It’s common knowledge that authors are told to write what they know. For instance, in the beloved Anne of Green Gables series of books, a constant thread involves her literary efforts while a teenager. They are melodramatic, romance soap operas that read like silly fanfiction about Camelot. Her characters, as she frequently resents being told, are essentially unreal, stylized fiction personalities that are too high-strung to make any sense to people. In fact, one of her stories was so—well, not exactly literary in quality—that it was chosen as winner for a contest advertising baking powder. (Probably because after Anne’s friend Diana made little awkward additions to an originally full-of-itself fiction effort, those contest judges thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever read.)
Readers want to hear about situations they’ve seen in real life. Anne is told this many times. But if we’re going to talk about “write what you know,” people who write fiction do not write biography or memoir, so they can’t just record what they’ve seen in their lives by putting friends and neighbors into books. Such actions can easily come across as simply uncreative or even spiteful and tasteless if anything critical is said about the characters based on real people. And does this idea even apply to speculative fiction, like sci-fi and fantasy, at all? If it's best to stick to what you know, how exactly can you write about a far future or a world with dragons when you’ve never seen those things? People must think authors really have the power to go to the places they talk about. 😊 I feel that this phrase does indeed apply to speculative fiction too, because you can know about things in life besides physical locales and personal acquaintances. Science fiction often requires a lot of understanding of scientific possibility and fantasy explores philosophy and morality—all things that people can be expected to know about. But in two of my more realistic stories--Movies at the Beach and A Year with the Harrisons--that pretty obviously draw from some real life experiences, I tried to navigate between the scenes that I knew from life and characters that were fictionalized so that the story could be told a lot better.
For instance, the characters in Movies at the Beach attend a dance school because I did that at their age. I wrote about what I knew. But some of the actual people at the school are altered for the story. The dance teacher’s sons in real life were both very lovely young men and I remember them fondly. But they weren’t funny. Not only would it be rude to put them in fiction without their permission, they wouldn’t make good comedic antagonists at the school—unlike the fictional Dylan Dupree in the story. Similarly, Letty Harrisons' extended family is much more dramatically different from hers than happened to me in my real life, but I kept a lot of the details of the world of Texas that I knew about fifteen years ago. Substituting other relatives that went better with the story—a story about growing up and culture shock—turned it into what it really is, a work of fiction. Fiction blends reality that you know with characters native to the genre you’re writing, often replacing real people who came and went and didn’t really create a story you could tell.
So the advice, I found (and I think every author has found), should be amended to, “Write what you know—but not literally everything you've ever seen. It's OK to fictionalize at times, because some things don’t add anything to the story even if they really happened to you.”
And there will be more updates.
A Year with the Harrisons was published on retail sites fairly recently but had an appearance as a weekly serial years before. It was a rambling story with lots of extra incidental tidbits that didn't make the final cut and even some unpublished chapters that have now fallen by the wayside, but many of the situations that appear in the finished book today are still quite relevant and its theme has always been stable--it describes a big extended family who might be a little out of the mainstream but who are really just like everybody's family. They’re not the only relatives to squabble, to feel more different from each other than they are, and to have a busybody aunt. And because of that, every reader can see a lot of their own parents, cousins, and siblings in these characters.
The five central characters:
Brenda occupies a central place in the story and activates whole areas of the plots, influencing directly or indirectly almost every other character. A vibrant and talented musician who wears the concept of “star” like others wear perfume, she might be a little controlling, a little self-absorbed—at times, even a little teensy bit full of herself. Maybe? 😊 But her husband is quite right to call her One in a Million.
Toffy is the young male character we get to know the most. Although his father is an ambitious and rather callous person, Toffy is quiet and takes a laid-back approach to the family lifestyle of athletics. Toffy has much stronger convictions and beliefs than you’d think because he rarely talks about these things. He befriends Letty in spite of their polar-different backgrounds.
Joe is a middle-aged dad who works in a small town as a mechanic. His voice is always quiet and he blends in with other people. But he’s got a lot more wisdom than meets the eye and sees others far more than anyone realizes. A bit of an eccentric—and he’d probably like to call himself a mastermind of the good kind—he is usually in a perfect position to deal the final blow to a problem.
