The publication of The Conviction June 12, 2012 marks my sixth novel and seventh book since initial publication in 2004 of The Cyanide Canary. I’m still pinching myself. The Conviction is the fifth in what has become known as “The David Sloane Series.” My protagonist, David Sloane is a Seattle lawyer with a true gift inside a courtroom and a lot of courage outside it. Just like every lawyer, right?
It raises an interesting point for writers—and for readers. With the publication of Murder One, I received one of my most interesting emails from a fan…sort of. This person wrote, among other accolades, “I think you are one of the five best writers of our generation.” I was stunned, floored actually. I’ve received many nice compliments, but this had to be the top. Top five? Is it true? Personally, I don’t think so, but to this person it is, and that meant an awful lot. Then in the very next sentence, the writer wrote, “But I can’t read your books anymore.” If this seems an odd juxtaposition to you, it did to me as well. Reading further, it seems this person, perhaps a lawyer himself, just couldn’t fathom that David Sloane could lead such an interesting, full life and find himself book after book in another predicament.
It got me thinking about a couple of things. How does a writer keep a series fresh and keep it real? For a while I pondered toning down the David Sloane adventures, but then the more I continued to read writers with series characters, like Stephen Hunter and Lee Child and Steve Berry, I decided I didn’t want to tone it down, and I don’t think 99% of my readers want that either. And this got me thinking about that old adage, “Write what you know.”
Okay, I was a civil litigator, which means I represented clients sued in civil actions that often ended up in mediations and arbitrations and the rare trial with the outcome being one side paying the other money. Occasionally we’d have those exciting moments when we found a document we called “a smoking gun,” or we caught a witness in a lie, but even in this day of open discovery, that was rare. So, would you enjoy reading a novel with that as a premise? Anyone see a thrilling story in that?
My point is, often what we know is boring. Our day-to-day existence is, thank God, boring. When my plane lands at my destination and people ask how was your flight, I say, “Boring, just as I like it.” When I get home from work and see my kids and wife alive and healthy and happy, I thank God to be so blessed that nothing bad happened to them. The point is, the more “real” we try to make our fiction, the more risk we run of our story becoming boring. In my experience people don’t want to read about real people doing real jobs on ordinary days. They want to read about people in extraordinary circumstances acting in extraordinary ways. They want heroes.
“Write what you know” would, in my case, be incredibly limiting and stifling not only for me but for my readers. The excitement comes from trying things we’ve never tried before and that is true also in fiction. I recently went to St. Lucia on vacation and decided to get scuba certified after all these years. The first time I went to the pool and submerged I had a panic attack – no kidding. It was disheartening, after all these years, but it was also exciting. When was the last time I had tried anything so outside my comfort zone that I had a panic attack? I actually woke up the next day excited about what could happen. I got back in the pool and I forced myself to relax and enjoy the adventure. By the end of the week I was completing my fifth dive and seeing things I had never seen before and never would have seen if I hadn’t tried something I did not know about. Will David Sloane find himself in a scuba diving situation anytime soon? I don’t know. But now I know what it feels like 45 feet below the surface.
Trying new things is important to keep our lives interesting. Writing about new things is important to keep our writing fresh and interesting. So with apologies to my email fan who can’t read David Sloane anymore because he does too many amazing things, I’m not going to tone down the adventures to make them more “real.” David Sloane will continue to be an amazing attorney, hunt down killers, and take on the system to save those he loves and expose those who are unjust. When I write the David Sloane series I try to do something different in every book—a new setting, something unconventional. My motto is, “I’ll kill anyone.” Why? Because when a reader familiar with my work picks up the next novel I want them saying, “I have no idea what this crazy Son of a Gun Dugoni will do.” I want new fans reading my work to say, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.”
Since I started this gig as a writer I’ve learned to shoot guns and arrows, I’ve ridden with police officers, visited jails, sat through a murder trial, interviewed detectives and a forensic anthropologist and a man tracker and officers who work with scenting dogs. I’ve traveled to Mexico and Canada and St. Lucia and been in dozens of cities all over the United States, including Nashville, Tennessee where I received a guitar! A guitar! I don’t play, but I’ve been learning some basic chords because, well, you never know when someone might hand David Sloane a guitar and say, “Play something or you die.”
So the next time you pick up a book, mine or any other writer you enjoy, for goodness sake, suspend your disbelief and just enjoy the experience and the adventure. Let your mind slip from your ordinary, boring, safe, healthy and satisfying life. And remember what my buddy John Lescroart likes to say when people get too mired in the facts and question all the details. “It’s fiction people. We make this stuff up!”Only John doesn’t says “stuff” – Just to keep it “real.”
Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed and New York Times Bestselling Author of the David Sloane series, The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One and The Conviction. He is also the author of the best-selling stand alone novel <emDamage Control as well as the nonfiction expose, The Cyanide Canary. Robert also has contributed to several anthologies and is a speaker and national teacher on the craft of writing.
Dugoni’s books have been likened to Scott Turow and Nelson DeMille, and he has been hailed as “the undisputed king of the legal thriller” by The Providence Journal and called the “heir to Grisham’s literary throne.” Bodily Harm and Murder One were each chosen one of the top five thrillers of 2010 and 2011, respectively. Visit his website at www.robertdugoni.com and email him at email@example.com.
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.)