Saturday, October 1, 2011

SMOKE-FREE FICTION

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Whenever I go to England, I realize I live a very insulated, smoke-free life at home in Texas. I am a non-smoker. No one smokes in my family (my husband quit a year ago, thank goodness, and even when he smoked, he never smoked in the house, in the car, or in public places.) No one is ever allowed, on pain of death, to smoke in my car, and when I go out it's usually to smoke-free shops and restaurants.

So it's always a bit of shock to be thrown into the midst of very public London, where people smoke on the streets, and there is a whole new culture of pavement-smoking outside restaurants, pubs, and clubs. Suddenly I have to remind myself that at least some characters in my books should smoke. This is not so much a matter of approval or disapproval, but simply that as a non-smoker, smoking doesn't occur to me.

While certainly bad for one's health, smoking has always provided a nice "bit of business", both on the page and screen. It's something for your characters to do while they have a conversation (other than drink endless cups of tea.) It can convey an emotional state such as agitation or nonchalance, or give subtle insights into character (I've loved Sergeant Hathaway's attempts to give up smoking in the recent episodes of Lewis), class, or background. (Think James Bond here...) Camel or Silk Cut? Does the smoker carelessly put out the stubs in old cups of coffee, or tamp them out and tuck them away in a plastic baggie?

And with many of the popular retro shows like Mad Men, or The Hour (I've yet to see if they will smoke on Pan Am, but am horrified to remember that people actually used to smoke on airplanes!) smoking is once again being shown in a glamorous light (excuse the pun.)

As a reader, I like to play a little guessing game about whether or not the writer is a smoker--if almost every character in a novel smokes, I'm inclined to think the writer (I could name a few) does, too. But at the moment, I'm halfway through Felix Francis's new novel, Gamble, and I've just realized that not a single character has been seen smoking. I'd be willing to bet (excuse another pun) that Felix Francis does not.

So what about you, Jungle Reds? Do your characters indulge? And should they?



JAN BROGAN: I think the characters should smoke if you think that's part of who they are. I had a teenager in Teaser smoking because I thought that's what she'd be doing and I wanted my reporter Hallie Ahern to show she had good getting-people-to-talk skills by allowing the young girl to smoke in her car even though it was driving her out of her mind.

I'm thinking of setting my next novel in southern France, where at least half the French characters must smoke.

DEBS: Yes, the French and the Italians are all big smokers, but the red wine and olive oil probably keep them from getting cancer . . .

HALLIE EPHRON: I'm writing a novel in which the main character's dysfunctional alcoholic mother smokes. As Jan says, it's essential to the character.

It's pretty astounding how much public has changed about smoking. My husband brought home a "Rugged Men" magazine from the 50s. It's a real period piece, soft porn and enlightening article, like "Let's Get Rid of the Girls Who Shake Their Cans" by Dunwoodie Hall. In it there's an article that dismisses the "health scares" of smoking and concludes, "Thus, it can literally be said, 'Smoke--And live longer!'"

ROSEMARY HARRIS: I've had a few characters smoke, but no main characters. If they're going to die, I'd rather kill them off in my own way.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Huh!Not to give anything way, but you've made me realize that the people in my books who smoke--are the bad guys!

(I tried smoking in college. Once. ONCE! My best friend Hallie (a different Hallie!) and I shopped for the coolest package. Montclair, navy blue with a gold crest. I took one puff at age 17, choked, tipped over the ashtray onto my bedspread, burned a hole in the blanket and that was the end of that.)

The good part about people smoking in books--it give them something to do, you know? And it can be very dramatic, a la Bette Davis.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I've just realized that I've had exactly one smoker in
my books - and that was because it was necessary for the plot. I'm like you, Deb, never smoked, no one in my family or circle of friends smoke, so it rarely crosses my mind. Since smokers tend to fall into a few distinct groups nowadays, I think having a cigarette-user makes more of a statement about the character than it once might have. We have the 80-year-old Dan Drapers and Joan Holloways who haven't died off yet. Young people still light up for the same reasons they always did - smoking is way down in high schools but on the upswing on college campuses. And increasingly cigarette smoking is a class marker, with a sharp divide in smoking rates between socioeconomic and education levels.

