Writer in Residence

Cookin' the books

By Dietrich Kalteis


“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” – Jack Kerouac

The desire to write had followed me from my teen years. And many decades later I could ignore it no longer; I had stories to tell. So, I experimented and penned some short stories. Some of them worked, but often, I didn’t like the way the words resisted my intentions. In fact, some of the writing was plain awful. I may have wanted to tell stories, but I had no skill or style to tell them with.

After a year or so of writing every day and then finally submitting, a few pieces were actually published, which encouraged me to keep going. And it went on like that for a while, writing and submitting. One day I wrote a piece, a scene between an insurance adjuster and a woman making a fake accident claim, which ended up as mostly dialogue. When I reread it the next day, I though, “Hey, this doesn’t stink.” He was there to catch her in her lies, and she was playing the victim. There was this banter between the characters, each meaning something different than what their words were saying. Under the surface, there was this tension to the exchange — and it tripped a switch in me. I had found something new in my writing. And soon a style started to reveal itself.

I continued with the short stories, allowing skill and the style to evolve, and as they did, more of the pieces were accepted for publication. My confidence grew and so did the motivation to write a novel. 

Some of the ingredients:

I’m driven by instinct, not rules. I know the rules, but I’m not afraid to bend them, reveling in the freedom of playing with the words without restriction. And I stay open to new ways of expression. 

Failure’s not fatal, unless you’re a character in one of my books.

Long and eloquent can be beautiful, but mostly I tend to keep descriptions to the bare essentials, just enough to give the reader what they need. And that can be challenging after unearthing a goldmine of researched material for a novel, especially the historical ones. I’ve honed a sense for what to put in and what to leave behind, because too much will slow the pace and then I risk boring the reader. Okay, that’s one hard rule: never bore the reader.

Being aware of pace doesn’t mean I go at a heart-pounding rate from page one. Sometimes it’s good to linger, even to slow it down if a scene is better for it. 

Generally, I like to come into a scene late and leave early, with a little hook at the end of chapters to keep the reader engaged.

When I’m writing, I know it’s working when it’s like I’m watching life unfold, visualizing every moment of every scene.

Before I began writing, I upped my skills by studying my way through a stack of grammar texts. Of course, anyone who’s read my stuff can tell you I don’t adhere to much of what I learned. I go for style over grammar rules most of the time — although it’s key to know the rules and when I’m breaking them.

Much of what I write is from the point of view of a character, and there’s always plenty of dialogue. So, the words have to be their own, and most of the marginals and criminal types in my novels wouldn’t know a dangling participle if they tripped over one. So, I’m never likely to hear one of my character’s saying, “At whom shall I point my gun?”

What I’ve learned and unlearned so far has come from the practice of writing, writing and more writing, fueled by the desire to just keep writing, writing and writing.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Dietrich Kalteis is the award-winning author of Ride the Lightning (bronze medal winner, 2015 Independent Publisher Book Awards, for best regional fiction), The Deadbeat Club, Triggerfish, House of Blazes (silver medal winner, 2017 Independent Publisher Book Awards, for best historical fiction), Zero Avenue, Poughkeepsie Shuffle, and Call Down the Thunder. His novel The Deadbeat Club has been translated to German, entitled Shootout, and 50 of his short stories have also been published internationally. Cradle of the Deep is his eighth published work. He lives with his family on Canada’s West Coast.