Friday, May 8, 2020

Closing the Great Divide: When Journalism and Mystery Writing Meet: Guest Post by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Andrew Welsh-Huggins:
Closing The Great Divide: When Journalism And Mystery Writing Meet

One of the most frequent questions I receive about my fiction writing—after, of course, “Where do you get your ideas?”—is what the difference is between the composition I do as a journalist and that as a crime novelist. It’s a fair query, given that I’ve been a reporter for thirty-plus years, including more than two decades with The Associated Press, and have also published six mystery novels and several short stories. But like a lot of questions about writing, the answer is complicated. The work I did editing Columbus Noir, the latest anthology of a city’s dark tales from Akashic Books, helps explain how I balance the two forms of content creation.

Let’s start with the differences. Most of the stories I write for the AP are in the 500 to 600-word range. That’s a little short if you’re accustomed to New York Times or Washington Post articles, but about average for the breaking news and spot investigative stories that I focus on. By contrast, the shortest of my most recently published short stories—“The Most Terrible Thing,” in Over My Dead Body magazine—was about 3,500 words, while my private eye novels run about 65,000 words. As a result, we’re talking the distinction between, say, a 400-meter race on the track vs. the 26.2 miles of a marathon. In addition, depending on the subject matter, it takes a few hours, a couple days or perhaps a few weeks to write an article. On the other hand, a short story requires at least a week to ten days to compose followed by periodic rewrites over several weeks, while a book eats up three to four months minimum, not counting the multiple drafts to follow.

Then there’s the question of craft. It’s common to hear reporters-turned-novelists say that in fiction—unlike in journalism—every word matters. I’d contend that’s true up to a point. Certainly, I don’t rewrite my articles as much as my mysteries. Going Places, my own contribution to Columbus Noir, went through ten drafts alone before it was ready for publication. But in my fiction as in my nonfiction, I pay as close attention as possible to using active verbs, minimizing the use of adverbs and adjectives, avoiding clich├ęs, and showing, not telling. In both forms, nothing drives me crazier than slipping and using the same word twice within close proximity. (I did it in this very essay, until I substituted “frequent” for “common” in the opening sentence a few drafts in.) However, it’s fair to say that my journalism is prose pared down to the essentials, whereas my fiction involves more description, metaphors and observations—a well-constructed sandwich on the one hand, an attempt at a three-course meal on the other, to use another analogy.

When it came to Columbus Noir, my vocation of journalism and my avocation of fiction writing finally met in the middle. To begin with, the discipline of deadline writing that I’ve developed as a reporter served me well when it came to editing the thirteen submissions to the anthology as they rolled in on a staggered basis over several months. Not only did I have to keep track of whose story was due when, I had to schedule my edits of the stories and when I expected authors to return their responses to those edits, all in time to compile the entire manuscript for submission. Missing that due date—Nov. 1, 2018—just wasn’t an option.

When the time came for my own contribution, I turned back to my roots at the AP as a full-time Statehouse reporter from 1999 to 2006. I’d previously set a book in my private eye series in the Statehouse—Capitol Punishment—but welcomed a chance to return to the Greek revival building in the heart of downtown Columbus. (I’m always surprised more mysteries don’t focus on statehouses, with their delectable mix of power, greed, and sexual hijinks.) Drawing on my experience as a reporter, the plot for my story—involving missteps by a governor’s bodyguard—came relatively easily, and on time to boot. Drawing on my side gig as a fiction writer, I polished the prose until I felt sure that, indeed, every word mattered. Finished with editing the anthology, and with my own contribution, I turned the book in on time; always a good feeling no matter what writing cap I’m wearing.

Though my day job as a journalist and my earlier-in-the-day job as a fiction writer overlap regularly, my story—and by extension, Columbus Noir—was an example of the rare alignment of both my worlds. Deadline writing meets deadly fiction: what could be better than that?


Andrew Welsh-Huggins is a reporter for the Associated Press in Columbus, and the author of six mysteries featuring Andy Hayes, a former Ohio State and Cleveland Browns quarterback turned private eye. Welsh-Huggins is also the editor of Columbus Noir from Akashic Books, and his short fiction has appeared in publications including Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, and Mystery Tribune. Andrew’s nonfiction book, No Winners Here Tonight, is the definitive history of the death penalty in Ohio. When he’s not writing or reporting, Andrew enjoys running, reading, cooking, spending time with family, and trying to recall why having a dog, three cats and two parakeets seemed like a good idea at the time.

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