The one question every writer must ask (channeling your inner Columbo)

Paula’s Post #102

If you’ve been following this blog for some time, you’ll know by now that we 5writers have covered a lot of ground since the inception of our blog. Mostly about writing fiction and the various sub-topics encompassed within that general heading. In other words, not only about the process of writing itself, but also about the many obstacles and distractions that keep us from writing as often or as prolifically as we may wish.

When this blog ‘debuted’ back in September 2012, our original challenge was for the 5writers to simply ‘commit’ to trying to write a novel in just 5 months while blogging about the experience. One blog post for each 5writer, published on successive days of the week.

My day is Tuesday.

By the time our original challenge ended, however, we discovered that we’d become so heavily invested in this blog in terms of time and effort, we knew we wanted to keep it alive, even if the immediate focus (our writing challenge) had concluded.

Now, this has not always been easy. If you’re a blogger yourself, you’ll also know what we’ve all discovered: the beast must be fed.

Without the underlying suspense of our initial challenge, we discovered that our enthusiasm (and I suspect the interest and curiosity of many of our readers) occasionally began to wane. We suspect some of our original followers lost interest (those who were more interested the ‘drama’ of the challenge rather than our efforts to become better writers), but we gained others who, like us, were students of the craft of writing, trying to hone our skills.

Without a central focus, our post topics have started to diverge wildly. Sometimes, we’d manage to riff off a common theme. More often than not, we just tried to think up something ‘interesting’ to blog about, often at the 11th hour.

Which is why this past Christmas season saw me conjure up my personal list of the “Top 10 gifts for writers“:

1. The Gift of a Writers Group;

2. The Gift of Books;

3.The Gift of Travel;

4. The Gift of Experiential Activities…


What the heck?

Did I lose you at number 4?

When I wrote this list a few months ago, I wanted to make the point that aspiring writers shouldn’t just hole up in some dark and dingy writer’s garret, but instead ought to get out there and experience some of life’s crazier moments. My suggestion: why ‘make things up’ if you are able to interview some experts and gain genuine knowledge necessary to write convincingly about the fictional world you are creating. Back in December, I put it this way:

4. The Gift of Experiential Activities.

We are writers. We ‘imagine’ things. But our craft demands that no matter what our imagination envisions, it must be compelling and believable. This is especially true for crime writers. So what are you waiting for? Get off your duff and get out there, don’t just sit in your office playing solitaire or doing the NY Times crossword puzzle every day. If your hero drives a twin turbo, supercharged Bentley Continental GTS, don’t just look at a pic of it on the internet. Head out to the dealership and take a look for yourself. Maybe they won’t let you actually test drive it, but you’ll at least get to explore the touch and smell of the buttery leather seats and maybe sit in the driver’s seat and check out the instrumentation. Or maybe you need to try skeet shooting, or downhill skiing, or bungee jumping (hey, this is your book, not mine). My point is that, to be a better writer, don’t just make it up. Try it out! Not only will your writing be more authentic, the thrill of the ‘experience’ may also inspire fresh enthusiasm to make the scene the very best it can be.

Believe it or not, when I wrote this, I was not just ‘making stuff up’ in order to find something to write about in the blog. To the contrary, I believed then as I do now (and am sure my 5writer colleagues agree) we all need to leave the garret once in awhile and get out there in the real world.

Which is why we’ve blogged about:

i) the need to actually experience things for ourselves, such as the the look and feel of firearms (Karalee’s post #6 ‘Shoot ’em up‘ posted after a trip to Las Vegas);

ii) the need to find inspiration in real life ‘characters’ that have informed and inspired our writing (see Helga’s post #29, Quirkey to the Max, a loving homage to her father, on the anniversary of his passing);

iii) the need to develop ‘people skills’. More specifically, the skill of interviewing people in order to acquire much needed information that will enrich our writing and story (see my post #77- Just Ask).

Which gets me in a round about way to the title of this blog post and the need to channel your inner Lt. Columbo and get up the nerve to ask “Can I ask you something?” as that wily detective managed to do in almost every episode.

