Karen McCullough is the author of more than a dozen published novels and novellas, which range across the mystery, paranormal, fantasy and romantic suspense genres. A former computer programmer who made a career change into being an editor with an international trade publishing company for many years, she now runs her own web design business. Awards she’s won include an Eppie Award for fantasy, and she’s also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards and a semi-finalist in the Writers of the Future contest. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.
I was delighted when Karen agreed to tell us a little about herself and her books. So, grab a cup of tea (or whatever your beverage of choice may be) and settle in to meet a nice person who also happens to be a fine writer.
When did you first know you were going to write professionally?
I was actually writing professionally quite a while before I sold my first story. I kind of slid sideways into writing fiction. I was a programmer by trade for fifteen years, but I burned out on it. (You know you’re burned out when you start dreaming lines of COBOL code.) I moved into writing software documentation, and then into writing software reviews and articles about computers, software etc. for a couple of computer magazines and then into more general interest pieces. Finally one day my husband suggested I write down some of those fantastical stories I had rolling around in my head. The rest is history – and a lot of hard work, rejections, tears, persistence, and finally a bit of success.
Anyone who’s been writing for a while will understand about the hard work and appreciate the value persistence. I doubt, though, that many of us have dreamed of lines of COBOL code.
What part of writing do you find most satisfying?
The two most satisfying words I ever write are: “The End.”
What part do you find most difficult?
It seems like there’s always a point in a novel, usually around 2/3 to 3/4 of the way through, where I start to feel like the whole thing is useless, pointless, hopelessly ridiculous drivel that no one would ever want to read. I have to fight my way through that feeling, continuing to write just on the faith that at least if it isn’t perfect, I’ll be able to fix it. On the other hand, the most difficult part might be all the promoting you have to do once the book is out…
Amen to that! What comes first for you? Characters? Story? Setting?
They come to me all at once as a package deal. My books are generally born when one idea rubs up against another and creates sparks. The very first time I attended a trade show, when I was an associate editor at a trade publication, I realized it would make a great setting for a mystery story, or even a series of them. It had all the right ingredients: limited time and space; a cast of characters who knew each other, and were friends, rival, enemies, and sometimes lovers; and very high stakes. At the same time the character of Heather McNeill, assistant to the director, was born. She was based very loosely on a staff member I met at a site that hosts many trade shows. The woman was a great listener and had that gift of being someone people confided in all the time. Couple that with considerable curiosity and intelligence and I realized it would make her a good person to be the staff troubleshooter, which would lead to being the one who had an inside track to solving the mysteries as well.
I love the idea of two ideas rubbing together and creating sparks. Where do you find inspiration?
Everywhere. Everything I read, hear, see, experience and seek out goes into the giant mixer in my brain that churns ideas around and spits them back out as a story.
So … your writing brain never sleeps. Do you do a lot of research?
Quite a bit. It depends on what I need to know, but I want to try to get everything as accurate as possible. When I write mysteries, in particular, I want to get my law enforcement facts straight. I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking to police officers and I did a Citizens’ Police Academy a few years ago. I frequent blogs of law enforcement officers, especially Lee Lofland’s very helpful Graveyard Shift blog (http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/) as well as reading books and attending seminars on law enforcement techniques. For my trade show settings, I’m mostly drawing on my own experiences at various shows, but I’ve also tried to talk to some people managing them. I’ve generally had to simplify how things work in show management, since to get it right would make the cast too big and the procedures far too complicated for a good story.
The Blurb for A GIFT FOR MURDER:
For fifty-one weeks of the year, Heather McNeil loves her job as assistant to the director of the Washington, D.C. Commerce & Market Show Center. But the Gifts and Home Decorations trade show, the biggest show of the year at the center, is a week-long nightmare. This year’s version is being worse than usual. Misplaced shipments, feuding exhibitors, and malfunctioning popcorn machines are all in a day’s work. Finding the body of a murdered executive dumped in a trash bin during the show isn’t. The discovery tips throws Heather’s life—personal and professional—into havoc.
The police suspect the victim’s wife killed him, but Heather doesn’t believe it. She’s gottenglimmers of an entirely different scenario and possible motive. Questioning exhibitors about the crime doesn’t make her popular with them or with her employers, but if she doesn’t identify the murderer before the show ends, the culprit will remain free to kill again.
