“It is in the encounter between the self and the brute alien otherness of the real that beautiful things become possible.”
—Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head
As a full-time licensed private investigator, my schedule is unrecognizable to the average workaday person. To get to the heart of a case, I must favor the narratives and timetables of strangers and forsake my own. True, my job has transformed me into a walking warehouse filled with bizarre facts and forbidden tales. Problem is, I want to forget most of them. And the rest I can never tell. Ever.
But I believe that the challenges of my career as a PI have helped me write more alertly, and with more attentive focus. I find that by relying upon sensory-rich, voice-fascinated, verb-laden prose, I am writing more from the body, less from the mind. This helps me create more striking and authentic narratives.
You don’t have to be a PI to find the clues to a killer story. We are all capable of subliminal perception and implicit cognition—seeing and sensing what is fleeting or all but obscured. The demands of most people's lives compel them to tune out the fine details and turn down the volume of raw, unscripted interactions.
It is easy to forget that the best writing was, is, and should be a full-contact sport with the world.
As a PI/Writer, I am compelled to unleash my fierce curiosity and bond my keenest perceptions of the physical world to my word-horde. I want my stories to be more than credible and convincing.
I want them to haunt the reader.
I want them to chase folks down at their work or play, keep them up past midnight, wake them up before dawn.
I want them to roam far beyond the computer screen and printed page.
And the best way for me to achieve all of that is to write like a dog. That is, to write like a dog that could write. I’ve found the following imperatives to be the first steps toward becoming a Dog Writer.
Oooh That Smell!
Dogs are all about smells, of course. But we don’t have to have the super-scenting capabilities of a dog to appreciate how important smell is to good descriptive writing. Research has shown that despite the preeminence of visual stimuli and visual discrimination in humans, smell is the only sense that does not take a detour through the thalamus on its way to the brain cortex. Indeed, olfactory input is the fastest route by which sensory information can get to the brain. Memories of smells and their associations, pleasant or not, are accessed instantly, clearly, emotionally. And these memories or associations almost never fade. Smells quickly create context and decisively convey mood. Their visceral impact grabs the reader’s attention and holds it fast, even in passages that do not contain action.
Face it. The reader might not always get your wit or humor. They can get distracted by your abstractions. They might wander away from your intricate explanations and seek Google’s take on the significance of Angkor Wat, or on the obscenity of bullet wounds in children.
But with smells you can reel your reader back in by appealing to what they will instantly recollect and likely never forget. They’ll know baby diaper and baby hair, Play-Doh and port-a-potty, summer rain on fresh blacktop and someone slowly dying in bed. Through the sensory interplay of smells, your story indelibly becomes their story. Writer and reader unite in a shared journey, a common goal. The whole world suddenly smells like baking bread. We rejoice! Tail wagging is optional.
Let Them Bark!
While I don’t have dog ears, alas—theirs are said to be 45 times better than ours—I do have a job wherein the rewards for exceptional human listening can be thrilling. Picking up on the pronoun shift in a witness interview that indicates the cover-up. Detecting a weak cellphone ringtone coming from a dumpster that breaks open the cold case.
The importance of sound in the investigative world is a given. The importance of sound in writing should also be a given. Even the deliberate absence of sound—to reinforce themes of isolation or desolation, or to depict dissociative states accompanying fear, grief, or adrenalized focus—emphasizes how crucial this sensory appeal is to a good story.
I find that in both fiction and nonfiction narratives, the most critical sounds indicative of truthfulness are the tones, nuances, cadences, emphases—what we call the prosody—of the human voice. To the Dog Writer, the quickest way to inhabit and portray the soul of a character is through voice. Dialogue is, for me, the most direct way to convey that voice. It makes palpable that elusive and indefinable “ring of truth,” that miraculous song every reader wants to hear—albeit through their eyes—as they read.
Dialogue can be a wonder worker, chopping off pages of explanations and slicing through paragraphs of descriptions. Of course, well-written dialogue demands dedicated listening. By letting your characters talk, you will learn to listen better and build confidence in your ear for dialogue, which allows you to breathe more life into your characters, who then start barking more. And the whole virtuous cycle rolls on, with the reader excitedly chasing your tale.
Make It Move!
Give a dog a toy—and what do they do before biting it to bits? They make it even more fun by making it move. They flip it, fling it, push it, shake it. We don’t need to know why they do that to share in their joy. It is so predictable that we rely upon it. Likewise, we accept that there are certain motions that are almost irresistible to dogs, like dodgy squirrels, pedaling cyclists, tottering toddlers. Again, we don’t question why it is so. We act accordingly.
People are also fascinated by certain movements. Falling bodies. Someone running through a crowd. A car backing up further than a car’s length. Action grabs attention whether we want it to or not. Motion sticks to memory and vice versa. The mind might not always remember, but the body never forgets. When I interview witnesses, I always tie my questions to actions, as it improves their recollection of events and my retention of their testimony. What were you doing at the time? What was she doing when she told you that? Can you show me how he was acting when he made those threats?
When I write as a Dog Writer, I revere the two well-known writer’s commandments: 1) Thou Shalt Use Verbs Well and Often and 2) Thou Shalt Keep Holy Thy Reader’s (ever-dwindling) Attention Span. These injunctions demand that we grab the reader with the right verb at the right time, and pace our prose so the reader stays engaged but not exhausted. You can improve these stylistic elements in your own writing by reading voraciously and feeling what works and what doesn’t for other writers. And you can fine-tune your discrimination between working/non-working prose by concentrating on how the world moves outside of your head.
There’s the catch. The paradox to—the heresy of—becoming a Dog Writer is this: the authenticity of a narrative depends more upon acts of attention to the physical world than it does upon flights of the imagination.
Above all the canine comparisons and beyond the super-perception fantasies of a PI/Writer like me—shines the truth, that holiest of Grails for all writers. For the Dog Writer and their reader, the truth is like a “Seventh Sense,” a state of exalted hyperawareness that can be attained by first making forceful appeals to all Five Senses (especially smells and sounds!) on every page. In turn, this persistent vivid sensory allure imparts a Sixth Sense—the feeling of premonition, an electric expectation that something spectacular will occur in the story. And when that spectacular something does happen, it has the “ring of truth” you can feel down to the bone.
To the Dog Writer, there’s no better bone to beg for than that.