Luna is the oldest of Joe’s three daughters. She is a really serious person who views doing the right things with her life and giving people a good impression of homeschooled teens as so important that she worries when her family (quite frequently) doesn't look perfect. She is also crucial in uniting all sorts of little plots throughout the book, making her one of the most important characters.
Dr. Bunsen is the new pastor of the local church. He doesn’t get off on a good footing because he fires off a lot of rounds of suggestions for how the members could improve, setting them against him. He is angry about inadequacy in ministry to a hurting world, but his own life needs healing as much as that of anyone else he knows.
And there will be more updates.
I haven't posted on A Year with the Harrisons in a while so I'll do so while it's being promoted this month. PLUS, it is currently part of the Spectacular Summer Giveaway. If you missed getting a copy of Harrisons in the Children’s Book Giveaway a couple of weeks ago, you can snag it today. But you should check out this giveaway in any case. It's an all-genre event with romance, fantasy, some short stories, books about cooking, contemporary novels, and adventure. Harrisons is a YA comedy that really brings grownup and younger readers together, so it has been in two pretty different collections this month. This giveaway is more for adult readers than the last one and has a great set of books.
Check it out here. And if you try to download A Year with the Harrisons and it doesn’t work because you're already subscribed, use this link for a direct download. But only for my book. Be sure to check out all the others at the link above.
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A Year with the Harrisons is a story about people who are hiding from their past. A lot of the situations in the book are funny, as the characters' bumbling through relationships is often amusing. But like many dramas, coming of age stories, and women’s fiction, complicated family ties that lead to many plot twists are essential to its structure. The two central plots involve two branches of a Texas family, the Harrisons, who haven’t dealt with things about their past relationships to other family members. The plots parallel through the characters of Joe Harrison, a homeschooling father of three teenage girls, and his first cousin once removed, Betty Harrison, a former celebrity who now works at a local diner. While both of these people quietly move in very different spheres, blending in with their chosen social circles, they really have a lot of connection to each other. A connection that can’t be denied and that never goes away.
They are both tied to Betty’s mother, a famous pop singer. But Betty has left her mother to pursue a separate life and has never dealt with any of the emotions about that painful split. She’s a single mother whose young daughter attends an ordinary small-town school. Joe moved into an unusual lifestyle of home-education for his children and has almost cut himself off from the outside world. The girls are isolated and have few friends except at church, since Joe, unlike Betty, has become very religious. You’d never think to see either Joe or Betty that they even knew each other. But of course that's how the story begins, not how it ends.
This is mostly a very cheerful book, because Betty and Joe do end up making good decisions. There are a lot of young people in the book, with prominent plots focused on teenage girls as well as a bit of mild romance between Joe’s daughter Letty and a football player. But these core relationships among the older people build a foundation for the story. Except for the pastor Dr. Bunsen, a minor character whose effort to change the ministries at his church fails, everyone in the circle of the Harrison family and the Shotgun family (who shadow them throughout the book) end up finding there’s always a solution to things if you just deal with them. Betty becomes close to her mother again, all the young people grow into their budding new lives, Joe proves more knowledgeable than anyone anticipated, and the villain, Mr. Shotgun, conveniently pops off.
Perhaps a bit of a contrivance on that last one, but I’d certainly like to think it was at least a little bit real. Facing things is always the best way because when confronted with a direct accusation of identity almost everything bad will immediately disappear. There’s a reason why light always turns trolls to stone.
And there will be more updates.
Pleasant Fiction in an Age of Noise
I write stories about human emotions--about the journey of life. Every step of it can be meaningfully great or simply terrible and you can only reach the end after experiencing many kinds of things that make you grow. Emotional travels are the travels of life and the road of living is not one planned out in notebooks or organized in Scrivener. It is felt in love, hope, and fear and developed through an understanding of why humans go through these. And, on top of that, my stories are adventure stories. History, fantasy, and daily modern situations are all adventures as long as you don't know for sure what's going to happen when you wake up each day. Because that would be like repeating the same day over and over again and who wants to do that?
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