How I Write: Sue Grafton
Published: March 19, 2002
|Before Sue Grafton became an international bestselling author with her Kinsey Millhone mystery series, she made the best, literarily speaking, of two bad situations: She hated her screenwriting job, but learned a lot from it about how to put together a story. And she channeled malevolent impulses over her dissolving second marriage into plotting her first Millhone book, starring a feisty, twice-divorced, highly independent PI who's considerably better at solving cases than picking men. Today, 20 years and 16 mysteries later, Grafton lives in a multimillion-dollar home near Santa Barbara, Calif., and a residence in her hometown of Louisville, Ky. Her file full of readers who have named their children Kinsey is testament to the chord her private detective has struck with readers. |
Credits: P Is for Peril (2001), O Is for Outlaw (1999), N Is for Noose (1998) and13 other books in the Kinsey Millhone mystery series; two early nonmysteries, Keziah Dane and The Lolly-Madonna War.
Why: I've been writing for so long (nearly 45 years now) that I can no longer remember the "why" of it. This is simply what I do. I love a well-structured story. I'm interested in what motivates an individual to do good or ill and I'm fascinated by the dark side of human nature. Basically, any mystery writer is both magician and moralist ... two species of artist in short supply. Sometimes I claim I write because I put in an application at Sears and they've never called back.
How: I confess I'm a prissy little thing. Like Goldilocks, I want every sentence, every scene, and every move in a book to be "just right" before I move on. I revise constantly and only leave a chapter behind when I'm able to read it 10 times in a row without changing a word. Even then, I go back, of course, if I realize that I've left something out or need to modify the early sections for consistency. I'm a slow writer but persistent, and that counts for everything.
When and where: I have two homes--one in California, the other in Kentucky--and I write in both, taking my disk with me when I travel from place to place. I write from 8 in the morning until midafternoon, using a word processor, the telephone and mounds of research materials.
Ideas: My goal with this series is never to tell the same story twice, which means I keep elaborate charts tracking the setup for each book, the killer, the victim, the motive for the crime, and the nature of the climax. I start with the title and the overall game plan, and I proceed from there. Every book represents a separate challenge. For instance, with K Is for Killer, I decided to see if I could write a book set entirely at night. M Is for Malice was my ghost story, N Is for Noose, a western, and so it goes. I read everything because you never know when a good idea is going to pop into view. The real trick is recognizing one when it comes along.
Writer's block: I only get writer's block about once a day. I used to view it with abhorrence, like a dragon in my path, to be fought with every means at my disposal; slashing, bashing, torment and self-flagellation ... whatever it took. Now I see writer's block as a whispered message from my Shadow [unconscious] side, who wants me to realize that I have moved off-grid. Instead of doing battle, I become as still as a mouse, going back over my work until I see where I've strayed. Once I spot the error and repent my sins, Shadow's perfectly content to let the work proceed.
Advice: Writing is a craft that takes many years to develop. I'm most peevish with unpublished writers who manage to complete one book and then imagine they're ready to compete in the open marketplace. The publishing world is full of talented, hardworking writers who've struggled for years to learn the necessary skills. I counsel any writer to focus on the job at hand--learning to write well--trusting that when the time comes, the Universe will step in and make the rest possible. Writing isn't about the destination--writing is the journey that transforms the soul and gives meaning to all else.
Photograph © John Earle
--Posted March 19, 2002