Racism in Fiction or Mike on His Soapbox

Recently, one of my readers posted a review on Goodreads questioning why I had set my story in 1952. The racism and homophobia of the era made her feel uncomfortable. Guilty as charged your honor. If your family is anything like mine, then you have a parent or uncle that was racist or homophobic. Racism and homophobia were rampant then. I specifically set the story in that era because I wondered how ordinary folks in 1940s or 1950s dealt with those prejudices. And in turn how do people of color and gay and lesbians dealt with those pressure. If you write stories set in that time, then some of your characters will be racist and homophobic. Consider Hemingway’s The Killers.

“Hey, bright boy,” Max said to Nick. “You go around on the other side of the counter with your boy friend.”

“What’s the idea?” Nick asked.

“There isn’t any idea.”

“You better go around, bright boy,” Al said. Nick went around behind the counter.

“What’s the idea?” George asked.

“None of your damn business,” Al said. “Who’s out in the kitchen?”

“The nigger.”

“What do you mean the nigger?”

“The nigger that cooks.”

“Tell him to come in.”

“What’s the idea?”

“Tell him to come in.”

“Where do you think you are?”

“We know damn well where we are,” the man called Max said. “Do we look silly?”

“You talk silly,” Al said to him. “What the hell do you argue with this kid for? Listen,” he said to George, “tell the nigger to come out here.”

“What are you going to do to him?”

“Nothing. Use your head, bright boy. What would we do to a nigger?”

George opened the slit that opened back into the kitchen. “Sam,” he called. “Come in here a minute.”

The door to the kitchen opened and the nigger came in. “What was it?” he asked. The two men at the counter took a look at him.

“All right, nigger. You stand right there,” Al said.

Sam, the nigger, standing in his apron, looked at the two men sitting at the counter. “Yes, sir,” he said. Al got down from his stool.

“I’m going back to the kitchen with the nigger and bright boy,” he said. “Go on back to the kitchen, nigger. You go with him, bright boy.” The little man walked after Nick and Sam, the cook, back into the kitchen. The door shut after them. The man called Max sat at the counter opposite George. He didn’t look at George but looked in the mirror that ran along back of the counter. Henry’s had been made over from a saloon into a lunch counter.

The Killers was written in 1927, but the same almost casual racism was still prevalent in the 1950s – well,  not that racism is casual. It’s very hurtful to African Americans, but racism back then had became so ingrained in American culture that is was taken for granted. In The Killers, the bad guys don’t want to hurt Sam.

“Nothing. Use your head, bright boy. What would we do to a nigger?”

The racial epithets were their manner of speaking. Back then, many white folks didn’t question racism, it was the way of the world.

In Harkness, the protagonist fails to see an African American, Thomas Stewart as a real person. Thomas cries out, trying to make Harkness see him for who he is.

“I’m not a complication,” he said, waving his arms. “I’m more than a complication.”

An effective way for writers to combat prejudice is to shine a bright light on it. Make people aware of the impact. In the first half of the 20th century, thousands of rural communities from Ohio to Oregon to Arizona had enacted ‘sundown’ laws. People of color couldn’t remain within the city or county limits past sundown.

Here’s an excerpt from Harkness.

We ran back roads looking for signs of Joey McIntyre.  Addison nestled in between us with his ugly muzzle propped in Stewart’s crotch. After a couple of hours of eating dust and enduring doggy farts, we headed back into town. At the city limits, I pulled up and stopped.  The sign read:  “No Colored Folk within the City Limits After Sunset.”

“I don’t believe it,” Stewart said.  “You folks up here are crazy.”

“Not my sign, not my law.” I tried not to feel guilty.  “City ordinance, so I don’t have to enforce it, but I figured you should know what you’ve fallen into here.  You should have listened to me when I told you to turn around.”

“This ain’t right,” Stewart said.

“I agree, but lots of cities and towns in the West have sunset laws. The laws were enacted right after the first war when black folk started to move up north looking for work.  Lots of white folk got nervous.  Funny part is, most folk in these parts have never seen a negro before.”

