Thursday, January 22, 2009

Writing in present tense


I have always harbored a prejudice against books written in present tense. Just something about it bugged me. Then I ran across Timothy Hallinan and his new series featuring expatriate travel writer Poke Rafferty. Poke (or Tim) chose Bangkok as his stomping grounds, and he haunts the seamy underbelly of the Thai capital.

I reached the end of the first chapter of the first book, A Nail Through the Heart, before I realized it was written in the present tense. Tim Hallinan does it seamlessly.

I recently finished the second in the series, The Fourth Watcher, which brings in more of Poke’s family background. Talk about dysfunctional families, you ain’t seen nothing yet. His immediate circle includes fianceĆ© Rose, a former go-go dancer in Patpong Road, where bucks or baht will buy you anything, and adopted daughter Miaow, a waif he rescued off the street.

Past experience added to the intrigue of the setting as I spent a month traveling in Southeast Asia with my then-wife, son, and Korean daughter-in-law. That was back in 1987 when my son had just completed a tour of duty with an Army Special Forces team assigned to Thailand. We visited Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, and The Philippines.

The character Rafferty’s name brought to mind Raffles Hotel in Singapore, where the Singapore Sling was invented. He’s much more complicated than the drink. The Bangkok descriptions reminded me of walking through the city on a Sunday morning, at times pushing it to keep pace with my son, a two-mile cross-country runner. Plus marveling at the dissonance of travel sounds while cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, and assorted wheeled vehicles dodged about through hairbreadth holes in the traffic flow.

Tim Hallinan’s descriptions are not lengthy. In fact, most are quite brief. Pithy would be a good label. They paint a colorful picture in a few words. Like this image of Rose’s friend clutching a brown paper bag full of money:

“Peachy is staring at the bag as though it has a red digital countdown on its side, signaling the number of seconds before the world ends.”

Or this one:

“The man nearest Rafferty also has a gun in his hand, a tiny popgun just big enough to die from.”

The books are thrillers and full of suspense, but it’s the characters, including the city of Bangkok, that keep the story shining with brilliance and unputdownableness (so I made that one up; I can be creative, too).

As you might have guessed, Tim divides his time about half in the States (he hails from Los Angeles) and half in Southeast Asia, primarily Thailand and Cambodia. He also teaches writing and has a wealth of information on learning the craft under Writers’ Resources at his website: www.timothyhallinan.com.

11 comments:

Christina E. Rodriguez said...

I often enjoy the sense of immediacy when reading a book in the present tense. You're correct that it has to be done well, though.

Marvin D. Wilson said...

Present tense works for me. If done well. What's jarring is switching back and forth from past to present - especially within the same chapter. Too abrupt.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I don't mind which tense a book is in as long as it reads well. I also enjoyed my visit to the Raffles Hotel.

Jane Kennedy Sutton
Author of The Ride
http://janekennedysutton.blogspot.com/

Bluestocking said...

I find present tense confusing. And when they switch back and forth- well it nearly makes me scream.

Chester Campbell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chester Campbell said...

Thanks for the comments. Maybe books that switch from present to past and back is what soured me on the style before. Tim stays in present tense all the way, and, as I said, it didn't bother me at all. Like Christina, Marvin and Jane said, it has to be done well to stand up.

By the way, Tim is a great guy. He spoke to our Sisters in Crime chapter and chatted with us at length during dinner.

Katie Hines said...

Chester, I've read a few books in present tense, too, most recently one of Patricia Cornwell's. Although it bugged me at first, she did it quite well, and I enjoyed the book a lot.

Bob Sanchez said...

I share your discomfort with the present tense, although when it's done very well, I don't mind.

I love that description of "a tiny popgun just big enough to die from."

Bob Sanchez
http://bobsanchez1.blogspot.com

Chester Campbell said...

Tim writes some great lines, Bob. He has a new book in the series coming out around June, I think.

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