Friday, October 07, 2016

What I Write About

Last night I did an exercise suggested by Donna Alward and Nancy Cassidy, the authors of an article in Romance Writers Report (RWR)* about "Finding Your Core Story." Alward and Cassidy encouraged writers in search of their brand to look for the elements that appear in their novels over and over again.

I'm fascinated by marketing -- maybe because I'm not that great at doing it. I don't have the time to do it well or consistently. I'm also not sure how to market in a way that feels comfortable and true to who I am. But I do enjoy reading marketing books. I do research on mass media/popular culture in my other job as a criminal justice professor, so I'm always interested in how a good marketing campaign is developed and implemented.

The exercise recommended by Alward and Cassidy is a writer's version of what branding experts recommend for entrepreneurs and business owners. I found a pen and sat down to list the recurring elements in my fiction writing. I had no problem narrowing down to five: brainy and compassionate female protagonist; multicultural cast of characters; impact of past on present; social issues; ethical dilemmas.

When I thought of these elements as my "core story," I discovered something. In both my Lizzie Stuart series (featuring a crime historian and set in the recent past) and my Hannah McCabe books (police procedural novels set in the near future), the core story is about time/place/people. That sounds obvious, but what is important to me is that I show how my characters have been shaped by the time and place in which they live. Lizzie was shaped by her childhood and teen years in a small town in Kentucky in the late 1960s and 70s. Hannah was shaped by growing up in Albany, New York, an old city coping with rapid change.

As I really thought about this -- about how important the impact of  time and place on my characters is to my stories -- I realized this was what I was missing in my 1939 historical thriller. As I've written in other posts, I've been struggling with the structure of that novel. I have to move the characters from Easter morning 1939 in Washington, D.C. to the New York World's Fair that summer and finally to the premier of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta in December. I've been focusing on that and making minimal progress. This "core story" exercise reminded me that I have been putting the plot before the elements that matter most to me when I'm writing a book.

To make my thriller work, I need to stop what I've been trying to do. I need to go back to those character bios that I did and then put aside. Plot matters in a thriller, but -- for me -- the only thriller I'll ever be able to write needs to be rooted in how my characters are shaped by time and place.I need to allow my characters to think about and comment on their world in 1939. I have to let them respond to what is happening rather than try to move them through the plot.

That is my core story -- people in a time and place responding to extraordinary events in their lives. They are dealing with social issues, responding to ethical dilemmas, and fumbling their way through the relationships in their lives.

Now I understand why I am drawn to stories set in the past or future rather than the present. I need to be able to look back or look forward. It makes perfect sense that my new protagonist is living through the disruptions of post-World War II America.

*RWR is published by Romance Writers of America. This article appears in the September 2016 issue.


Irene Bennett Brown said...

A very helpful post!

Donna Alward said...

I am SO happy that the article helped provide some clarity! Yay! (And your books sound amazing!)

Donna xx


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