 “Nothing funny about it,” Stewart replied.

The law made Harkness uncomfortable, but not enough to challenge the status quo. People are flawed. To be realistic, our characters must have those same flaws.

Hoping to redeem Harkness, I have him regret his stand in my novel in progress, Thunderhead.

“Not you.” She jerked back as if I had slapped her. My body weaved and I put my hand on her desk to steady myself. “Back when Coach Conroy rampaged through this country, I stopped a Negro man just passing through. Family man. He was heading up to Portland to work in the shipyards. Once he got established, he was going to move his family up there. Nice feller, real nice feller. Expect his family was just as nice, too. He would have fit right in here. Been solid in the community. He’s the kind of feller that anchors a town. But I had to move him along, hit him up along side the head with my sap and run him out of town like some petty vagrant. You know why?” My hands fluttered about and my will couldn’t still them.

Love looked frightened. “Wrong color.”

“Exactly. Wrong color. Some redneck would have burned him out. Dagos and micks and polacks and jerries can live in Barnestown, but not niggers or spics or japs. Why? Because they’re the wrong color. So, why do you all tell folks that Bull’s an Eskimo?” When she didn’t answer, I said, “Because he’s an Injun. A god-fearing Injun and we sure can’t have them kind of folks around here, even if they are good people.” I gulped air as if I were drowning. “There are good God-fearing folks here, but sometimes I hate this town and most everyone in it.”

The racism and homophobia in Harkness are an accurate reflection of the times. To my critic, I can only say that things may have changed, but our society is still racist. Oh, the redneck assholes are cleverer in expressing their hate, but the effects are just as devastating. Set in the present day, my novel would still have elements of racism and homophobia.

To writers out there, you need to stand up for what they believe. If readers feel uncomfortable about your prose, then you’re doing something right.

I will now descend from my soapbox.



Book Recommendation Friday: Writing Craft Books

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably got at least a few writing books in your library. If you’re like me, you have a whole slew of them. The titles of mine range from Goldberg to King to Block to whoever is popular at the moment. Many established writers, whether they are hacks or brilliant artists, cobble together a book about the writing process. I’ll try to separate the wheat from the chaff and recommend two books for your reference library.

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway 


The acknowledged seminal textbook for creative fiction is Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Burroway provides guidance for both beginning students and the experienced writer.

Her method is to discuss key elements, provide examples from literature and give the writer exercises for further exploration of the topics. Main topics include:

  • The writing process
  • Story form and structure
  • Point of view
  • Comparison
  • Theme
  • Revision

The writing is dense, but this is a textbook, not a touchy feely treatise on your inner writer. It’ll take some work to find what you need, but it’s worth it. If you’re beginning your journey as an author, you’ll want to read the book cover to cover; if you’re an old hand, pick and choose the passages. Think about what is your sticking point when it comes to the narrative, and explore. Chances are Burroway has it covered.

A word of warning, this sucker ain’t cheap. The current edition goes for a heart-stopping $82.47 on Amazon. The good news is that the fifth edition is just as valuable to you as the 8th. I picked up a used copy of the sixth edition for a little over ten bucks. Check Amazon or eBay.



What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter

A little less intense, but just as valuable for developing your craft is What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers.  The pattern of instruction is the same as with Burroway: discussion, examples, and exercises, but the focus is more on exercises than instruction. Some sample exercises:

  • First sentences: beginning in the middle
  • What do your characters want?
  • Journal keeping for writers
  • Speech flavor, or sounding real
  • Magnifying conflict
  • The inner life of characters

I find this book most helpful when I don’t have a specific project in the hopper, when I’m casting around looking to develop a specific skill or just keep my writing juices flowing.

Disclaimer: Pam Painter advised me when I studied at Vermont College. She’s a wonderful writer and great teacher. I’ll admit I’m biased.