Her only help comes from an exhibitor with ulterior motives and the Market Center’s attractive new security officer, Scott Brandon. Despite opposition from some of the exhibitors, her employers, and the police, Heather seeks to expose the killer before the show ends. To solve the mystery, she will havehas to risk what’s most important to her and be prepared to fight for answers, her job, and possibly her life.
Sounds great. What other projects are in the works?
I’m working on the sequel to A GIFT FOR MURDER right now. It’s tentatively titled WIRED FOR MURDER and it’s close to finished. I will also have a romantic suspense novel titled, THE DETECTIVE’S DILEMMA, which will be released by Kensington’s Lyrical Press imprint in ebook and print on November 3. Here’s the quick blurb for it:
Her fingerprints are on the gun, but Sarah swears she’s innocent.
Although Sarah Anne Martin admits to pulling the trigger, she swears someone forced her to kill her lover. Homicide detective Jay Christianson is skeptical, but enough ambiguous evidence exists to make her story plausible. If he gives her enough freedom, she’ll either incriminate herself or draw out the real killers. But, having been burned before, Jay doesn’t trust his own protective instincts…and his growing attraction to Sarah only complicates matters.
With desire burning between them, their relationship could ultimately be doomed since Sarah will be arrested for murder if Jay can’t find the real killer.
NOTE: Karen has already agreed to come back in November and tell us about THE DETECTIVE’S DILEMMA.
Do you have a schedule for writing or do you squeeze it in when you can?
I tend to be a “binge writer.” I don’t write every day because my day job and family obligations often get in the way of it, and I’m not the kind of writer who can work in a few paragraphs here and there. I need to be able to sink into my world and get into the right groove before I can write, so I try to grab blocks of time when I can.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
You mean other than time spent at the day job, I presume? I spend time with family and friends, work in the garden, watch sports on TV, crochet, and sometimes mess around with computer games.
Pantster or plotter?
Pantser, mostly. I generally start a story with a pretty good idea how the first couple of chapters will go and a basic idea of how it ends. Everything else in the middle is pretty hazy, though it clears up as I push my way through the story. If I get really stuck, I take a notepad and pen and start writing down lists of things that could happen, bits of dialogue, whatever strikes me about the story. A day or two of that and I’m usually ready to start writing again.
What refreshes you creatively?
Travel probably most of all. Time spent in the garden is usually good for my creativity as well.
You’re obviously a very busy person. Thanks for taking time to visit with us. Good luck with A GIFT FOR MURDER.
Birth of a Novel readers, if you’d like to learn more about Karen, you can visit one of these sites:
I’m especially pleased to have Linda Wisniewski as a guest this week. I’ve known Linda and admired her writing for a few years and a year or so ago we became critique partners.
When I was a child, the image of America as a “melting pot” appealed to me. Everyone would be welcome and blend in with the rest of society. As an adult, I saw the risk of losing some of our most beautiful stories when we assimilate into one homogeneous whole. Today I like to think of America as a “mosaic” where everyone is beautiful in her or his own way. Many readers agree. Memoirs about culture and ethnicity often make the best sellers list. Stories like Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Carlos Eires’ Waiting for Snow in Havana invite us into the strange (to us) worlds that shaped their identities.
So how can you use your own heritage to tell your story? In my memoir workshops, I like to read a poem by New Jersey poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan called Black Dresses in which she recalls the many sensory details that describe her girlhood in an Italian neighborhood. The grape arbor, the women all in black, the soup, the front stoop, it’s all there, taking the reader back to that time and place. You can do that too. Make a list of all the images that come to mind when you think of your heritage. What were the smells in your grandmother’s kitchen? How did she dress? What holidays did you celebrate? Were there special dances, songs, costumes for big occasions? This list can be your treasure trove of writing prompts. Which items evoke the strongest emotions in you? Start there and write how you came to know about them. Where were you, at what age, and who was with you? How do you feel about them now?
In my memoir, Off Kilter, I wrote that “Living in America in the twenty-first century with all its diversity, I flip around like a kite on a string. I sample other cultures and new traditions. To live here without doing so is to refuse the food at a banquet. But what calls me most is my own family’s culture, lost somewhere between a farm in Poland and an old house in upstate New York.”
At a writing workshop in Saratoga Springs, NY, I discovered the poetry of Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska. Less than thirty miles away, the women in my family had lost their voices, embarrassed by their heritage. Much of Off Kilter deals with my coming to terms with the Polish joke, the struggle for national autonomy in Eastern Europe, and the rich legacy of music and literature that might have been lost when my people came to America wanting to belong. Writing about both the positive and negative aspects helped me learn to accept them all.
