Today the Mystery Author Alphabet Meme continues with the Letter "T". T is for Tafoya: Dennis Tafoya.
Dennis Tafoya lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and is the author of two novels, Dope Thief and The Wolves of Fairmount Park, as well as numerous short stories appearing in collections such as Philadelphia Noir from Akashic Books. His work has been nominated for two Spinetingler awards and his novels have been optioned for film.
Writing is a process of immersion that is a little like falling in love. To produce good work, I have to spend many hours researching, reading and thinking. I admire people who can tie themselves to a chair and have at it, but I spend a lot of time (for lack of a better word) daydreaming, psychically chasing my characters and fleshing out their lives and relationships, before I can start writing anything that feels meaningful. I know many excellent writers who don’t seem to need this step, but I haven’t learned how to jump into the work without building a sort of foundation in my head for the story I want to tell. I have to attach myself to my characters in a process that feels like emotional commitment.
My jumping-off place is frequently some real incident, a piece of criminal history that gets in my brain and won’t let go. I’ll admit I spend what is probably an unhealthy amount of time reading accounts of some pretty awful crimes, but I have to marry that material to some emotional entanglement or I don’t find the story interesting enough to keep working. Plot by itself isn’t compelling to me - I need high emotional stakes for the action to hold my attention. I think sometimes that plot is really just an excuse that allows me to create scenes in which my characters’ emotional lives, their histories and connections to other characters can play out, and I think (I hope) that this is the stuff that pulls readers in.
I wrote a short story last year that came out of a real incident in which a woman in her early twenties met a hardened con in his forties during their arraignment in an Atlantic City courtroom. They had an instant connection, formed a relationship, and went on a crime spree that ended just a few days later after they’d killed somebody during a robbery. It was a terrible story, but it was also fascinating, and I kept trying to imagine what could have been in the mind of the young woman. What goes wrong in your life that hooking up with a violent, burnt-out criminal seems attractive?
The process of writing that story, then, was coming up with an emotional history for the character that created a basis for her actions that seemed real. One of the things I’ve learned about criminals is that they’re frequently assigned a kind of role in their families: They’re the ones for whom things always go wrong. Parole officers will tell you that sometimes the ex-cons who make it are the ones who actually limit contact with their families and the expectation of failure that can become a family mythology. People reentering society need to redefine themselves, and family can either support the process or undermine it.
There was also a lot of research. I wanted to know more about the workings of the court system, so I did internet searches for information about criminal arraignment, called a public defender friend who could tell me what goes on when someone is in court for parole violation, and spent (as I always do) a lot of time working in Google Maps, as well as trying to find a source for the physical layout of the Philadelphia Criminal Courts. I do this research because I want to get as many details right as I can, but also because I find a lot of fascinating stuff in the process of research that can actually generate story. Those small, interesting details are also part of the reporting function that’s built into the most compelling fiction.
In the end the intersection of research and what I hope is believable and affecting emotional content is where I spend most of my time when I write. I have Google open on my laptop, I’m checking facts and looking up jargon, place names and technical details, but it’s the emotional substance that makes me care enough to keep writing, and hopefully keeps you reading. If I don’t care deeply what happens to my characters, why should you?