Imitating the Masters: How to Develop Character and Tone Through Imitation

Writing imitations of work that you admire is a great way to stretch your writing skills and improve your mastery of writing techniques. Here's an example of how it's done using Tana French's In the Woods.
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Writing imitations of work that you admire is a great way to stretch your writing skills and improve your mastery of writing techniques. (For more on the benefits of writing imitations, read Writing Exercise: 3 Reasons to Write Imitations of Your Favorite Authors.)

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The following is an imitation of In the Woods by Tana French, the first novel in her Dublin Murder Squad series. In each novel, the perspective character must investigate a murder that somehow hits close to home and brings up their past. In the Woods focuses Detective Rob Ryan’s investigation of a murder of a young girl in the same woods where, as a child, he was temporarily lost with his two best friends. He was the only one to return—with ripped clothing, blood in his shoes, and no memory of the events of the day.

The novel is written as a reflection from the perspective of Ryan, and details focus on what is visible, the tangible clues that evoke memories. Key to the novel's tone, however, is that these memories remain hazy, muddled by the unreliability of human memory and an individual’s subjective interpretation of events, and the clues don’t lead to conclusions but to character development.

This imitation demonstrates a similar attempt to outline the main character through her reactions to facing her past while moving the plot forward. This is a skill worth practicing and extending to your own writing so that you can integrate backstory without relying solely on flashbacks or lengthy info dumps.

Disclaimer: I am not Tana French; anyone familiar with the style of Tana French likely can find multiple discrepancies between our styles, even though this piece represents an attempt to mirror hers. In addition, this was written as a practice exercise, and is therefore a bit rough. (Click each annotation number to view the footnote.)

Imitation of In the Woods by Tana French

I went to collect the box on a Tuesday afternoon in May. I remember that specifically [1] because it was the day after my father’s funeral and I hadn’t yet headed back to the city. There was already a van in the driveway when I got there so I parked on the street near the mailbox. I never wear heels, so I got out and walked straight across the grass to the workers standing near the house. The upturned roots of the old oak stood out starkly against the backdrop of climbing roses on a white wall.

“You the one who used to live here?” asked the man who seemed to be directing the operation. I looked up at the house. I hadn’t been back since we moved away when I was ten [2], and I felt a tightening in my chest as I saw that my childhood home looked newer now than in my memory of it. The roof had clearly been re-shingled, and the white paint was neither peeling nor faded. I don’t know if it’s because we had just buried my father, but the sight of the digging and of our old house, new again and no longer ours, made it difficult for me to speak for a few moments. I twisted the strap of my purse between my hands. [3]

“Yes,” I said. “You found something?”

“When we were digging up the roots. The tree was still good, you know, but whoever was in charge when it was planted wasn’t thinking. It was much too close to the house, and those roots were starting to cause problems with the foundation. I always hate cutting down a live tree, but sometimes you have to because of the roots, you know? The job’s longer than it should be, too, because we have to be careful not to damage the house. I’m Mike, by the way.” [4] He smiled apologetically, holding out his hand. I shook it. I wondered if he felt he had to apologize before getting to the point of my visit because he supposed I would care that it was gone. “Anyway, this morning when we first upturned the stump, we found this box underneath. Once we brushed off some of the dirt we saw your name written on the front in kid’s handwriting. I have two girls under ten myself, you know, so I thought it might be fun to try and return it. We couldn’t find the other kid, but you were pretty easy to look up since your parents still live in the area. Lived, sorry. I’m sorry about your father.” He peered at me anxiously, blinking too often. I nodded to show him that I was fine. “The box is over by the front door,” he said, pointing at the steps. [5]

I thanked him and walked over to the box. It was about two feet long. I couldn’t remember burying any box at the foot of the oak, and the hole for this one would have required more strength and patience than possessed by a single child [6]. The writing on the top verified that it was mine. It said, in handwriting that I recognized from the bottom of the school art projects my mother had decided to drag out after the funeral, “This Belongs to Rachel Elizabeth Cooper, age 9 & Andrew Walters, age 8. If found, DO NOT OPEN. You will be very sorry if you do.” I didn’t remember having any friends named Andrew or Andy, or even Drew. [7] The workers, apparently uninterested in the treasures of two young kids, had obeyed our instructions. I got out my car keys and cut the tape keeping the box closed and opened it, dirt cascading down the side of the lid.

It was packed full of various items pushed in at odd angles, smaller toys filling in the spaces left by bulkier objects. Many of the toys looked unfamiliar. I pulled out a Lego pirate and a Matchbox car and set them next to me on the concrete. One of the larger items was a walkie-talkie. My mother had been angry at one point when we couldn’t find both walkie-talkies in the pair, failing to understand that the point of walkie-talkies was to keep them separate. I sifted through the rest, finding nothing that prompted any sense of nostalgia and nothing interesting at all until I reached the bottom. My fingers trembled slightly as I picked up a red notebook emblazoned with the face of Hello Kitty. My diary, I thought. [8] My heart raced and my hands clenched around the book, as if I were waiting for a rollercoaster to begin its first, slow ascent up the big hill and I was holding on for dear life. I was in no mood to reminisce on the insipid prattlings of my youth—I had enough of that with my mother the night before [9]—but I felt an itch somewhere at the edge of my memory and opened its cover. [10]

[1] Reflection on events, demonstrates that the character feels a need to defend the reliability of her memory.

[2] Character backstory integrated into the current events. Detective Ryan, the main character in In the Woods, also returns to a past scene because of the current plot.

[3] French’s protagonists have to adjust perspectives of places and people that live within their memories when they’re confronted by current realities.

[4] The people who find the bodies in French’s novels often take longer than the detective would wish to get to the point.

[5] Exposition in the form of a debriefing. In French’s novels, the detective protagonist would receive this type of background from crime-scene techs after arriving but before beginning their own investigation.

[6] The event in Det. Ryan’s childhood includes several details that are apparently inexplicable, especially since the main players were children. This detail is a small nod to that.

[7] This “Andrew” was at one time important to the main character, but she has no memory of him; in In the Woods, Ryan struggles to remember an event involving his childhood best friends.

[8] This sifting through items directly recalls a scene in which Det. Ryan searches through evidence related to his past.

[9] French’s characters often have little patience for their family members.

[10] This feeling—“an itch somewhere at the edge of my memory”—is characteristic of the tone throughout French’s novels, and especially throughout In the Woods.

Have you read In the Woods? What characteristics do you see as prominent in French’s writing style? What aspects of her writing would be useful for you to practice?

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