The next step took me to the country home of my cousin for a family reunion just outside Amsterdam, New York, the town where our ancestors settled. One person brought copies of my father’s family tree. Something quickened inside me as I stared at the name and dates of the farthest ancestor. Regina was born in 1778. What if I could meet her? What would she say? What was she like? On the long drive home to Pennsylvania, I imagined a conversation with her. What would she think of my life today?
Back home, I did some research into Polish culture but found very little about her. There was plenty of history about the years when she lived, the battles, the noblemen and women, the writers and artists and composers, but precious little about the common person, especially the women. Her family was not the szlachta, or nobles. My innate sense of justice rose. I would speak for her. I would use what I knew about my heritage, and turn to my intuition and imagination for the rest.
Where the Stork Flies took six years to write. I knew that I (and Regina!) had something to say, and after many revisions, wove our message into a modern fable about two very different women. One lives in the present day and has so many choices she can’t stick with any. The other lives in 19th century Poland and believes she has no choice but to follow the same path as her mother before her.
Now I am excited for the next step: placing Where the Stork Flies into the rich mosaic of American literature by writers whose roots are on a distant shore.
Linda C. Wisniewski shares an empty nest in Bucks County, PA, with her retired scientist husband. She has been published in the Christian Science Monitor, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Rose and Thorn, Mindprints, gravel, Hippocampus and other literary journals both in print and online. Linda teaches memoir workshops for adults in the Philadelphia area. Her memoir, Off Kilter: A woman’s journey to peace with scoliosis, her mother and her Polish heritage, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. She is seeking representation for Where the Stork Flies.
Here’s a link to Off Kilter on Amazon:
My guest this week is KB Shaw, a publisher and writer of science fiction for middle grade and young adult readers. He has very generously agreed to share his process for creating a science fiction world.
His books are available in the major online bookstores. You can find links on http://www.iPulpFiction.com.
By KB Shaw
“I usually don’t read science fiction. I prefer mysteries [or romances, or thrillers, or…]”
That’s not something a writer of science fiction likes to hear—but I hear it a lot.
Are you one of those who are reluctant to read or write sci-fi? You shouldn’t be—no matter what genre you usually like.
Writing sci-fi requires the same skills as any other type of story—mystery (Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel), romance (The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger), adventure (H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine), Western (The Dark Tower series by Stephen King), or thriller (Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain). You still need an interesting plot, characters with whom readers can become involved, and vivid settings—a world the reader can visualize.
Most fiction is set in our world, be it the present or the past—it’s a version of the world as it is or was. Now here’s the single difference that makes a story science fiction: The world is different in some way from the time in which it was written. Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is simply an adventure story—a pirate tale of sorts—set in the world of his time, the 1860s. Verne made only one significant change: the pirate ship sails under the surface, not on top. And this one innovation opens up a whole new world for his readers. If the novel were written today, when submarines are commonplace, it would simply be a pirate story.
In A Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein’s exposé on the human condition, a future Earth is not that much different from ours. Heinlein’s conceit is the introduction of Valentine Michael Smith—the lone survivor of a Mars colony who was raised and nurtured by an alien life form. When he is brought back to Earth, we see ourselves through the eyes of a character who, although human, is indeed a stranger in a strange land. Valentine’s reaction to society and society’s reaction to him reveal a lot about humanity.
In 1920, the Czech playwright introduced the term robot in his landmark play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). His world was set in a factory that produced artificial life forms created to be a working/servant class. The drama explores the idea of what makes us human as the robots rebel, demanding that they be re-engineered so they can reproduce—so they can enjoy the ultimate expression of their love for one another.
To put it simply, the thing that can transform any genre story into sci-fi is the world the writer builds. Writers can introduce a single element into the world—say, a human who can travel through time—or they can create entirely alien worlds with unique cultures and languages. (“Conversational Klingon” is now available on iTunes and Amazon, among others).
If you set Sherlock Holmes’ “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” in an alternate Victorian era filled with fantastical steam-powered contraptions, then mash-up with a little Jules Verne, you get P.C. Martin’s Steampunk Holmes: Legacy of the Nautilus.
