Thursday, November 4, 2010

Setting: Dealing With the Modern Office

My new book, A POINTED DEATH, has a biotech consultant for a heroine. Nola Billingsley has to spend a lot of time in the offices of her clients, and, to solve the murder, she has to get around these workplaces with imagination and stealth! While I was writing the book, I had to overcome a problem -- today's places of business, even high tech business, are pretty boring. The cookie cutter sameness of the contemporary workplace presents a challenge for all writers of modern fiction. After hours of trying to enliven a description of that ubiquitous cubicle, with its computer, monitor, keyboard, phone, and file cabinet, any writer can be forgiven for fantasizing about a village smithy or a medieval dungeon. Even if one of your characters works from home, her office in the back bedroom contains pretty much the same equipment. Moreover, whether your characters are supervisors or telemarketers their work process and output looks and sounds much the same.

When your plot involves white collar workers, you are faced with the cubicle dilemma. You can't make everything happen over lunch or while the characters commute on the subway. The action moves forward based on conflicts that arise in the workplace, so you have to spend time there to lend credibility to your story. How can a writer put life into these settings? Here are some suggestions, I came up with while writing A POINTED DEATH:

1. Focus on the details. Every industry has its own artifacts and tschotskes.

2. Develop the culture. Apple and Goldman Sachs have unique corporate cultures.

3. Capture the language. Don't overdo it, but latch on to a little jargon to spruce up you dialog.

4. Goals and norms. Firms have objectives, employees have performance reviews on the horizon. What do the characters 'want' in business terms?

5. Find the special taboos. Every industry has them. In science-based operations, falsifying data is verboten.

6. Play up office politics, gossip and rumors. Each company has a Chicken Little who spreads misinformation about layoffs and changes in the benefits package.

7. Exploit interpersonal relationships. You don't have to write a sexual harassment incident into every chapter, but you do want to reveal interdependences among your characters. Chuck coaches the soccer team and Elise's kid in one of his players. Elise tips Chuck off when their boss is going to be out of the office.

8. Bring the outdoors indoors. Unlike its counterpart in St. Paul, an office building in Pasadena won't have a coat rack jammed with parkas.

9. Let the competition win. Every business has a built-in conflict with the competitor breathing down its neck. Increase the tension by having the rival introduce a hot new product.

10. Exploit individual foibles. Janie's keyboard is encrusted with crumbs and smears because she has a snacking problem, and fastidious Ramona cannot bring herself to touch it. Ah, but the information Ramona needs to expose Brent's treachery is on Janie's computer.

I hope this list helps you on your next project!



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