Friday, January 11, 2013

A Writing Exercise to Help Your Story Ring With Authenticity

by Khanh Ho, @LAMysteryWriter

I’ve taken dozens of writing seminars—some good, some bad. Over time, I’ve done hundreds of exercises. And in my capacity as a college level Creative Writing professor, I’ve had the chance to assign writing exercises, too. So, I know: the best exercises get you into the groove. This one—the one I’m about to share with you--is by far my absolute favorite. This one is a keeper.

I did it in my first writing seminar with this really cool writer—let’s call him David—who gave off the aura that every professional writer of high class art fiction should emit: denim shirts; denim jeans; old leather belt with real silver accents; longish unkempt hair, never parted; scuffed, leather attaché case with a discreet imprint from a luxurious maker; cowboy boots; crows feet around the eyes. Kinda cool to a college freshman.

David had us bring in one object and tell two stories about it: one true and one false. We could not reveal the true one. We could not even give clues by creating deliberately crazy stories that would indicate falsehood. We were just supposed to tell two variations of one story. One girl brought in a brick that she supposedly rescued from a lava flow in Hawaii. Me: I brought in a stuffed animal and spun a totally false story of shoplifting at Arnie’s Toyland.

After each story was told, the class voted and discussed why we thought one story was true or false. This made for a fun class. You got to know a lot about your classmates by listening to how their minds work. You also began to realize that certain elements are important to the feeling of truth: detail, character, setting. These are the elements that make a story ring with authenticity, even if it is a bald-faced lie.

To do this exercise at home, without the audience participation element, pick an object and try to write a scene around it. If you’re working on a story, go ahead: use the object in the scene. You don’t have to write two variations. You just have to decide that the object is going to have a life of its own—that it will reveal all sorts of connections about the world it occupies.

This exercise is perfect for the mystery writer, because it is essentially a realist exercise. Mysteries live in the world of realism; they deal with the everyday world. No Hobbits or Space Creatures or Wizards inhabit this world of pulp. No zombies or vampires or barbarian warlords. Mysteries exist in the plausible world of our mind. And all mysteries—all--are locked in the objects that we hold, like flies trapped in the spider web of our own making.

biopicKhanh Ho spent many years living in a small town in rural Iowa, teaching Creative Writing at Grinnell College—a small liberal arts college, nestled in a windswept prairie whose distinguishing feature is the presence of a Super Walmart. But then he had a light bulb epiphany: he’ll never produce writing if he persists in teaching it. So, now he is happily pounding away at the keyboard, knocking out not only his first mystery novel but, also, the first mystery novel featuring the first Vietnamese American detective. Why? Because, yes, he’ll be the first; yes, it’ll be a power trip; and yes, because he can! Follow him on his great adventure at

Image: Patuska from MorgueFile