Wednesday, August 15, 2007

When *not* to tell your story

Back to writing for a moment. . .*

The most common piece of advice given to new writers--aside from WRITE--is, "write what you know." I spent almost all of l6 books ignoring that advice. Although I've spent my entire life on one side or the other of the Missouri/Kansas state line, I never set a book entirely in either of those states until my most recent novel, the 17th. Oh, I had one book that took place mostly in Kansas, and another where a character spent a couple of scenes here, but they were Kansas as seen through the eyes of outsiders, not Kansas as seen through insider eyes. I tried that only in a handful of short stories--which was safer since so many fewer people would ever read them. :)

One reason I wrote about other places is that I wanted to live in them, and even fictionally would do. So I moved my heroines to New England. South Florida. Colorado. New York City. That was the "positive" reason for doing what I did. The "negative" one was because I was nervous about "doing" the place where I live. I was afraid of not getting it right, but what did "right" mean? I suppose it meant getting it down so that it felt familiar and true to other people who live here. Looking back, I realize that I also didn't have the skill yet to be able to write my "local" stories. Plus, I was afraid of offending. I didn't want to become one of those writers who becomes unwelcome in her own home. As my (then) 2-year-old son said one day when he was wearing only diapers and cowboy boots, and he had an "accident". . ."Never pee in your boots, Mom."

I didn't want to pee in my boots.

But a funny thing happened to that fear. It turned into something closer to love of the very people I was afraid of offending. And with affection came the confidence to write about them, and since I was writing from a place of love, there was nothing to worry about any more. Weird how that works.

Personally, I don't think it's a good idea to try to force stories that make you feel terribly nervous to tell them. I would trust those inner feelings, which may just mean that you don't yet have the skill to tell that story, or that you aren't ready to deal with the responses you get when you tell it. You may not yet be at the crossroads of Desire + Ability + Confidence. When your story is ready--and you have the skill to tell it, and you're also ready to cope with the consequences--it will burst out of you, and you won't be able to stop it from coming. Seems to me that might be true of novelists, journalists, whistleblowers, bloggers, and family members with secrets.

If to everything there is a season, then to every story there is a time for telling it. So, if you have to, wait. Keep waiting. And then wait some more. Don't let anybody pressure you into writing what it is not yet time for you to write, or telling what you don't yet want to tell. Don't let anybody pick your audiences for you. Maybe you never will want to tell that particular story; maybe you'll always want to keep it to yourself, or you'll change your mind about it, or the need to tell it will melt away. So much of writing (and life) is about trusting your own inner wisdom. As that trust (in yourself) builds, so will the confidence to tell your deepest and most heartfelt stories in your own best way.

Or so it seems to me. And in the meantime, while you're waiting? Write all that other stuff that will prepare you for being the writer you want to be.

*This post inspired by something Katiebird said


Nancy P said...

Hey, I seem to have broken the mold of one new post a day, posted in the morning. Good. I'd rather be looser about that.

Okay, back to work for me.

Family Man said...

One reason I wrote about other places is that I wanted to live in them, and even fictionally would do. So I moved my heroines to New England. South Florida. Colorado. New York City.

What, no Alabama heroines? :D

Nancy P said...

Au contraire, fm!! Believe it or not, I took one of my heroines to Alabama. Birmingham, to be precise. She liked it, even if there were a few deadly people there. Also dead ones. Had she but known you were there!! She'd have dropped by with iced tea. :)

Do you know Alabama is one of the three most geologically varied states in the country? Florida is the second one, and I forget the third.

FARfetched said...

Texas, maybe?

It's probably easiest to place a character in a large (area or population) state — chances are, there's enough diversity that the character will ring true to at least some readers who live there.

I'm not sure that there's one single place I'd like to live. Sometimes, I think I'd like to be like Beth, just packing up & moving a couple thousand miles any time the spirit moved me. Upper Michigan would probably be one of those places, and it can grow writers: Robert Traver, the pseudonym for the guy who wrote Anatomy of a Murder and several other books lived there. My dad actually met him through Trout Unlimited & got invited to his house.

Nancy P said...

I even sent a heroine to Texas one time, far. Anything to avoid Kansas! :)

I've entertained that idea, too, of moving around like Beth, living first here and then there.

Let's form an imaginary caravan--we'll all go camp by Olivia's public gardens, then by family man's pond, then by your chicken houses. . .well, maybe not TOO close. . .

Conda said...

Great post, Nancy! Write about what you know--first time I heard that I went what? I'm still finding out what it means...and my newest w.i.p. is finally set in a fictionalized version of my home town, my heart screamed it was time. Fictionalized because I grew up in a well-known ski resort and wanted absolute control over the town: control over where I put the mountains, homes and stores (hey, I'm the writer).

Nancy P said...

Hi, Conda! I think your immediate response when you first heard that advice is very funny, and I know what you mean about still figuring it out. The weird part to me is how we--or at least I--often seem to write about what we know best, without knowing we know it! Like, readers have a few times pointed out to me "themes" in my books, and it was news to me. They were right, though. I *was* writing what I knew. I just didn't know I was doing that.

Writing is such a weird thing.

Family Man said...

I think Beth has the right idea. Moving to a place for awhile instead of visiting. That's one of the things that I loved about the military. Every couple of years I would move to someplace new. There's a big difference between visiting a place and living there for a few years. You get to know the people and culture in different areas, and I really liked that.

I will say that in all the years I was gone from here, I always had a strong connection to my home and family. I don't want to sound morbid, but I always knew no matter where I lived, when I passed away, I would be buried in the family cemetery.

I guess it always come down to, home is where you perceive it to be. I wanted to retire in all the places I was stationed with the exception of Texas. Sorry to any Texans out there.

GreenMinute said...

...and family members with secrets.

Okay, Nancy, what do you know and who told you and why did they tell you in the first place, it never happened that way, it's a lie and always has been.

GreenMinute said...

P.S. Ghosts

Katiebird, you (or anyone else on the blog) can email me directly at or

I'd love to hear your ghost experience.

boran2 said...

Nancy, It will be interesting to compare how you portray your immediate area versus your prior portrayals of other locales. Very interesting insight.

Kimberly Frost said...

I loved this post. I recently heard a published author talk about voice and it got me thinking about my own writing and my true voice. I think your comment about writing in a setting that you're comfortable with is a direct extension of that concept. Sometimes one is drowning in craft books and theory, and it's time to just breathe and listen to the heart.

a.k.a. Kimberly Chambers (one of your WRW students/fans)

Nancy P said...

Family man, you seem so deeply rooted to where you are now that I have a hard time remembering that you were once gallivanting around the globe as a military man.

Greenminute, so YOU say, lol!

Boran2, this is the first book I've written that prompts a few people to talk about the setting as if it's a character, so I think there is a diff. Although, I felt that way about my Florida book setting, too.

Nancy P said...

Florida "books" I should have said, not book.

Nancy P said...

Kimberly, how lovely to see you here! Welcome, welcome. "Just breathe and listen to your heart," yes.

olivia said...

Nancy ... this post is why your starting a blog was the greatest idea in the world! :)

Nancy P said...

Olivia, thank you!