Like Writing Fiction, a new copy of the current edition of this book is quite dear, $53.39 on Amazon. When I studied with Pam, she recommended an earlier edition. “The one with the yellow cover” is how she put it. You can find that new copy of that edition, the first, for around $11 on Amazon. Used copies can be had for a song.

Buy it, use it, live it. Okay, enough touchy, feely stuff for the moment.




Outlining the Novel

Outlining the Novel

Have you ever tried to outline your novel using roman numerals? Bleah! Unless you’re a very special person, it isn’t going to work. I’ve tried, I’ve failed miserably. The method isn’t flexible enough to encompass the complexity of a longer work. I had pretty much given up on outlining. I’ve been hacking away on my next novel, Thunderhead: A High Desert Mystery, doing well, too. My manuscript is up to 26,000 words, 116 manuscript pages. A good start or so I thought.

My good friend, Lisa Alber, has been reading my rough draft chapters as they are finished. Lisa is a crackerjack writer and she’s working on a mystery novel of her own set in Ireland. Lisa’s response to Chapter 3: “Nice start, but it’s episodic.” That sent chills down my spine. Editors and agents often tagged my early fiction efforts the same way. “God,” I thought, “she must be wrong”, but looking over my manuscript I realized she was right. The story hopped from one pivotal scene to the next. The core plot was there, but as Lisa put it, the connective tissue wasn’t. I had focused on the central mystery and the resulting adventure, but had left out the human stuff. Crap! I’d have to go back and layer in the complex interactions between Harkness and the people in the county that would flesh out the narrative. Make my narrative real and accessible to the reader.

Here’s an example of how I’m attempting to do this:

The original version:

About then, Dick Solus and the volunteer firefighters trooped out of the high school looking grumpy. As Swift had told them, no fire to fight, just smoke in the science room. Solus called for Swift to join them. As he left, Madeline touched him on the back of the arm, between shoulder and elbow, and with her other hand she plucked a tiny piece of lint from his coat. She whispered something in his ear.

“You’d be an interesting man to know, Matthew Harkness,” she said when we were alone.

“So I’ve descended from fabled to interesting. My fall is swift and sure.” The black Plymouth still lurked across the street.

She looked as if she didn’t know what to make of that. “Let me guess your favorite musician.” She tapped her finger on her teeth. “Hank Williams.”

“Sometimes.” Bird Parker played in my imagination. “And you.  Edith Piaf no.” I tapped my teeth in imitation. “Benny Goodman nope, ah, must be Liberace. You’re a Liberace fan.”

And the revision:

About then, Dick Solus and the volunteer firefighters trooped out of the high school looking grumpy. As Swift had told them, no fire to fight, just smoke in the science room.

I opened my mouth to ask a question of Solus, but someone interrupted me.

“Matthew Harkness, you son of a bitch.”

I turned around “Why as I live and breathe, Prudence Knight, you’re a sight for sore eyes. Put on a little weight haven’t you?”

She wound up and slapped me. “You bastard. You knocked me up.” Her eyes spit venom. She looked like a rattler that had swallowed a watermelon.

“Mr. Swift, let me introduce Prudence, the mother of my unborn child.”

“Ma’am.” He touched the brim of his hat. “I must bid adieu, this is where I came in.” Swift strode off, looking more than a little amused.

I wiped a spot of blood from my lips. “Knocked up? It supposed to be a roadhouse rebound weekend with no strings attached.”

“You may have thought that, but things change.”

“It’s been seven months. You never called or wrote. Why now?”

“Can’t sing no more in my condition. My sister said I could stay with her until the baby comes.”

In my revision, I’ve skewed Harkness’ emotional life in a completely new direction. Prudence, a character from the first novel, has returned to town and she’s pregnant, yet another complication for my protagonist. As a result, Madeline Swan, who I had originally planned on being a primary player, has been relegated to minor character status. I knew from the beginning she wasn’t going to be a love interest for Harkness, so this makes more sense. I’m not sure if this works for the reader, but it makes sense for me. The narrative is more complex and has more substance. What I realized after reading Lisa’s comments was that my manuscript was my outline. I’d sketched things out, later I’d have to go back and fill in the blanks.

