment.

I eventually added magazines to my resume and to date have produced over 300 published articles, plus 1,300 newspaper columns, so again, you’d think all the skills would be in place and working like a well-oiled machine after my first novel.

The Rock Hole was a critical success, and with comparisons to Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, I figured I had it made. The minute The Rock Hole hit the shelves, I began work on Burrows, the second book in the Red River mystery series set in northeast Texas in the mid-1960s. That one came as easily as the first and when I turned it in to my editor at Poisoned Pen Press, Annette Rogers, I felt I had another winner.

She did too, with reservations.

We’d worked closely on The Rock Hole, and I quickly came to understand this experienced editor knew more than I ever did about writing. After she read Burrows, she came back with a few suggestions, and luckily, I took them to heart.

She needed more emotion. “This scene where the Cotton Exchange burns to the ground is good, but it needs more.”

She should have said, “look here, dummy, this is a climactic scene and you treated it in passing as if saying there was a fire and some smoke. Then people got excited.’”

Scribbles in the margin of the first draft immediately caught my attention because they were in red ink, the favorite color of my high school English teacher, Miss Adams. Annette wrote, “Give me more here. Lift your vocabulary.”

Lift your vocabulary.

I re-read the pages. They were weak. Very weak.

She was right. This was one of two climactic scenes after two of my protagonists had spent hours crawling through the horror of a booby-trapped building that was a hoarder’s nightmare. The book, the characters, and my Readers deserved much more than I had given it.

I went back and studied on what I’d written (“studied on it” is an old Texas term). There was a sleet storm, murder, gore, fire, explosions, and I’d only scratched the surface with scant descriptions. I realized my characters were tired and sweaty (because of fear and the stuffy, unventilated interior of the building insulated from the outside influences). They were frustrated, frightened, and severely pissed, and those were just the two guys inside the Cotton Exchange. But I hadn’t dissected what they were truly experiencing.

It was then I remembered what I’d learned when writing The Rock Hole. Readers need to know how a character feels, through all their/our senses, sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Then add the next ingredient, emotion. How does your character feel? Not, as Armond Goldman said in The Birdcage “betrayed, bewildered…is that the wrong response?” …well, maybe, but authors shouldn’t ask how a character feels.

“How do you feel right now?” That sounds too much like the lame questions news reporters ask traumatized victims on the nightly news, or how unprepared hosts asks a guest or competitor on those ridiculous game shows.

Authors have heard the mantra of all editors, “show, don’t tell,” and that’s what a writer should have in the back of his or her mind when they’re bringing characters to life. Characters, like real people, are driven by emotion, interaction, and their own past experiences. Even their conversations are emotionally driven, and should reflect the situation.

In The Rock Hole, little ten-year-old Pepper and her cousin, Top, have been kidnapped. When Constable Ned Parker and deputy sheriff Big John Washington arrive on the scene, there is of course tons of action, but one particular exchange between Pepper and John reflects the emotion of John, Ned, and a terrified and totally cowed Pepper.

Big John kept one eye on the fight. He leaned his shotgun against the log and touched the seemingly unconscious little girl’s cheek. She jumped at the contact and turned fearful eyes toward him.

“John?” Her normally bright eyes were dim.

“I’m here.”

“Can you help me?” Her soft voice could have been that of a four-year-old asking for help to tie her shoelace.

Nerves jangling and muscles twitching in tension, John knelt on one knee, removed his shirt and covered Pepper’s naked upper body. “You done helped, baby.” He opened a switchblade knife with a push of his thumb and reached around the rough log to cut her bonds as he blinked tears from his eyes.


Startled, Ned pointed his flashlight toward the sound. Not twenty yards away, Top lay handcuffed face down in the thick loam. Ned stumbled forward and held the gasping boy, feeling for the wound he knew would be there. “Thank god, we got here in time.”

Good writers cultivate emotion without thought, I believe, once they get the hang of it. The characters feel the stress of a situation, the joy of laughter, the worry, doubt, and fear.

The players smell the damp forest floor, the reeking sewer drains, chicken frying in an elderly bungalow, and the sharp odor of whiskey.

Vengeance Is MineThe players hear the cicadas in the trees, the wind moaning around the eaves of a house, the soft whispers of a lover trying to extract information, or the steady drone of the television in the background.

Through a writer’s characters, readers taste the ice cream eaten on a stakeout, the salty nuts in a bar, a lover’s kiss, or the tart green flavor of an olive just out of a martini.

Readers see what is happening on a well-written page, and they touch your character’s emotion through the highs and lows of the novel, like warm ocean waves that repeatedly lap the sand.

If your characters don’t experience these senses and feelings, then your readers will express their displeasure in your work by turning it into a “wall banger,” a book closed after only a few pages and flung against the wall.

Once you’ve awakened all these senses, then you’ve established your characters as real people in the minds of those turning the pages. I guess the simple statement is this, if you, the writer, feel what your characters feel, then so will the reading public.


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