It’s easy to change a mystery into a sci-fi story. Take Sandra Carey Cody’s sleuth, Jennie Connors, for example. Jennie’s life is firmly grounded in the real world of Memphis and the Riverview Manor retirement home. Our conceit will be a futuristic drug… A Riverview resident, who has been on life support in a hospital, ambles into the recreation room as if nothing was wrong—bright and alert after a miraculous recovery. She moves back into the residential wing. Three weeks later, she goes berserk, almost killing Jennie, before dropping stone dead on the floor. The story enters into the realm of science fiction when Jennie discovers that an experimental drug had been secretly administered to the patient.
So, would you like to give sci-fi writing a try? Here’s what you do: Take any one of your stories and look at the world you created. Next, find one imaginative way to change that world beyond what exists today. Now let your characters deal with the ramifications of that change. And there you have it: you’ve moved into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into… the world of science fiction.
So … that’s the process. If you’d like to see an example, I suggest you read The Historian’s Tale, the first book in KB Shaw’s Neworld Papers series. In the end, it’s really just good, old-fashioned storytelling.
Here’s a link: http://amzn.to/1kQfLCr
Thanks, Keith, for letting us in on some of your secrets. And thanks for alerting me to keep those experimental drugs out of Riverview Manor.
I was delighted when Edith Maxwell agreed to chat with me about her Local Foods Mystery series (Kensington Publishing, 2013). I’m pleased to share that conversation with the readers of Birth of a Novel, but first, a little about Edith and her books. This series lets her relive her days as an organic farmer in Massachusetts, although murder in the greenhouse is new (thank goodness for that). A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die came out to critical acclaim last June. ‘Til Dirt Do Us Part, which chronicles the murder of a CSA member after geek-turned-organic-farmer Cam Flaherty’s Farm-to-Table dinner, releases May 27. That’s all you need to know right now. There will more information about Edith after our chat. I promise.
When did you first know you were going to write professionally?
I’ve been writing professionally since I worked on the student newspaper and wrote for my town newspaper in high school. Then I went on to academic writing, more journalism, and a career writing technical documentation. But I first started writing novel-length fiction twenty years ago, and landed contracts with two different publishers in 2012.
What part of writing do you find most satisfying?
I love writing the first draft, especially when my characters do things I had not planned for them. But I also enjoy the revision process -self editing, crafting, polishing.
What part do you find most difficult?
Plot. It’s always a challenge to reveal just enough about the mystery so I am fair to the reader without giving it all away by page 100.
What comes first for you? Characters? Story? Setting?
Characters and setting. I follow my characters around and write down what they do. And then go back and fix the story so it all works.
Where do you find inspiration?
Everywhere! A snipped of conversation in a restaurant. A news story. Walking in my historic town. Seeing the way a man on the sidewalk is dressed and how he moves.
Are your books based on personal experiences or are they completely fictitious?
The stories are all fictitious. In my Local Foods mysteries, though, I draw on what I learned during the years I was an organic farmer. In my Lauren Rousseau books I use what I know about academia, Quakers, and video editing. In my historic series, the Carriagetown Mysteries, I created a Quaker family who lives in my house in the late 1800s and attends the same Friends Meeting that I do. Also see previous answer!
Do you do a lot of research?
Depending on the book, I might use my own knowledge during the first draft and then go back and check facts. In the historic series, I spend time in the archives of two local libraries, on the internet, and in the Whittier Home Association library checking on things like when electric street lights replaced gas, when the local hospital was built, what working women’s shoes looked like, who John Greeleaf Whittier hung out with, and much more.
Tell us about ‘TIL DIRT DO US PART.
The produce is local – and so is the crime – when long-simmering tensions lead to murder following a festive dinner on Cam Flaherty’s farm. It’ll take a sleuth who knows the lay of the land to catch this killer. But no one ever said Cam wasn’t willing to get her hands dirty…
Autumn has descended on Westbury, Massachusetts, but the mood at the Farm-to-Table Dinner in Cam’s newly built barn is unseasonably chilly. Local entrepreneur Irene Burr made a lot of enemies with her plan to buy Westbury’s Old Town Hall and replace it with a textile museum-enough enemies to fill out a list of suspects when the wealthy widow turns up dead on a neighboring farm.
Even an amateur detective like Cam can figure out that one of the resident locavores went loco-at least temporarily-and settled a score with Irene. But which one? With the Fall harvest upon her, Cam must sift through a bushelful of possible killers that includes Irene’s estranged stepson, her disgruntled auto mechanic, and a fellow CSA subscriber who seems suspiciously happy to have the dead woman out of the way. The closer she gets to weeding out the culprit, the more Cam feels like someone is out to cut her harvest short. But to keep her own body out of the compost pile, she’ll have to wrap this case up quickly.