A while back I bought a copy of Scribner. Nice software, it might be right for you, but it wasn’t for me.  Doing some research, I realized that there are as many forms of novel outlines as there are writers. Gay Talese’s outline looks like this:

And Joseph Heller’s like this:


Detailed: Writer Joseph Heller's outline for 'Catch-22' - the anti-war novel which went on to become one of the best-known books, and phrases, of all time

If you’re worried about outlining, my best advice is find what works for you. Another writing buddy of mine cuts up her stories at the scene breaks, then shuffles them around finding the order that suits her best. Maybe like Heller, you’ll construct a grid, or maybe do creative clustering. Experiment, be daring, discover your own style.

Postscript: Check out Lisa’s blog. She’s got a great novel. Encourage her to get off her thumbs and publish that sucker.


A Clockwork Orange: Book Recommendation Friday


We yeckated back townwards, my brothers, but just outside, not far from what they called the Industrial Canal, we viddied the fuel needle had like collapsed, like our own ha ha ha needles had, and the auto was coughing kashl kashl kashl. Not to worry overmuch, though, because a rail station kept flashing blue — on off on off — just near. The point was whether to leave the auto to be sobiratted by the rozzes or, us feeling like an a hate and murder mood, to give it fair tolchock into the starry waters for a nice heavy loud plesk before the death of the evening. This latter we decided on, so we got out and, the brakes off, all four tolchocked it to the edge of the filthy water that was treacle mixed with human hole products, then one good horrorshow tolchock and in she went.

If you haven’t read A Clockwork Orange, you’re probably wondering what in the hell that passage is about. After a bit of ultraviolence (rape and assault), Alex and his droogs (mates) dispose of their stolen getaway car in a nearby pond.

There you have, in a nutshell, the wonder and frustration of Anthony Burgess’ masterpiece, A Clockwork Orange. After Kubrick’s movie adaptation of the novel came out, I, as an awestruck young man, decided to read the book. Fat chance. The use of invented slang drawn from the Russian language stopped me dead. That earlier edition contained a glossary and I spent hours flipping back and forth trying to discover what Burgess was talking about. I put the novel down.

Twenty some years later while working on my MFA, one of my instructors recommended it. I figured ‘what the hell’ and picked it up again. This time I approached it as I might a trip to a foreign country. I didn’t understand the language, but figured I’d pick it up as I travelled. Things went much better and I got it.

Oddly enough, this novel supports the concept of free will. A prison chaplain in the book sums up Burgess’ position:

When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.

If you’re a writer, read this book an ear for the author’s voice and the narrative  flow.  This book has of the best voices (in my humble opinion) of the 20th Century.

Norton has published a ‘restored edition‘ that adds back in the last chapter which was deleted from the original American edition. You can get it here. Alas, kindle version is not ‘restored’.

Point of View: Part Due

Point of View: A Technique

Most point of view Nazis believe that unless you’re using an omniscient POV, you shall not under pain of death, switch from one third person limited POV to another within one particular scene. That’s the rule. And woe be to the writer who dares switch from first to third person just about any time, but especially in the middle of a scene. Hell and damnation awaits.

Being a crotchety, nonconformist, I make a point of breaking rules. Here’s a scene from my novel in progress, Thunderhead. In it, Harkness visits Roberta Conroy, the wife of a triple murderer.

Shadows from Twelve Mile Table had just reached the boundaries of the Conroy Ranch as I drove up the dirt road to the ranch house. I figured Roberta had probably heard my truck and I waited until she rounded the corner from the backside of the barn.

“Afternoon Sheriff.” She held a pry bar in her right hand. An orange-blond collie pup pranced behind her. Addison hopped through the open passenger side window and scampered up to the pup. The Coach had murdered her last dog.

“Howdy Roberta,” I said.

