Saturday, July 31, 2010

Why We Write

Ever wonder why people choose to write what they do? It’s very interesting to see how other writers work. It seems to me that the authors whose works stand the test of time write what they love regardless of the market. When I was a baby author, I was very conscious of what was selling, and always trying to jump on the bandwagon. It didn’t take me long to learn that it can’t be done. The bandwagon is always miles down the road before you can get your bags packed. In fact, I only began to have any success selling my fiction when I forgot about the market and began to write only what interests me personally. That’s why I write historical mysteries. I’m a lifelong lover of historical fiction.

If I wanted to broaden my popular appeal, I’d use a modern setting instead of a historical setting. But I love to go to a place and live there for a while. I love to travel, and that desire to explore the unfamiliar which intrigues me about exotic locales is the same one that fascinates me about exotic eras. To me, reading historical fiction is time travel without a time machine. It’s a cheap vacation to the past. William Faulkner said that the past isn’t dead The past isn't even past. Sometimes, in doing research for these books, I am amazed at how the same things keep happening over and over again. We never learn. This is a sad human fact, but great for a novelist. You can use the consequences of a historical event to make a point or comment about something that’s going on right now. You can do the same thing with science fiction - comment on the present by writing about the future.

If I were more concerned about appealing to the market, I would set my historicals in Tudor England. There are legions of people who would read a book about Tudor England whether they had ever heard of the author or not. Why choose Oklahoma, for God’s sake? Because I know and love the place and the people in my bones. I learned early in my life that most people don’t know much about OK, and what they do know is wrong. And all I can say about that is “Curse you, John Steinbeck.” Oklahoma was a place like no other in the world in the 1910s. It was incredibly rich - there was oil and cattle and land. It was poor and lawless at the same time, because people were coming from all over the world with nothing, trying to make their fortunes however they could. It was still the Wild West, and yet because of the money, it was the most cutting edge modern in the cities. It was an amazing racial mixture for that time. It had been the Indian Nations, after all. The Oklahoma Indians were not like the Indians in other parts of the country at that time. They had run their own country for seventy-five years. They were used to being in charge of themselves, and they didn’t much appreciate all these whites flooding in from other parts of the country with their unsavory ideas about the native people. From the beginning, OK Indians have been much more integrated with the general society and much more self-determining than anywhere else in the U.S. Right after statehood, OK was the most socialist state in the Union. The labor movement was very big there, and they didn’t cotton to the U.S. getting involved in the “rich man’s war” in 1917. It’s a historical novelist’s dream.

Okay, Donis, you may ask, if you’re so into history, why not write a straight historical novel. Why make it a mystery on top of everything?

I will tell you, Dear Reader. For me, a mystery is quite a satisfying form. A mystery novel is an archetypical story A mystery novel is a hero quest. Evil is done. Our hero goes on a quest to right the wrong. The hero confronts the villain and they do battle. Right triumphs over wrong and balance is restored. Justice is done in the end. It’s satisfying. But more importantly to me, the interesting thing about a mystery is not whodunnit, or even how they done it, but why they done it. Mysteries give the writer a very good forum for exploring human nature, why on earth people do the things they do. How is it that some people, when faced with a particular situation, rise to the occasion, sometimes in a truly heroic manner, but others sink to the depths of cowardice, heartlessness, weakness, thoughtlessness, or stupidity. Sometimes a good person is simply backed into a corner and can see no way out other than to commit and act he would never do under ordinary circumstances.

Have I narrowed my perspective audience as much as I possibly can? Maybe. But my stories have a lot of meaning for me, and I think my books are the better for it.

3 comments:

Vicki Delany said...

Nice post, Donis. I can tell by reading your books that you love the time and the people.

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