When we look through past years of student evaluations about instructor Dennis Palumbo, some comments consistently come up:
“Humorous and personable.”
“Extremely knowledgeable and intelligent.”
One former student put it this way:
“Mr. Palumbo was grounded, experienced, and the most unpretentious produced writer I’ve ever met. I want him in my family.”
After a taking an extended hiatus from teaching in the Writers’ Program, we’re lucky that Dennis is returning this summer to teach an upcoming seminar called Taking the Mystery Out of Writing Mysteries.
Dennis is a fiction writer, former screenwriter, and a licensed psychotherapist with an active practice who won the UCLA Extension Instructor of the Year award in 1989. He took some time to share his thoughts on teaching and his upcoming class.
Your one-day seminar this summer explores the key elements to writing a good whodunit. In your own work, what has been the most challenging element of writing mysteries?
Initially, years ago, the hardest element was the plotting. Then, as I grew more confident as a writer (fueled, in great part, by my years as a screenwriter, which requires diligent attention to plot and structure), I discovered that equally important to a good mystery is creating strong, relatable characters. Henry James famously said, “Plot is characters under stress,” and this dictum is never more apparent than when devising powerful, involving mystery and crime stories.
In fact, I’ve found that when you strive to develop interesting characters, who are struggling with relatable emotions—fear, envy, ambition, lust, etc.–the way they intersect helps build the foundation of the plot. Just as the world they inhabit suggests things like motive, means of commiting the crime, etc. For example, a used car dealer probably doesn’t know how to get hold of an undetectable poison to commit murder, but he certainly knows how to sabotage a car’s brakes. (Or, even more believable, how to blackmail a mechanic to do it for him.)
Mystery writers need to remember: crime stems from strong emotions, and strong emotions stem from interpersonal conflict. Kinda like life.
As a licensed psychotherapist specializing in creative issues, what are some things from your psychotherapy practice that you bring into your teaching? What about to your writing?
After 19 years counseling writers who struggle with issues like writer’s block, procrastination, and fear of rejection—not to mention anxiety and depression—I think I bring to my teaching both a real understanding of the difficulties of the writer’s life, as well as some solid tools for addressing those problems. Moreover, I try in my workshops to help writers understand that their struggles with writing don’t indicate anything negative or inadequate about them: every writer struggles sometimes, even the most successful ones, and the ability to tolerate and integrate these feelings of doubt and insecurity is the true hallmark of a professional writer.
Regardless, let me assure the reader that despite my many years as both a therapist and a professional writer, I come up against the same fears and doubts as any other writer. Except that now I just see them as part of the creative process, part of who I am when I’m writing, and trust in my craft as a writer. Most of the time.
For those students who may not be familiar with your teaching or with your work, what is it that you’d like students to know about your courses? What would you like students to take away from your courses?
I’d like students to know that my workshops are interactive, lively and combine solid information with good in-class writing exercises. Also, because of my experience as both a writer and a therapist who counsels writers, I bring a unique perspective to whatever personal issues they might be grappling with that are impeding their work.
In terms of what I’d like a student to take away from the course, the number one thing is a belief that he or she is enough, right now, to be the writer he or she wants to be. That you don’t have to be smarter, more experienced, or related to some bigwig in TV, movies or publishing to be a success. That you just have to write your truth, and work hard at it. In other words, as a colleague of mine once said, just keep giving them you, until you is what they want.
What’s your best advice for those trying to publish within the mystery genre.
Read what’s out there, just to get a general sense of what the industry’s publishing, but don’t try to slavishly emulate it. Now is not the time to write a novel like The Da Vinci Code. That trend is over. Which means, it’s a mistake to try to follow trends. I believe your best bet is to mine your own life, your own passions and interests, and then write the kind of story you’d like to read.
For example, in my new collection of mystery short stories, From Crime to Crime, most of the tales are about a group of hapless amateur sleuths based on real people–a therapist (me) and three of my friends. Our relationship to each other, how we interact under stress, our humor and personal foibles, formed the foundation of the story-telling. Though the mystery stories are of course fictional, I was curious as to how we would react if we stumbled upon crimes and tried to solve them.
Who is your favorite mystery author of all time?
Too many authors to name, across a range of types of mystery stories. Conan Doyle, Hammett and Chandler, Colin Dexter, Patrica Highsmith, Ed McBain, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, Robert Crais. We literally don’t have the space!
Where do you find inspiration for your own writing?
Everywhere. How people interact with each other. My own passions, fears, concerns, interests. To be frank, however, I don’t put much stock in inspiration. I think waiting and hoping to be inspired is a drain on a writer’s time and energy. You’re better served, I believe, by hard work and striving to cultivate imagination, which, unlike inspiration, is available to everyone and doesn’t depend on divine intervention!
Mae Respicio is the Program Representative in Creative Writing, Onsite & Online.