“You get that wiener dog fixed yet?” Aunt Effie would have called Roberta big-boned, not fat, just a big woman with a lot of meat. She’d helped me when her husband went on a murderous rampage.

“That pup looks a little too young to bear a litter.” The two dogs wrestled in the dust.

“Some men never think a woman’s too young.”

“Fair enough. Place looks good.”

She nodded. “Building a chicken coop. You like to see it?”

She led me to the far side of the barn where she worked on framing out a small coop, six feet by 8. “Not the best,” she said. “I’m still learning how to hammer a nail.”

“Right fine job in my opinion.” I rubbed my hand along the smooth two by four stud. The sawdust stuck to my fingers. The fresh lumber smelled sweet. “I can’t hammer a nail straight if my life depends on it.”

“Good thing you’re a straight shooter, then. Hand me my hammer.”

“Good thing.” I gave it to her and she used it to nail in a vertical stud in three swift, hard strokes. Finished, she handed it back and used a level to check her work.

“You’ll need a rooster to get them hens to lay proper,” I said. I wondered how a good strong, silent woman like her had ended up with a knucklehead like the Coach. Even after he tried to kill me, I instinctively trusted her.

“Darrell down at the Feed and Seed is giving me a deal on a rooster and six laying hens. Once they’re set, I’ll grow more hens from the chicks.” She nodded as if satisfied with the plumb of the stud. She motioned for the hammer again and I handed it to her.

Roberta hammered in the last nail, the shock of the blows tingling her palm. Perfect, she thought. Why did he come out here? What does he want from me? Not sex, I’ll never lie with another man. He knows that.

“What are you going to do with all them eggs?” he said. His face was drawn, cheeks hollowed as if the burden he carried was too much.

“Money’s tight without the Coach’s paycheck. The Independent Market buys eggs for a dime a dozen.”

“There’s jobs in town.” Tippie, her new collie, scooted out into the field. Addison looked up at Harkness and he said, “Go.” The dachshund scampered after her.

“No one will hire a murderer’s wife,” Roberta said. An old anger simmered in her chest.

“That’s why I’m here,” he said. He glanced over his shoulder to the west, away from Twelve Mile Table. “Something’s stirring. Something I can’t handle alone. You’re someone I can trust. The county will pay you something. Not much, but something for your trouble.”

He trusts me. Roberta felt pride overshadowing the anger. “The money isn’t important. I’ll do what I can.”

“Good. You still have that cache of arms your husband had hid away.”

“What’s left of them after your tussle up on the Table.”

“Keep them safe. We may need ‘em. Someone will contact you soon.”

He whistled for his dog, said his good-byes. She stood in front of her barn and watched as he drove down the lane, dust kicking up behind his pickup. There’s danger about and he turns to me. Fancy that. She had to smile.

Back in the early 80s, I attended a writer’s workshop at the Haystack Program for the Arts in Cannon Beach, Oregon (alas now defunct). The instructor was a salty old fart named Jack Cady who taught writing at Pacific Lutheran. Salty or not, the guy could write. He told us about a technique for changing POV within a scene. It entailed having one POV character hand an item to another character. Shortly later, the second character hands it back. Eventually, there’s a third handoff and with it, the POV changes from the original person to the second person along with the possession of the item. Clear as mud? He explained it much better.


Jack Cady

Jack Cady

While working on my new novel, I thought I’d try it out Jack probably didn’t mean for some dummy (ahem) to swap from a first person POV to a third, but hey, it’s an experiment. To see this technique in the hands of the master, check out Jack’s collection of shorts, Burning and Other Stores published by the University of Iowa Press. It’s long out of print and not available on e-readers, but you can find it used for a reasonable price. Go ahead and read a real book for a change. It’ll do you good.

From Here to Eternity

Every Friday, I’ll post a book recommendation of a book that not only is worth reading, but a book that will interest to writers. This week it’s From Here to Eternity: The Restored Edition by James Jones.