What other projects are in the works?
The second Lauren Rousseau mystery, BLUFFING IS MURDER, will be out from Barking Rain Press the late fall (2014). The Carriagetown Mysteries are not under contract, but the first Book, BREAKING THE SILENCE, is about two-thirds written. I just submitted the third Local Foods mystery, FARMED AND DANGEROUS, and hope Kensington Publishing will renew my contract for more books in the series. And I have another cozy mystery proposal in the work. So many ideas, so little time!
Do you have a schedule for writing or do you squeeze it in when you can?
Now that I’m a full-time fiction writer, I write every morning, because that’s when my creative brain is freshest. I use the afternoons for other writing-related business, like blog interviews and posts, marketing, planning, and so on.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I garden and cook, I take long brisk walks, and I read mysteries.
Pantster or plotter?
Mostly pantser, although when my editor requires a detailed synopsis of the next book, I plot it out and then more or less follow it.
What refreshes you creatively?
See answer on what I do when I’m not writing!
And now, as promised, here’s more about our guest:
A fourth-generation Californian, Maxwell has published short stories of murderous revenge, most recently in Best New England Crime Stories 2014: Stone Cold (Level Best Books, 2013) and Fish Nets (Wildside Press, 2013). The Stone Cold story, “Breaking the Silence,” won an Honorable Mention in the Al Blanchard Short Crime Fiction contest.
Edith Maxwell also authored Speaking of Murder (under the pseudonym Tace Baker), which features Quaker linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau and campus intrigue after her sexy star student is killed (Barking Rain Press, 2012). Bluffing is Murder releases in late 2014. Edith holds a long-unused doctorate in linguistics, is a long-time member of Amesbury Friends Meeting, and and is currently writing a historical mystery set in 1888 Amesbury featuring Quaker midwife Rose Carroll, as well as John Greenleaf Whittier.
A mother, world traveler, and former technical writer, Edith lives in an antique house north of Boston with her beau and three cats. She blogs every weekday with the rest of the Wicked Cozy Authors (wickedcozyauthors.com). You can also find her at http://www.edithmaxwell.com, at @edithmaxwell, and on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/EdithMaxwellAuthor.
My guest this week is Chrysa Smith, one of those very special people who write books for children.
by Chrysa Smith
You never know where writing is going to take you. This is what I tell students during my elementary school author visits. It might sound like some vague, empty-worded statement. But I can honestly say that it’s been tried and true for me, as I’ve spent the better part of the past three decades just ‘going’ where the road has taken me. And it’s all been due to a series of seemingly unrelated events that had something to do with writing.
The love for stringing words together came early. An essay contest in 8th grade won me some nice accolades, and I think it was then, that the light bulb went off and it may have been the first time I realized that I was really pretty good at something, other than kick ball and jumping rope. And it continued, through those blue book essay tests, a stint as my high school newspaper editor and some well-written college papers. Yet I never fancied myself a writer.
So, I majored in business; the thing to do in the 80’s. And I did learn some very useful skills–time management, marketing which as most writers know, is invaluable. And a little about finance, which I’m sure should have come with a minor in chutzpah, since I always want to be ‘nice’ when discussing my fees (ok, Catholic school girl guilt, but that’s another story altogether).
The jobs came in marketing and sales promotion. But my first gig landed me right back in a communications role as layoffs benefitted me in picking up the role of one of those less fortunate. And again, accolades came from my peers where writing was concerned. Yet again, I never fancied myself a writer. But the next gig was at a magazine, but back in a marketing role. Yet once more, I benefitted from my writing skills and was eventually promoted to Business Editor. But I still didn’t fancy myself a writer.
So I wound up in another sales promotional role in a very corporate environment, but was drawn to writing copy. And it was then that my second light bulb went off, and I realized that I might really desire a career in writing. It’s good that I was such a quick study, huh? So I left for a freelance writing career, but it was once more on the corporate side. And I can honestly say that I had little interest in the topics, even if the money was pretty good. So an entry into the magazine biz finally afforded me some very interesting assignments—speaking to international chefs, trips to resorts, fashion showrooms, ice cream parlors, trade shows. The pay wasn’t great, but I should have been more gracious when I look at today’s ridiculously insulting pay rates for a skill not shared by a large portion of the population.
