Backstory

Authors tell you what inspired their work

Tim Maleeny, Author of "Stealing the Dragon"

How much research did you have to do before writing your book? That's one of the questions you'll hear most often if you've just published an international thriller. Implicit is the assumption all that research had to be done before the story was written, yet in reality the writing process was never that linear, especially for a first-time author.

My debut novel Stealing the Dragon takes place in Hong Kong and San Francisco, and though I currently live in San Francisco and traveled throughout Asia over the course of many years, I'm hardly an expert on either destination. When I started writing I hadn't visited Hong Kong for over two years, and as my wife often reminds me, I still get lost driving through downtown San Francisco. But with a day job and two daughters under the age of five, spending three months traveling, walking the streets and soaking in the local flavors was not an option. When you're an aspiring writer, time is not your friend.

Initially the plan was to write what I knew, then write what I imagined to be true and check my facts. Seemed like a viable approach at the time, and that's how the process began. I spent hours reading, going to the library, calling friends who lived abroad or spoke the language. I learned a lot, which made me want to learn even more. Ideas multiplied, split apart, became new ideas that took my story in entirely new directions.

There was just one little problem: I wasn't writing.

If I was ever going to finish the book, I was going to have to make things up. Stop reading, stop talking, and start writing. I threw out my outline, put aside my notes and let the characters take over. If I didn't know precisely what lurked around the next corner, maybe they did.

I followed my instincts, which I now realized were echoes of the characters' voices inside my head. A scrap of dialogue, a sudden change of loyalties, a relationship evolving over the course of a few chapters to reveal an unexpected betrayal. I discovered the essence of writing a thriller: if you want readers to stay up all night turning the pages, you have to share that sense of excitement when writing them.

My characters took me from the typical San Francisco destinations to a back alley in Chinatown, where a restaurant that catered to tourists by day served Tong gangs at night. In Hong Kong, I watched Triad leaders train young girls to be assassins, disposable human weapons used against rival clans. Soon I was back in San Francisco, where a container ship smuggling Chinese refugees ran aground on Alcatraz Island.

The story involved the Triads, yakuza gangsters, human trafficking, obscure Chinese legends, and a crime noir tour of San Francisco. At no time during the process did I become fluent in Chinese, nor did I join an organized crime syndicate. Some of the places I visited were in my original outline, but most were discovered along the way. With each new chapter I felt the undertow of the next, an inexorable logic to the story pulling me toward an ending only half-glimpsed in my notes. Is this character really what they seem to be? What will they do next? Research alone couldn't answer those questions -- only writing could.

There are unexpected benefits to following your characters instead of the facts. At one point in Stealing The Dragon a meeting occurs in a tunnel beneath the streets of San Francisco's Chinatown. There was something about the characters that demanded they lurk just out of sight, so I imagined an underground world unseen by tourists walking the streets everyday. Two months later I came across a book of San Francisco trivia and was shocked to discover there really were tunnels beneath the streets of Chinatown, destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire but never rebuilt. From a new writer's perspective this was true serendipity, dumb luck at its finest.

Now I'm not suggesting that writing makes you clairvoyant. But had I not allowed my characters to drive the story, I never would have gone underground in the first place, and I never would have discovered those long forgotten tunnels.

I'd learned that you can be an acknowledged expert in your field or spend a lifetime doing research, but no one will care until you grab them by the throat and refuse to let go until the very last sentence. For a debut novelist, that was the most important fact of all.

So if you're starting your own novel, do some homework. Check your facts. But don't forget to write.

To learn more about Tim Maleeny and his books, please visit his website here.


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Comments from our users:

Saturday April 21st 2007, 8:16 AM
Comment by: E. Jean L.
He grabbed me by the throat and I did read every word.
Tuesday April 24th 2007, 6:05 PM
Comment by: Kimberley L. C.
Tim,

Thank you for letting me know other people do it this way too. I am struggling to put together my first novel, and was feeling scattered and honestly, getting a bit desperate! So, thanks for the breathing room. Good luck to you!

Kimberley L. Cloutier
(Ottawa, On. Canada)
Tuesday June 12th 2007, 12:29 AM
Comment by: Michael B.
I appreciate your journey as a writer. I don't consider myself a writer per say, but I have a story to tell and I won't feel happy until I let the story out and the characters take life, and who knows where they will take me.

Thank you for helping me see that there really is no hard and fast rule to writing other than to get to it.

Michael

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