Q: Kitty wants to ask A very humble question. What book are we talking about for the book club? you did say it was going to be on April 1 right? Sorry if this isn’t the time or place for this question. It’s just that I would like to be ready. ;=)

A: We’ll be starting with A Grave Talent. And sorry to harp on this, but anyone who wants to receive the official notice might want to sign up for the newsletter.

Q: Sara asks, Masterpiece Theatre recently aired Philip Pullman’s “The Ruby in the Smoke,” whose main character, Sally Lockhart, is startlingly Russellian in her description: orphaned, unconventional partnerships and acquaintances, possessing a working knowledge of Hindustani, utter disregard for social standards of the day, and deadly aim with a pistol. Have there been other instances with characters whose traits so closely resemble those of your creation? And if so, does it bother you?

A: …and Liz answers (in part) With regards to The Ruby in the Smoke and the Russell novels, I feel compelled to point out that the Sally Lockhart novels were published between 1985 and 1994. Seems a bit unfair to Pullman to suggest that he was cribbing ideas from LRK.

I haven’t read those novels, but what I really want to know is how PD James got a copy of my futuristic novel before it was published, to rip off wholeheartedly for her Children of Men? Mine was originally even titled Daughters of Men, and had later to be changed to Califia’s Daughters. Harrumph.

Q: Shari asks, You have submitted short stories to various anthologies over the years. Are we ever going to see a Laurie R. King “Collected Stories” volume?

A: Most of the short stories I agree to write are aimed eventually at a collection of stories that tie together to make a larger story. Which is one reason why you don’t see too many Russell short stories out there. I’m probably more than halfway there now, so maybe in a few years.

Q: AJ writes, Is there anything you think you could not write about? A vaguely written question–let me clarify: One of the things I love most about writing is the chance it gives me to learn about anything in the world, as long as I decide a character needs to know about it. I have written about a stage manager, a painter, a vet, a businessman, an attorney, a chef, an engineer, a photographer, etc. And in each case, it works for me because I can imagine doing all of these things. I could make a business deal, even if I lost my shirt in it. I can paint a picture, even if it looks like a five year old did it. But for years now, I have wanted to write a book about a composer and have hesitated, because I cannot, even using the best of my imagination, figure out how one comes up with so much as a tune much less a symphony. So, to go back to my original question, is there anything that you just can’t get your mind around to write about?

A: Because I was born without the fashion gene, and grew up during the time of the hippie, I never learned all the skills and esoterica that go into the womanly arts. So I am utterly incapable of writing anything resembling chick lit: I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Ferragamo or a Choo (or indeed a ten buck ripoff from Payless shoes, unless I looked closely) and couldn’t recognize an Armani without looking at the label (I’m assuming they have labels?)

As a result, my characters tend to wear “expensive” or “extreme” rather than brand name, although I find that if I write about Worth or Chanel in the Twenties, I don’t get screaming letters of derision.

For the most part, if I need to know about a job or area of expertise, I try to hunt down someone who knows. I collect a few telling details (cop shop-talk, academic references) to sprinkle in, but don’t try to flood the reader with impressive minutiae because it will 1) bore most readers and 2) not fool the real experts. I aim for middle ground, with just enough knowledge displayed to show I know what I’m talking about, but not so much that it resembles a series of note-cards glued together.

I’d suggest, if you want to write about composers, you read a couple of autobiographies or well-written biographies of composers, and get a feel for their attitudes and language. Maybe you can find a few music students and take them out to dinner, talk about politics and religion for a while and then sneak in a question about how it feels to compose an effective piece of music.

But in the end, you have to remember: Novelists lie for a living. We don’t have to give footnotes, we have to give a sense of verisimilitude.

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  1. Roxanne on March 8, 2007 at 1:48 pm

    “Novelists lie for a living. We don’t have to give footnotes, we have to give a sense of verisimilitude.”


    Perhaps you have just given me the key to getting over my anxiety about ever being able to write anything again. Having read your works, I felt that I would never be able to write anything (good). I thought, how could I? You know so much about so many things. I feel like I (in comparison) know nothing.

    The last sentence of your post gives me hope. I mean, I am a librarian. I know how to do–and love doing–research. Maybe there’s hope for me yet …

    Thanks for today’s (and many days’ coming, I’m sure) food for thought.


  2. Carlina on March 8, 2007 at 3:47 pm

    I know Roxanne. Is that not great? I have been considering writing fiction lately and that made me feel so much better! As for the research..well that’s my middle name.

    “For the most part, if I need to know about a job or area of expertise, I try to hunt down someone who knows.”

    My brain is free for picking. I will gladly (as I mentioned to Russell…dear lord I know I am absolutely stressed when I start sending PMs to fictional characters) provide knowledge of my discipline (physical anthropology/archaeology) to you if you ever need it. No need for dinner or beer. It is the least I can offer someone who has provided me with hours of enjoyment. Well, that was a shameless attempt…*turns red*

  3. Anonymous on March 9, 2007 at 3:03 pm

    This post reminds me of a similar discussion Barbara Mertz (better known as Elizabeth Peters and/or Barbara Michaels) had in one of her newsletters. For those of you familiar with her works, particularly under the Barbara Michaels pseudonym, she has fashioned novels around everything from vintage clothing to jewelry design to political campaigning. She basically has the same point of view: find an expert(s), pick their brains, do your research, and you won’t embarrass yourself.

    For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of reading her books, you are in for a treat. My particular favorites are Shattered Silk (vintage clothing) and Into the Darkness (jewelry design).


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