LEARNING FROM A MASTER
by Deborah Elliott-Upton
A person I learn from is someone I never forget. Today I am thinking of Tony Hillerman and how almost two years later, we still mourn his passing. There will be no new Joe Leaphorn tales to look forward to reading, no more seminars where Hillerman himself will pass along bits of expertise he’s learned along the way or opportunities to simply enjoy sharing space in a room while he talks about writing.
“I am still in the throes of trying to learn. I have just re-read some early Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, and Graham Greene. I’m also very fond of Stephen Ambrose.” – Tony Hillerman
He never acted like he was an award-winning American author or a soldier who earned the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart in WWII or that he was as accomplished in writing nonfiction as he was fiction. Instead, Hillerman came across as a next door neighbor with interesting stories he’d share over the backyard fence and maybe a few words of advice.
Hillerman’s laid back manner of teaching seemed more like a personal meeting where we discussed our love of mystery writing. Like his readers, Hillerman embraced his writing class attendees like old acquaintances that would soon be new friends. We were in Hillerman’s beloved Albuquerque. With the Sandia Mountains in the backdrop as a silent reminder of the sacredness of getting the setting and characterizations right, Hillerman taught us the magic of bringing the senses into our stories. A master at using setting as a character, he stressed the act of utilizing the senses enriched the reading experience.
“An author knows his landscape best; he can stand around, smell the wind, get a feel for his place.” – Tony Hillerman
His storytelling is less like reading a piece of fiction and more like someone retelling a story of people he knew and what happened to them. Hillerman offered a bit of comfort from the real world in escaping to another adventure and viewpoint. When a writer keeps learning, his readers benefit. I’m taking another clue from Hillerman and keep myself “in the throes of trying to learn.”
“You try to create characters who invite a strong reaction from readers, whether pity, contempt, empathy, whatever.” – Tony Hillerman
In a writer’s group, one woman despised my female character’s actions so much she scrawled across my page: HOW COULD ONE WOMAN WRITE SUCH AN AWFUL THING ABOUT ANOTHER WOMAN?
I could do it because it was what the character would do and it made the story more interesting than if she were a nice woman whose husband had decided to kill her for no reason. In this story, she was a bit of a shrew – only she didn’t realize how she was constantly grating on his nerves because he never spoke up for himself. The reaction of the other writer was stronger than I expected, but it showed I had definitely made her care about the people in the story as if they were real.
“You write for two people, yourself and your audience, who are usually better educated and at least as smart.” – Tony Hillerman
I’ve been told we should be writing for a readership with an eighth-grade vocabulary. I don’t believe that’s true. There’s nothing more annoying than having a writer “dumb down” his work – unless it is one who gallops in the reverse direction with vocabulary that requires a dictionary on hand before we can make sense of what’s being said.
A good writer writes for himself and his readers. That would make for an unforgettable story.