Yesterday, in the midst of negotiations for the sale of one of my listings here in California, while also caught up in a whirlwind of post-moving chaos… my new puppy… my tennis practice, upcoming parties, and impending houseguests, I decided to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time.

I asked a friend if I might interview them for this blog.

My friend, you see, is a retired Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff.

Cool, huh?

Just imagine the reaction of 5writer colleague Joe (his novel Desert Rains is set in the high desert of California and involves the adventures of P.I. Lou Rains and a most capable and beautiful Deputy Sheriff).

Yes Joe. This is gonna be good!

And guess what?

My friend said yes!

The interview is on!

But where to start? So many things a writer would want to know:

What was training at the Academy like?

Can you tell me about your class?

Do you read detective fiction and, if so, what do you think of the way cops are portrayed?

Does your back ache from the weight of a fully loaded utility belt at the end of a 12 hour shift?

Did it get lonely out there? Alone in your unit. Were you scared sometimes?

If so, how did you deal with those emotions?

I had my questions planned out, baby! And man, did this interview rock!

…. but, you’ll have to stay tuned until next week to learn more about ‘the interview’ with the Sheriff and some pretty surprising revelations about building characters.

And character.

12 thoughts on “The one question every writer must ask (channeling your inner Columbo)

  1. Experimental Activities…….My novel opens with the protag and his best friend dying of thirst on the eastern plains of New Mexico. They cut the ears of their mules and drank blood. This was a practice that is documented in several accounts. I wanted to know how it felt to cup my mouth over a large animal’s ear, so I did that with horse Duke. He’s a hot horse, but he didn’t blow up. He just looked at me like “WTF are you doing?”

    • Well Wes, that is certainly one of the most colourful comments I maybe didn’t anticipate receiving! Experiential activities of course must of course have limits, including safety, sanity and sensibility? May I suggest perhaps experimenting with large chocolate Easter Bunny ears since the holiday is almost upon us? Thanks for checking in on the 5writers,


  2. Can’t wait to read your interview blog, Paula. Never would I have dreamed that as a former protesting sorta-hippy would join my community’s police force by going through The Academy, the Citizen’s Police Academy. Is there a mystery in my future?

    • Thanks Elizabeth – I encourage all my writer friends to get out there and discover for themselves what ‘ordinary people’ most police officers really are. For some, it really is a case of dispelling old stereotypes and digging deeper to find depth and nuance for the characters we create. I love that one old ex-hippy joined the community police force and experienced ‘Citizen’s Police Academy. Perhaps you could even mentor your fellow ex-hippy, 5writer colleague Silk? I definitely foresee a mystery in your future! Stay tuned for part II, you’re in for some big surprises and ‘stereotype’ busting!

  3. Well Wes, that is certainly one of the most colourful comments I maybe didn’t anticipate receiving! Experiential activities of course must of course have limits, including safety, sanity and sensibility? May I suggest perhaps experimenting with large chocolate Easter Bunny ears since the holiday is almost upon us? Thanks for checking in on the 5writers,


    • Oh, Joe, I have a fantastic tail to tell, though I think I may need to weave it through a couple of blog posts, (I’ll send you a private email as well, though I do think ‘The Sheriff’ might be delighted to vet some of your novel for technical accuracy, if you are interested.

  4. Great read, Paula, trust you to lasso in a sheriff for an interview. Can’t wait to read all about it. Meanwhile, happy partying in beautiful Rancho La Quinta to wrap up the season!

    • Thanks Helga,
      I am guzzling fluids for my last USTA match of the season, – which may be on Stadium Court out here at beautiful Rancho La Quinta. I don’t want to disgrace myself and keel over in the mad-dogs-and-Englishman noon day sun! Any chance you and E can catch the match? John would be delighted to entertain you for lunch?

  5. Pingback: Interviewing for Writers – Part I | 5 Writers 5 Novels 5 Months

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