When Scribners published From Here to Eternity in 1951, it generated a whirlwind of controversy. Some considered the novel profane, others brilliant. Paul Pickrel in the Yale Review described it as “a book that will offend many readers; it contains several sensational situations and enough impolite language to make it unpublishable by the standards of even a decade ago.”

Detractors criticized the writing. They deemed the dialog wooden and the characters shallow. What we didn’t know at the time was that Scribners deleted the juicy parts that deepened the narrative, the four letter expletives and gay sex scenes. Even with a hack and slash job by the publisher, the book still won the National Book Award in 1952 and was the basis of a blockbuster movie released in 1953.

Now, Jones’ Daughter has released a revised edition with the juicy parts added back to the narrative.  Readers can read the book as Jones intended it.

Though many consider it to be a war novel, most of the book occurs during the months preceding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. More than just a war novel, it’s a glimpse of American military and the Hawaiian life from the viewpoint of a grunt GI in those anxious prewar days. Mark me down as one of those who thinks the book is brilliant.

From a writer’s perspective, From Here to Eternity, provides lessons on capturing the dialog, customs and morality of an era. Soldiers, manly men, have sex with gay locals, but don’t consider themselves to be homosexual. For them, it’s just a way to get spending money. Society then was unforgiving when it came to sexual preference.

The bad news is that From Here to Eternity: The Restored Edition is only available as an e-book. The good news is that Amazon has kindle readers for most platforms including Mac, Windows and Android.


Story components: Point of View

Point of View: Who Cares?

While sipping a latte in your local coffee shop on a rainy Saturday morning, you may notice a group of folks at a nearby table, chattering intensely among themselves. “Point of view,” one of them cries half rising from his chair. “Shame!”

“Yeah,” another says, “you can’t do that, it’s a violation of the point of view.”

You’ve stumbled upon a nasty little game writers play. We gather in small packs we call critique groups and play ‘Gotcha’. The object of the game is to ferret out point of view (POV) violations in other member’s stories and soundly chastise those who penned them.

So what exactly is point of view and why is it important? When I attended the Creative Writing program at Vermont College, my instructor likened point of view to a camera. It is the lens through which the author shows or tells us, the reader, the story. No POV, no story. There are many different types of points of view, but modern readers generally only need to be concerned with three: omniscient, first person and third person limited.

Back in the nineteenth century, the omniscient point of view was the rage. In the omniscient POV, the narrator is god-like. She can dip into any character’s mind at any time. She knows all, sees all and flits from character to character as she sees fit.  Here’s an example from Mark Twain’s THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER:

While Tom was eating his supper, and stealing sugar as opportunity offered, Aunt Polly asked him questions that were full of guile, and very deep—for she wanted to trap him into damaging revealments. Like many other simple-hearted souls, it was her pet vanity to believe she was endowed with a talent for dark and mysterious diplomacy, and she loved to contemplate her most transparent devices as marvels of low cunning. Said she:

“Tom, it was middling warm in school, warn’t it?”


“Powerful warm, warn’t it?”


“Didn’t you want to go in a-swimming, Tom?”

A bit of a scare shot through Tom—a touch of uncomfortable suspicion. He searched Aunt Polly’s face, but it told him nothing. So he said:

“No’m—well, not very much.”

The old lady reached out her hand and felt Tom’s shirt, and said:

“But you ain’t too warm now, though.” And it flattered her to reflect that she had discovered that the shirt was dry without anybody knowing that that was what she had in her mind. But in spite of her, Tom knew where the wind lay, now. So he forestalled what might be the next move.

We start this passage firmly in Aunt Polly’s POV, but even then Twain shows us something that Polly can’t know, that Tom is stealing sugar. As the passage progresses, we jump from Polly’s consciousness to Tom’s and back again. Twain plays God here.

