One of the big events of the year at the school where I teach, Marygrove College in Detroit, MI, is our Contemporary American Authors Lecture Series held each April. This series, now in its twenty-fourth year, brings in a guest writer each year to give a free public reading and hold a master class with our own and area high school students.
As the chair of the department that hosts the event, I am the emcee for the evening, which means my job is to preside over the gathering and, if necessary, introduce the writer.
In April 2010, our guest author was Walter Mosley. Rarely have our past writers (mostly literary novelists and poets) provoked the kind of passionate public excitement that Mosley did. For months leading up to the reading, all of us in the department were fielding phone calls from the public as their anticipation mounted. Clearly, his readership idolized him.
To prepare my introduction of him, I gave myself a crash course in Mosley’s works, reading deeply in his novels, including all his series as well as his stand-alone books.
As a crime writer myself, I read with a double vision: looking for not only what I could use in my introduction of him, but also what I could learn from him for my own writing.
At the end of my reading project, I found much to learn from him, both in terms of what to avoid and what to do. I have to say that many aspects of his writing turned me off; the cliched use of violence and sex, for example, as well as the (to me) annoying similarity of plots and situations, as when his main characters stop what they're doing to explain where their next bit of wisdom came from.
Mosley’s good at what he does, though, and it was useful for me to notice these so I could discover how to handle them in my own way.
Primarily, what I learned from him had to do with what I felt are his real strengths: how to set up characters that fairly leap off the page, how to manage multiple plot lines, and how to move the story along quickly and effectively.
One of the things that struck me most about the phone calls that came in while we were preparing for his visit was the almost fanatical devotion his readers have to his characters. Mosley has an incredibly deft touch in populating his fiction with people whom his readers recognize from their own lives. He lets his characters talk in voices that are recognizable and real, and he paints thumbnail portraits of how they look and act, down to the nuanced shades of his characters’ skin tones, in ways that resonate with his readership.
He also adroitly handles three, four, and five interrelated plot lines at a time. My metaphor for what he does is keeping different balls in the air, but weaving different threads through the fabric of the books. For example, in his Leonid McGill series, McGill routinely negotiates his family dramas with his wife and children, his love life with his girlfriend, his two or three current cases, and the ever-present past that he struggles in vain to outrun and outfox.
Finally, for me his work is a master class in how to move those plot threads along; how to start scenes at the optimum moment, shape them for maximum effect, and end them with enough suspense to get the reader to turn the page; how to jump into a chapter or section using a judicious exchange of dialog; and how to use the transitions of getting the main character from one place to another most efficiently.
As I sat down to revise my latest mystery, Crimes of Love, I found myself putting these lessons into practice time and again. It’s another reminder of how much we can glean from deeply reading someone who is at the top of his craft.
Are there lessons you’ve learned from your favorite authors? I’d be interested in hearing about them.