So with technology, for me, there went the magazine business and I was left to figure out what the next trick would be. And it was then, with not much on my plate, that I began observing my dogs—-taking me back to my opening statement. When I looked around, there were some pretty funny events happening in my house, but I never really noticed. My pets always gave me joy, but they began to tickle me. So, hey, what about capturing their antics on paper? It would be fun to finally try a hand at fiction. But mostly, it was just for my own jollies.
I now knew I was a writer, but not a fiction writer. So I took some classes and was encouraged. I showed my work to some elementary school teachers and librarians and was encouraged. I got a further lesson in the rules that applied to children’s writing (loosely) and I went off on my own, having all that corporate marketing and sale promotion experience behind me, to go out on my own and take a ride with The Adventures of the Poodle Posse. That decision has led to a four book series, with over 8000 books sold (ok, not setting the world on fire, but not bad for a self-published, self-marketed set of juvenile fiction). But more importantly, I’ve found my calling.
As much, if not more than writing itself, I love the teaching–the visits. I love it when kids are mesmerized by my presentations, when the lightbulb goes off in their head, when they start furiously writing their own stories. I’m a writer. And finally, I can say it with my head held high. My life has let me tell the stories all around me. And even if my pockets aren’t as nourished as my sense of accomplishment and internal reward, know what? That’s my story.
And a great story it is. Thanks for sharing, Chrysa. I can’t think of a calling more noble than inspiring kids to express themselves with words.
You finished your book. It’s been edited and revised. It’s time to let it go. Easier said than done. It’s like sending your baby off to kindergarten – or to college. It never gets any easier. As parents/creators, we’re never 100% sure we’ve done all we can. Yet, from the moment books and babies are conceived, we know sooner or later we’re going to have to push them out of the nest. So … deep breath … you push the appropriate buttons and release your book.
The one thing you cannot do is rest. If no one hears about your book, no one will read it. So you tell all your friends about it – and hope they’ll tell their friends. You tweet, twitter, peep – and hope someone is paying attention. You blog and you brag (just a little) – and hope you’re not being obnoxious. That’s where I am with Lethal Journal. It’s out there – available in e and print format. I’ve done all I can for this book.
Uh… maybe there is one more thing: here’s a link – http://www.amazon.com/dp/1497460050
Time to start a new book. Every time I get to this place, I think of Charles Dickens’s great line about the “…best of times, the worst of times” because, for me, that’s what every beginning is. The task is daunting, but the possibilities are limitless. How can I pick one idea out of the jumble of stories in my head that are begging to be told? This time, it’s a bit easier than usual. There’s a book that I started a year or so ago, an idea that I really liked, but somehow the story got ahead of me. It took an unexpected turn and I didn’t know how to follow it. I put it aside, but all the time I was working on Lethal Journal, that story was percolating in another corner of my mind – and now I’m ready to write it. I think I have a solution to the problem that eluded me a year ago.
Ultimately, that’s what next. More writing. More hope. Plus, discipline, persistence, and (hopefully) inspiration.
My guest this week is JENNIFER SKUTELSKY. JENNIFER is an author, editor and writing coach. She’s written two books of nonfiction, BREATHING THROUGH BUTTONHOLES, the ghostwritten autobiography of a Jewish woman who survived Nazi-occupied Belgium, and TIN CAN SHRAPNEL, a memoir exploring the aftermath of xenophobic violence that broke out in South Africa in 2008. Her novel, GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRDS, a gothic mystery set in the Andean highlands, won the Clark Gross Novel Award at San Francisco State University in 2011. Also a ballet teacher and visual artist, Jennifer lives with her daughter in San Francisco. She has a soft spot for elephants and rhinos.
The Tussle between Fiction and Nonfiction: The Novel vs The Memoir
At times there’s a struggle between these two mammoths. While there are similarities between the two, they are different, and the writer must carefully consider which will best serve the story s/he has to tell. This isn’t as clear-cut a choice as it might seem.
What the novel and the memoir share are distinct qualities of craft and storytelling, and oddly enough, the author’s concept of truth, however slanted, distorted, real or imaginary. World building lies at the heart of the novel and the memoir, together with all its associated facets: conflict, relationships, setting, and challenges that characters take on, succumb to or overcome.
As an editor and writer of both, I’ve encountered the limitations and demands of fiction and nonfiction, exploring the boundaries of perception and subjective nature of truth. Assuming to come to a conclusion is tricky because it seems so final and rigid, but my own deduction has yielded the belief that truth is more easily captured in fiction.
