Sunday, February 20, 2011

Writing something different.

by: Joelle Charbonneau

If you read this blog you probably know that I don’t write dark crime fiction. I’m one of the light and funny mystery writers on the DSD team. The Rebecca Robbins mystery series has a hat wearing ex-circus camel and a sexually frisky grandfather bopping through the pages. The newest series that was bought last month by Berkley Prime Crime (Murder For Choir) has an angry poodle and a lot of singing and dancing in the story. I write funny – right? As a writer that’s who I am.

Or maybe not.

Because I’m a little a head of my writing schedule on the Skating books and don’t need to have book 2 of the new series into my editor until the middle of next year I’m working on a different project. Something a little darker that was inspired by my stint on a gang murder jury last year. I’m almost 200 pages into the book and I still don’t know what I think about it. Part of me wonders if I have the chops to write something that isn’t funny. I admit that it is really odd for me to read something that I’ve written which sounds like me, but isn’t silly or even mildly amusing. The fear that I’m writing I’m not supposed to write is strong. My desire to write the story is stronger. So I write. And I worry.

Everyone says that once you break into publishing you are supposed to brand yourself. You’re not supposed to write funny mysteries and thrillers. How will the reader know what to expect when they crack open the cover of your book if you do more than one thing? And yet here I am writing a third person book featuring the south side of Chicago gangs. Am I crazy? You tell me.

Oh – and in case you think I’m making this up to have something to blog about - here is the first scene.

Inadvertent Witness

Witnessing a murder was easy compared to this. Dozens of eyes studied Michelle as she shifted on the hard, wooden seat in front of them. They were seated in four rows of cushioned chairs – all facing hers. The back of her neck dripped with sweat despite the glacial air-conditioning of the ornate courtroom. Her heart raced as if she had something to fear. Maybe she did. While death was an inevitable part of her chosen profession, answering questions that might send a man to prison was not. Why one was worse than the other she wasn’t sure.

“Please state your name and the general area in which you live for the Grand Jury,” Assistant District Attorney, Brad Winkler smiled like they were old friends. He was a big man clothed in an even bigger beige suit with a voice that sounded a lot like chalk squeaking across a blackboard.

She took a deep breath. “My name is Michelle Bowden. I live in a northwest suburb of Chicago.” Giving an exact address or town was something she’d been cautioned against – just in case.

The district attorney’s big smile said he was pleased Michelle had remembered. “Where were you on the afternoon of May 25th?”

“I spent the afternoon at the hospital visiting a former coworker at Advocate Trinity Hospital.” There was no need to mention that the coworker was actually admitted to, instead of working at, the hospital with a collapsed lung courtesy of her husband. Emily’s marital problems had nothing to do with this.

“What time did you leave the hospital?”

“Around 4 p.m. I’d meant to leave before traffic started to build, but I lost track of the time.” An older woman three rows back nodded with a smile. Michelle smiled back glad to know she wasn’t the only one who habitually lost track of time.

“Then where did you go?”

“I meant to go home, but I took a wrong turn and got lost.” Her cheeks burned. The jurors probably thought she sounded like the typical blonde. On a normal day she had great directional sense. She never got lost when visiting my patients, not even the direst of medical emergencies. But Emily’s almost unrecognizable face had followed her from the hospital to her car. A good twenty minutes passed before she realized she was in the wrong part of town.

Assistant district attorney Winkler didn’t seem to notice Michelle’s embarrassment. He just fired another question. “Did you stop to ask for directions?”

“I did,” although she’d changed her mind. Even with the sun shining, walking across the street to the convenience store felt dangerous. She’d felt like a wimp.

“Where were you when you stopped to ask for directions?”

“I was on South Cottage Grove Avenue between 75th and 76th streets.”

“And did you see anything unusual when you were parked at that location?”

Swallowing hard, she nodded.

“Could you please answer out loud so the court reporter can record your answer?”

“Sorry. Yes.” The dark-haired woman sitting hunched over her white typing pad clicked the keys to record the answer.

“What did you see?”

Neglected buildings housing as many businesses as empty spaces. Graffiti covered brick walls. A gang of African American and Latino-looking men giving each other hand signs across the street from where she’d pulled over.
“I saw a man in a light blue shirt run in front of where my car was parked. He crossed the street and approached a group of men standing on the sidewalk in front of a sandwich shop.” For a minute it looked like he was joining his friends. A couple of guys even smiled at him. Then they stopped smiling.

“What next?”

“The man pulled out a gun and aimed it at another man wearing a white and green sweatshirt.”

“Did the man in the sweatshirt say anything?”

“I don’t know. I was too far away to hear.” But not so far that she couldn’t see the fear that spread across his face. Michelle gripped the arms of her chair as the memory of her own fear raced back. “The man in the sweatshirt ran behind a black and silver Mercedes that was parked on that side of the street. The guy with the gun chased after him.”

“Did you see what happened next?”

A brown-haired man in a gray suit leaned forward in his chair. Excitement widened his eyes. Michelle didn’t feel his enthusiasm for the details. In fact, her stomach clenched and her mouth tasted of metal, as she said, “The man in the sweatshirt ran around to the front of the Mercedes and tripped. He fell on the hood of the car.” His dark brown skin gleamed against the outline of the silver car as he turned over and opened his mouth to say something to the gunman. Only he never got to. “The man with the gun stood in front of the car and pulled the trigger three times. He then ran southbound down the sidewalk and disappeared.”

He never saw the man in the sweatshirt slide down the hood of the silver Mercedes, leaving a streak of red glistening in the sun. But she did.


Elizabeth said...

Sounds great to me! And I think you should write whatever's inspiring you at the time. If you're passionate about it that will come through to your readers, who care about getting a good story, not a "brand."

Sarah M. Anderson said...

If it's a huge deal, you can slightly change your name--Joey Charbonneau, Joy Bonn, etc. After all, Nora Roberts had no trouble going gritty as J.D. Robb, and lots of authors who write grown-up and YA have slightly different takes on their names.

Excited about the new story--so far, so good!

Meg Mims said...

Great ending!

Dru said...

I like it.

Fiona Johnson said...

Joelle - you are not a brand, you are a person. Writing is a creative experience not a business venture. Write whatever you feel that you need to and then what happens, happens. If the writing is good enough. people wlil read it. What you have proved so far is that you CAN write, that you can hold a reader in your grasp and you can tell a very good story. You can create emotion and tension, humour and drama.

You have a voice and you have things to be led by your talent and your writing wil flow and develop in all sorts of ways in the ears to come. It would be a mistake, IMHO, if you stuck to one style...go for it and have confidence. Women can write dark, bleak us how it's done!

Sabrina E. Ogden said...

You need to write what inspires you...and don't let anyone tell you different. There is a reason why you're being inspired to write this so don't shy away from it...embrace it.

Constant Writer said...

That sounds like a pretty good start if you're not used to writing this kind of stuff. We all get comfortable in what we write habitually, or what we discover we're good at, but sometimes it is good to break away from that when you really want to do something different. Good luck with the rest of the story!

Julie said...

Hogwash. Sharyn McCrumb writes funny AND dark in separate series.

Lisa Scottoline jumps between each tone as well.

Both of them are among my favorites.

Elizabeth summed it up perfectly.