This has definitely given me food for thought! I'm going to go back over my current work-in-progress and see who might profitably be made a nicotine fiend.

DEBS: Interesting, Julia. Yes, there are beginning to be class issues associated with smoking, but one can't make blanket assumptions. My husband fought a forty-year battle with nicotine addiction--and I do mean BATTLE. We learned some very interesting things when he was finally able to quit (we certainly hope for good.) One is that there are take-it-or-leave-it smokers. I was one. I smoked in my teens and gave it up at twenty without a bit of bother. And there are some for whom nicotine addiction is worse, and harder to kick, than heroin. It apparently has to do with the difference in the chemical receptors in people's brains. The same seems to be true for alcohol addiction, except that the take-it-or-leave-it percentage is much greater for alcohol than for nicotine. It's much, much easier to be a social or occasional drinker than an occasional smoker.

So all food for thought, and for creating interesting characters.

13 comments:

Becky - Mystery Writers Unite said...

Ladies,

This is another great post! Being that I am a smoker (yes I know it's awful), I realized that I haven't indicated anywhere in my first novel so far if the character smokes or not. However, I do think that smoking can add an element to the character to define them and create aura for certain scenes (e.g."a long haul on his cigarette to calm his nerves"). I do believe, after reading this, I will go back over the manuscript because I'm certain that I could make at least one character in my book more "real" if they smoked. Thanks for this interesting insight!

By the way, I hope you don't mind but I found your blog so interesting that I dedicated my blog entry today to you and yours (I'm not even sure that's allowed I'm so new to the blogging world).

Have a great day!

Becky

Nancy said...

Deborah -

As one who also lives in Texas, I can relate to the shock of going out of the country and finding how much smoking there is in the world!

As for characters - I personally have always enjoyed all the tea drinking in your novels!

Hallie Ephron said...

Thanks for posting, Becky - just checked out your blog. Thanks for sharing us.

You're right, the cigarette is the author's ultimate prop. Dashiell Hammett used it endlessly to show Sam Spade's limited range of emotions (only from A to B, I'm afraid). Lisbeth Salander smokes. Sherlock Holmes with his pipe. James Bond, of course.

Pat Marinelli said...

I live in NJ where you can't smoke anywhere these days. Yeah! Went to a wedding in PA and was amazed at the haze of smoke that hovered over the dance floor. My contact lenses got so sticky that I had troble keeping my eyes open on the drive home. My eye lids wanted to stick to the dirty lenses.

My characters have not smoked in the past because I don't smoke (tried it as a 19 year old when I worked a A&W as a carhop but it ruined the taste of the root beer.). I liked the sexy look of holding a cigarette.

That being said, if I came up with a character who needed to smoke for some reason, I would probably writer him or her lighting up.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hey, wonderful, Becky! Checking it out..xoxo

Brenda Buchanan said...

What an interesting post, Deborah. Kudos to your husband for quitting after so many years. I'm sure that was a huge challenge. Bravo for him!

I'm now in the revision/polishing phase of my current novel, some chapters of which are contemporary and some of which occur in 1968. Only one of the contemporary characters smokes, and the fact that she does is meant to be indicative of her inability to let go of the past.

A number of characters smoke in the chapters set in '68, when puffing on a cigarette was an ordinary, unquestioned thing.

It was kind of fun, in an odd way, to chose their brands. Remember the classics? Pall Malls. Camels. Winstons.
Chesterfields.

Wow -- how nice that is all a blast from the past.

Brenda

cncbooks said...

As a reader rather than a writer, I think a smoking character who's trying to quit can be very interesting. I quit 7 years ago after 40 years and not because I wanted to. To this day, I still want it and really like to occasionally be around someone who's smoking so I can inhale a little. Silly, I know, but there it is--how your character deals with this can be enlightening.

Jan Brogan said...

Hi Becky,
Thanks for the endorsement. I tried to comment on your blog, but couldn't figure it out.

I tweeted you instead.

Best of luck with your blog and your novel!

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