In first person POV, ‘I’ serves as the narrator. We’re stuck in the narrator’s consciousness and can’t leave it.  Here in this example from my first novel, HARKNESS: A HIGH DESERT MYSTERY. In it, Sheriff Harkness interviews the mother of a missing girl:

Shacks in Okie town jumbled together in a warren of unmarked rutted roads on the backside of the stockyards just to the west of the main town.  Shirtless boys played in the dust with makeshift toys and stared at me with vacant distrust as I passed.  The Kelly house was no different from the rest, just another tumble-down, tiny one-room house with an outhouse in the back.  Barnes might use a place that size as a garden shed or for a kid’s playhouse someday.  Kate still had a hankering for kids.  I was still working up to taking in a damned wiener dog named Addison.

The Kelly place reminded me of my childhood home—a couple of chickens and a hardscrabble garden out back, almost enough to feed the family, too many people living crammed into a single room, folks always bumping into each other, walls pushing in on us, our greatest dream a moment of privacy.

Virginia’s older sister, sixteen and already out of school, opened the door.  I fumbled for her name, Hope or Charity maybe, so I just called her “Sis” and asked to see her ma. She didn’t seem surprised to see me, just told me to wait on the stoop, yelled for her ma, then disappeared into the house.  Her ma, Esther, a burned-out woman, came outside.  A husk of corn clung to her patched apron.  She wiped her hands on the apron and told me she hadn’t seen Virginia since yesterday morning.

In this passage, we’re firmly in the protagonist’s head. We have full access to his thoughts, feelings and memories. First person POV is visceral, a powerful way to tell a story. The main drawback is that we’re in one person’s head. We only can know what he knows.

In third person limited POV, the ‘I’ is replaced by ‘he’ or ‘she’. Though there’s less immediacy for the writer, she does gain flexibility. The camera can sit firmly inside a character’s head, on her shoulder or even move back for a wider view of the scene. Here’s an example from my work in progress, THUNDERHEAD:

Yellow stained fingers clasped a cigarette and a feeble light from a banker’s lamp cast deep shadows over the sharp angles of the Sheriff’s face. He didn’t look up from his studies. Butts in the glass ashtray twisted into sculpture.

Addison sat up in cardboard box bed, his tail thumping against the side in welcome. “Some watchdog you are,” Harkness said.  “Eddie here could have been bent on mischief even murder and you wag your goddamn tail.” There was a degree of affection in his tone.

“Evening, Eddie,” he said with his head still down. “I’m still on the wagon.”

Dilkes realized that by now Harkness had come to know his tread on the stairs. “One day at a time.”

“Platitudes no me no good.” Harkness looked up, a fevered light shone in his eyes. Dilkes had only seen it once, a few months ago when Harkness hunted the murderer of two teen-aged lovers.

“You asked for me to come. What does you good?

“Information. Give me a report about the sightings of flying saucers up in Portland.”

The quick change in topic almost threw Dilkes, but he recovered. “Over Oaks Park?”

Harkness nodded.

The camera starts with a wide view of the Sheriff’s office, then drills down into Eddie Dilkes’ POV. Here, I’m able to delve down into Dilkes’ deepest thoughts and feelings, or as in this example, stay closer to the surface.

Sometime in the twentieth century, the omniscient POV became passé and writers moved to employing either the first person or third person limited POV. Some critics say this was because modern readers had become more sophisticated in their tastes. I disagree. It isn’t a matter of the reader’s sophistication, but more of trends and the difficulty of doing omniscient POV well. Third person limited is popular now and can be used with just one viewpoint character or for stories told from multiple points of view. Steven King used multiple POV in THE STAND. Tom Clancy made a killing using multiple in his military thrillers.

That’s not to say that omniscient is extinct, but now is mostly confined to literary fiction. Check out Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. It’s great stuff.

 A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta’s chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.

“Holy Mother of God!” Úrsula shouted.

As a writer, one of your first tasks is to determine which POV will work best in your story. Most mysteries and other genre fiction use either first or third limited. For my novel-in-progress, I’m using both. It’s a risk and not for the faint of heart. And as a reader, understanding POV will not only help you in following the narrative, but can give you a clue as to which books are right for you. I hope this article has helped.