Thursday, February 10, 2011

Timothy Hallinan talks about settings

I'm thrilled to welcome author Timothy Hallinan to Travels with the Muse! 

Timothy Hallinan was just nominated for the 2010 Best Novel Edgar for THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, the fourth book in his series of Bangkok thrillers featuring expatriate travel writer Poke Rafferty.  With ten conventionally published books to his credit, Tim has decided to alternate in the future between “tree books” and e-books and his first e-book original, CRASHED, is now available for $2.99 on Amazon.  CRASHED is the first in a series of “thrillers with a laugh track” about Junior Bender, a Los Angeles burglar who moonlights as a private eye – for crooks.  Coming soon is Junior's second adventure, LITTLE ELVISES.  He lives in Los Angeles and Bangkok.

Here's what Mr. Hallinan has to say about the settings for his novels, along with some terrific photos he has provided for your enjoyment.

A setting is usually defined as the place in which a story unfolds.

But what's a place?

I believe it's an experience, and it's different for almost everyone. My Seattle, my Bangkok, is different than yours. I see different things, smell different things, experience the climate and the light differently. What we see or remember is only partly a function of where we go. It's also what we look for and what's important to us.

That's why I think the best-written books don't have a setting. They have settings. Every major character will – and should – experience the book's geographic setting differently.

If they do, then I thing two things will happen. First, the setting will be in three dimensions, because at least two perspectives are necessary for 3D. Second, the writer will find literally dozens of ways that reactions to the setting can differentiate his or her characters.

I write a series set in Bangkok, so let's look at one of my Bangkok books, The Fourth Watcher. I'm using my own books as examples because (a) I know them better than I know anyone else's, and (b) it's a sneaky way to plug them.

In The Fourth Watcher, my central male character, travel writer Poke Rafferty, comes up against the person he wants least to see in the world, whom we'll call Mr. X, and also a member of the U.S. Secret Service named Richard Elson. And he's married to a Thai woman named Rose and the adoptive father of a little girl, a former street child named Miaow (pronounced like the sound a cat makes.)

To Rafferty, Bangkok is his new environment. After a few years there, he loves it, he doesn't yet completely understand how it works, and he tends to accept what he sees on the surface, although he's gradually learning that in some situations, that might get him killed.

Rose came to Bangkok as a teenager and has had a very rough time there. She regards it with a kind of wary understanding and worries about the way her husband accepts things at face value. Miaow has in her head a complete map of the city's unlighted areas – its alleys and empty buildings, shuttered hotels and all the places where it's especially dangerous to be a child.

Elson, the Secret Service guy, has just arrived, and he hates every square foot of it. He hates the traffic, the noise, the heat; the food gives him the squits; but at the same time, he's secretly distracted by the city's Byzantine sex scene. And for Mr. X, Bangkok is a great place to hide from some extremely dangerous people.

We see the city from all these people's perspectives, even if it's only in the way they talk about it, and I think that helps the reader see Bangkok as something more than a picture postcard or a stage setting in front of which the story is acted out. When reviewers like my books, they almost always talk about how real the setting is. I think the reason is that they've experienced several different Bangkoks, through the eyes of very different characters.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Dreams as a source of writing inspiration

I’m no Carl Jung but I do occasionally have flashes of insight that goes directly from my subconscious into my writing. These usually come in the form of images that float to the forefront of my mind upon waking from a dream.

Sometimes the characters in my books have a parallel experience – in THE LAST MATRYOSHKA, when Jo Epstein falls asleep in her Vladimir hotel room to the pulsing of bass and drums from the disco below, she dreams of dancing bears—a sign that she is coming closer to the heart of the mystery she has come to Russia to solve.

In ASK THE DEAD, Jo falls asleep on an airplane and dreams about a calypso singer serenading a Wall Street crowd from a hot air balloon. He hits a high note, transmutes into an ancient Egyptian priest spouting proverbs, and I wake up in time to gulp a cup of coffee before we begin our descent into San Juan Airport. These are all elements in the case that her subconscious is working on.

These sculptures outside a museum in Moscow seem like characters in a dream

For me, culling material from dreams is like snorkeling in clear water in search of elusive tropical fish. I may catch a glimpse of the extraordinary early on but soon the day fills with distractions and the water becomes cloudy—unless I act quickly, many of the best ideas recede into the depths. Sometimes I can bring them back with meditation or exercise – or even by taking a nap!

So tell me –  do you mine your subconscious when you write? Do the characters you write about have a rich "dream life"? How do you “stay in touch” with the depths of your psyche?

Please share your thoughts!

 Stay tuned for a virtual trip through La Alpujarra and Ceuta, the places in Spain that inspired me to write Zahara and the Lost Books of Li...