LUCY BURDETTE: Today Triss Stein asks a wonderful question--should we stick with what we know or try something new? To celebrate her new book, Brooklyn Secrets, she'll tell us about her dilemma...
TRISS STEIN: Stretching is good for everyone. Right? It’s especially good for writers who sit at a desk all day. We should get up and stretch once an hour (Does anyone, really?) But no, I'm thinking more about the way writers find a need to stretch and grow in their work.
Do successful writers of somewhat fluffy historical mysteries or serious but warm traditional PI stories suddenly decide to start writing bleak suspense tales? Or does a story like that come to mind and they can’t resist the challenge? Or does an editor or agent say, “I think you’re getting stale and it’s time to change it up.”
In my forthcoming book, (Brooklyn Secrets, Dec. 1, 2015) I stretched myself by accident. I thought I was continuing what I had been doing all along in my series but it didn’t turn out that way.
Each book in the series is set in a different, distinct Brooklyn neighborhood. Erica, the sleuth, is a historian who studies how neighborhoods change and in the process she stumbles across both modern crime and historical mysteries. For the next book I wanted to write about Brownsville, Brooklyn, a desperately poor and neglected neighborhood back in the old days. That time and place produced a lethal gang of Jewish enforcers for hire, a notorious part of the notorious Mob, and I thought I could create an interesting historical mystery about that. Plus, coincidentally (or maybe not so coincidentally) I had worked at a public library in the neighborhood a lifetime ago and had some memories.
However – and it turned out to be a huge however – there was no way for Erica to explore Brownsville’s past without becoming involved with Brownsville in the here and now.
Getting it right would be a stretch for sure. Brownsville hasn’t changed much. It has the most low-income projects of any NY neighborhood, and every problem that goes with poverty, drugs, guns and gangs. Could I possibly write about this and make it accurate, believable, honest, fair? How could I even get the street slang right when it changes constantly? I am very sensitive to arrogant outsiders who think they know a world that can only be known from the inside. My own experience there was too long ago to be valuable or valid.
I had some bad moments when I was sure I couldn’t pull it off. But there was this: Erica herself is an outsider in this world, as I am, interested, observant, and concerned, but not part of it. So, her viewpoint became the lens for me to tell the story. And I found a way to give her a plausible acquaintance from the past who was part of the neighborhood. A way in to the story.
And I soon realized that some moments and some people I remembered vividly could still fit right in. Brownsville hasn’t changed very much.
In the end it became a story of young people trying to create more choices for themselves than their world seemed to offer, and that is a Brownsville story, old and new, then and now.
That’s how I stretched myself by accident. It wasn’t part of my plan, it was scary and I’m glad I did it. I think.
What was your biggest stretch as a writer--or in life, and how did it work out?
TrissStein is a small–town girl from New York farm country who has spent most of her adult life in New York the city. This gives her the useful double vision of a stranger and a resident for writing mysteries about Brooklyn neighborhoods in her ever-fascinating, ever-changing, ever-challenging adopted home. The third, Brooklyn Secrets, will be out from Poisoned Pen Press on December 1, 2015. In it, Erica find herself immersed in the old and new stories of tough Brownsville, and the choices its young people make.
Triss will be giving away one copy of Brooklyn Secrets--leave your email in your comment to be entered in the drawing!