It took me a while to figure that out. Even creative nonfiction, which at first seemed like an oxymoron to me, is rooted in authentic experience, and who better to reveal, expose, share, and relate than someone who has lived the story they’re telling? The reader who plucks a memoir off the shelf assumes the story is true, the characters are real, and events a faithful reproduction of the past. Readers accept that they’re exploring a writer’s personal history and sensibilities.
In fiction, writers can eliminate ‘truth,’ toss it aside for fantastical landscapes, imaginary characters and outlandish events, taking the reader on an unlikely journey as far from real as it’s possible to get. The writer can in a sense play God, reinvent, innovate, offer something fresh and unpredictable to a reader who wants to get lost in a narrative with no or little bearing on immediate experience. But the novel can also take the reader deep into realities that reverberate with truth’s mercurial qualities.
Truth can be stranger than fiction; real life incidents can defy our notions of the world and humanity; and actual conflict can test the margins of credibility. Conversely, the skillful fiction writer can craft a story that draws the reader into a fabricated world no less authentic because it’s imagined.
In deciding whether to write a novel or memoir, one of the most important elements to consider, one that will probably tip the scales, is intention or motivation.
This is easier for the fiction writer to grapple with. You have a story to tell. That’s it. Lots going on in your head that belongs in a book.
It’s not nearly so simple for the writer who takes on a memoir. True, there’s a story to tell, but why tell it? Who cares?
Well, everyone of course, because we’re motivated by:
- Altruism. We want to expose unfairness, injustice, pain or abuse, and feel that others in a similar position will benefit from our revelations. Unwrap the sore, and begin the healing process. Here the memoir comes into its own. People relate to people, and seek to identify with each other through common suffering, ailments, emotional distress and various other life challenges. You want to punish someone, isolate her. You want to inspire or comfort her, convey that she’s not alone. The memoir can bridge tremendous gaps in knowledge, experience, emotional engagement and compassion.
- Spite. You’re a good writer, and a memoir provides the perfect platform to get even with errant siblings, parents, friends, bosses, exes, spouses. Um…no. Avoid a lawsuit and look to the novel for this kind of satisfaction. Fiction offers virtually limitless potential to exact wicked, literary revenge on anyone you choose, although this might be one instance where a pseudonym will come in handy.
- Catharsis. While hammering away at a laptop and giving voice to all our pent-up emotions can be cathartic, some secrets belong in a therapist’s office or a support group–safer forums than the mass, critical, somewhat anonymous publishing industry. Catharsis can be found off the published page, and we’re often too close to our personal injuries to withstand an assault or barrage of rejection. It’s a difficult line to draw, because the memoir’s essence lies in honesty and vulnerability. Here too, characterization in a novel offers a fertile base for rich emotional detail and observation. It also allows for redemption that may be elusive in real life. Maybe there’s something cathartic in that.
- Celebrity. You’re famous and have already made millions. Now you want to sell lots of books. People find you entertaining/smart/funny/interesting, and they’ll be drawn to your personal story because you’re gorgeous and talented and have your own reality show. If that’s it, then maybe wait a while before tackling the novel. The memoir is your baby.
- Connection. You have something to share, a fresh angle and insight to offer and feel a generous urge to reach out and connect with a readership. You may not change the world, but you’re valuable and want to leave a tangible legacy behind. Perhaps for your family and friends, or a broader circle who will find value in your story. Write a memoir. It could lead you to a novel.
Navigating the challenges of writing long form fiction or nonfiction can be exhilarating and deeply fulfilling. Our ancestors were storytellers, whether they chose to smear pigment on cave walls, carve symbols in wood, tell tales around a communal fire, or write. We have a natural inclination to create, and language is one of the best tools at our disposal to do so. If you have a story to tell, go ahead, choose your medium and tell it.
Thanks, Jennifer, for taking time to share your passion for storytelling with us.
A final word from me: I’ve read TIN CAN SCRAPNEL and recommend it without hesitation. It’s the true story of a woman who became involved when she didn’t have to. Reading it, I learned about a tragic situation that I didn’t even know existed and was reminded how many-faceted are the problems in our world.
If you’d like to learn more, here’s a link to Jennifer’s website: http://www.jskutelsky.com
TIN CAN SHRAPNEL on Amazon: http://amzn.to/1qekvFr