"How do you write about a world you haven't lived in?"
This is the question posed by my guest author, Christina Hoag, a journalist-turned-novelist as she discusses her latest thriller...
From the official blurb:
Los Angeles homeboy Mags is desperate to get out of gang life, but the only exit is through sacrificing everything – and everyone - he loves. He must make the difficult choice, and soon, or have it made for him. Based on extensive interviews with street gang members, this noir crime novel explores a poor immigrant family’s struggle to survive in a gritty world where gangs appear to offer youth a way out but instead ensnare them in a tangle of deceit and betrayal.
Just think how boring literature would be if writers just wrote what they knew. You could basically throw out historical and science fiction, for starters, plus a whole lot else. Just how many authors, screenwriters and TV writers have been serial killers?
But how do you write about a world you haven’t lived in? Write what you’re passionate about, what intrigues you, and prepare to do a lot of research. You’ll also need your novelist’s imagination, a healthy dollop of intuition to fill in the gaps, and plenty of confidence that you can pull it off.
My novel “Skin of Tattoos” is about an immigrant family who leaves a war zone of guerrillas in Central America and ends up in a war zone of gangs in Central Los Angeles. Much to his family’s dismay, the protagonist Mags gets involved in a gang with some inevitable consequences, such as a prison stint. When he gets out, things really go sideways for both himself and his family.
How did I delve into this foreign world? First, I should say that I was a journalist, and the idea was sparked by my interviews with former gang members in El Salvador for a magazine story. I lived in Latin America for nine years so I knew that culture pretty well and speak Spanish.
Years later, when I moved to Los Angeles, I worked for The Associated Press and my urban affairs beat involved writing about inner-city neighborhoods. I remembered my idea for a novel about the trap of gang life, and was amassing knowledge.
I interviewed people involved with gangs in various aspects, plus people who were directly affected by gang activity. One of those interviews led to a nonfiction book about community peacekeeping in gang neighborhoods. “Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence” involved even more interviews with experts and former gang members. As I drove around these neighborhoods as a reporter, I absorbed details like the proverbial sponge.
To get more personal details about this culture, I read every memoir written by former gang members I could find. They were a fantastic firsthand source. I read books about gangs themselves, devoured news stories, watched movies and TV shows about gangs, which were great as visual and dialogue aids. I found online dictionaries of gang slang.
I stopped and started the novel many times, repeatedly losing my confidence as I began to realize the depth of the venture I’d taken on. But in the end, I persisted, and I’m glad I did even though it took years to finish the project. I love that book and all the characters.
Maybe I’ll even do a sequel.
Christina Hoag is a former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press who’s been threatened by a murderer’s girlfriend, had her laptop searched by Colombian guerrillas and phone tapped in Venezuela, hidden under a car to evade Guatemalan soldiers, posed as a nun to get inside a Caracas jail, interviewed gang members, bank robbers, thieves and thugs in prisons, shantytowns and slums, not to forget billionaires and presidents, some of whom fall into the previous categories. Kirkus Reviews praised Christina as a “talented writer” with a “well crafted debut” in Skin of Tattoos (Martin Brown Publishing, 2016), a noir crime novel. Her thriller Girl on the Brink (Fire and Ice YA, 2016) was named to Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2016 YA list. She also writes nonfiction, co-authoring Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence (Turner Publishing, 2014), a groundbreaking book on violence intervention used in several universities. Christina makes her home in Los Angeles and lives on the web at www.christinahoag.com.
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.