Thursday, December 3, 2015

Writing in the New Century – Stop to Think How Lucky We Are!

Here we are, well into the 2000’s, and a thought occurred to me today. It’s so simple that it’s silly to think it. But I was remembering what it was like to write a story twenty-five years ago, and wondered if everyone really appreciates how much easier we have things now.

I am not a professional writer, although I really enjoy writing, and the need to create bubbles up in me on a regular basis. My favorite thing about being a Civil Engineer is to design something. My creative streak is also shown by the fact that I spent the first two years of my first degree in college as a piano major, before switching to business management, and even now, I almost can’t walk through our living room without stopping and playing something on our piano.

I discovered the joy of writing by wanting more stories about my book heroes. Back when I was eight, I discovered an incredible series of mysteries, The Three Investigators, that ignited my love of reading, with no looking back. I can still read that series today, as they are so well written.

(Here are a couple of links: and )

But I’m not writing to plug those books. I mention them to explain that, soon after reading the books in that series that were in existence up to that time in the early and mid-1970’s, I desired more tales about those characters. So I used my dad’s typewriter to write my own, not realizing that I was dipping my toes into the world of fan-fiction. But there was no internet then, and no computers. There was no uploading stories for others to read. This was old school. I typed the stories on real paper, with errors that had to be typed over or covered with Liquid Paper. And then they were just for my own enjoyment, and maybe for just a few others as well.

I produced several “books” featuring more stories about The Three Investigators and my other favorites at the time, The Hardy Boys. I still have them, and they look just like you would imagine. But creating them gave me a taste for writing. I learned that something doesn’t get written if you don’t sit down and do it. And I became addicted to the feeling of starting with literally nothing, and coming out the other side with something that didn’t exist before. I’ve explained elsewhere about my writing process, wherein I start writing, usually without a plan or outline, and go into the zone where I’m just transcribing what I hear in my head. I can crank out a few thousand words in very little time, which explains why my emails (and even this blog entry) can get so long so fast. After a good writing session, which usually lasts four hours or more if I can find the time and prepare myself for that kind of pain, I come back to the world, slightly sore, and with all of my coffee gone, even though I don’t remember drinking it.

I’ve written a lot for other things as well over the years. My first real job out of college (the first time I got a degree) was as a Federal Investigator with an obscure – and now eliminated – government agency. A sizeable chunk of the job was writing reports about our investigations. True, in the early days some of this was dictated on cassette tapes so that others could type them up, but it was still about organizing information. Later, when I went back to school to become a Civil Engineer, I insisted on being the report-writer for various group projects, partly because I only trusted ME to do it right, but also just because I liked writing.

The reason I thought of putting all this down is that I was emailing a friend yesterday, and we happened to discuss an unpublished novel that I wrote, back in the early 1990’s when I was still a Federal Investigator. That got me thinking about my experience writing that book, versus how I write now.

In those days when I was an investigator, I had to travel a lot, for long chunks of time. The agency where I worked wanted to make sure that they got their money’s worth when they sent me on a trip, so I was usually somewhere far from home for anywhere from three weeks to three months at a time, or longer. I really didn’t like being away from my wife and baby son, and I resented it quite a bit. On some of the trips, I was working in an office instead of in the field, and I was able to really use a computer, albeit a primitive one, for the very first time. I had access to early word processing programs, and sometimes I would sit at my work desk and surreptitiously tap out little short stories. I learned that I can write much better on screen than by longhand. I still have those short stories, and one can see how I would play with using italics or bold, since one certainly wasn’t able to do that on a typewriter.

One day, when I was stationed in Albuquerque for a couple of months – very far from my home in Tennessee – I impulsively stopped at a Walmart and bought a typewriter and some paper, and then took it back and sat down in my hotel room and started writing a novel. And that managed to keep me busy during the evenings and weekends for the rest of my time there. I would finish a hundred pages or so, and then mail them home for my wife to read. She liked it, and so I was motivated to keep going.

The thing ended up being 600+ pages, and was very Ludlum-esque. The plot made the assumption that the Agency for which I worked, during those final days of the Cold War, had been infiltrated by a group of blackmailers who had access to all the information that we routinely obtained during our investigations. They were using it to assist some deep-cover Russian cells, all centered around the Oak Ridge nuclear facilities, near where I still live and then worked a great deal. Of course, one of the heroes of the book was an honest investigator within the agency, coincidentally someone like me, who saved the day.

I finished the book, but never thought of publishing it, since it was written more to be a cathartic exercise than to change careers in order to become a professional author. A year or so later, the Agency where I worked was eliminated, and I was allowed to keep my old briefcase. It became the repository of the massive manuscript, and it now rests under a bed.

I pulled the manuscript out a few months ago, and it is certainly very dated. People who have read it have told me that it’s good, but it’s certainly a product of its times, and if it were ever published, it would have to be a period piece. For instance, there is a character who works for a shadowy government agency that is able to use a thing called The World Wide Web to check information about people! Radical!

But getting back to the purpose of this whole essay: When I looked at this old manuscript from around twenty-five years ago, all the work that went into it came flooding back. Typing each page on paper was so much more of a chore, as one had to be so careful to set down exactly what you wanted to say, since backing up or rearranging paragraphs or inserting words or even deleting chunks as you went along was a massive pain.

Something else that is so much easier now is researching a simple little fact. For example, in the manuscript from the early 1990’s, there are a number of story locations that are set all around the U.S., reflecting places where I had been sent to work in those days. I included several maps within the novel, and seeing them made me remember how I would have to pull out an old atlas and pore over it in order to get descriptions sort-of close to correct.

Contrast that to right now, when I’ve been working on several new things, including a new Sherlock Holmes novel. I started it a few weeks ago, and it’s approaching 40,000 words, and progressing nicely, thank you very much. Yesterday, I needed to have Holmes and Watson travel to a place in Essex. I simply pulled up Google Maps, zoomed in until I found just where I wanted, looked at the satellite view to see the actual layout, and then did a street view as well. I looked up a few village names, picked one I liked, and typed my description into a Word document. I moved some things around, backspaced to replace a highlighted misspelled word, inserted a phrase or two in the middle of a sentence here and there, and then kept on going. Twenty-five years ago, I would have had to stop and go find a book (or books), and fudge in the description in a vague way so as not to show that I had never actually seen the place.

So, do we realize just how easy we have it now? There are so many more people that currently write than three were in the olden days. Realizing and commenting on this is certainly not new or profound. But if we still had to write on typewriters, would we even write at all? Could any of us do what the pulp writers did, back in the day, churning out thousands of words per week on old manual typewriters? And just imagine what those same people could accomplish now if they had access to modern computers.

It boggles the mind, but I just know that I’m thankful to be able to have the opportunity to create something, and that it’s certainly a lot easier than it used to be!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting reflections, David. The point you're making comes home to me when I think about all the wasted time and paper that went into writing my doctoral dissertation (back in the mid-80s) on an Olivetti typewriter. Even though it was correctible, I often had to redo entire pages because of one mistake or minor change. Probably could have finished the thing six months sooner if I'd had a modern computer way back then.

    Someday, you'll have to update your 'Ludlum" novel and do something with it. (Maybe a screenplay?) I'd be interested to hear more about your new Holmes novel when you're ready to share news about it. It was also nice to read (in Proceedings of the Pondicherry Lodge) that you're planning future volumes of the MX Holmes anthology. Hopefully, I can finish one or two of my Crowned Heads stories in time to submit them.


    Tom Turley