Last night, I was feeling anxious, and it took me some moments of analysis to understand why. I'd been deep in Laura Lippman's The Most Dangerous Thing, and it took me awhile to surface from the book.
I don't read every Lippman book; some sound a bit too intense for me, and some are closer to the straight mystery novels that I don't often read. But this one sounded good: people who were friends when they were children in the 1970's, a dark secret, insights into both modern life and the past. And it is good, but the dark secret from the woods haunts not only the characters, but me too, the reader. And I have a sneaking suspicion that the secret that seems to be the secret is not the real secret. I'm 3/4 the way through, and the darkness begins to pull closer.
I was listening to Alan Cheuse's review of Joyce Carol Oates' latest short story collection on NPR's All Things Considered. Rober Siegel introduces the review this way, "Alan Cheuse finds this batch of stories a big step into darkness."
I thought, A big step into darkness? A darker direction than the usual Joyce Carol Oates' world? Yikes. I remember seeing the movie, "Smooth Talk," based on Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" That depiction of the manipulated teen-age girl still haunts me. Oates has always depicted the world as dangerous and dark.
Cheuse ends his review this way: "In her fresh, direct, energetic and often shocking prose, she bestows life wherever she turns, excavating in what first appears to be ordinary ground and discovering that to live means to be in trouble."
I've been thinking about fiction, more specifically, what makes good fiction. Compelling reading comes from the kind of crises faced by characters living in trouble, or dancing with trouble, or meeting trouble in the dark woods/fast cars.
So far, when I've written novels (so far, all unpublished, thus available!), my characters fall in love. With my last novel, I declared, "No love stories!" But my characters went and fell in love anyway.
As I think about the future and possible writing careers, perhaps I should think more seriously about my tendency towards love stories. After all, romances still sell.
So far, I haven't written the traditional kinds of romances that keep their authors from having to get a day job. My romance plot lines tend to also wrestle with sexual identity, age discrepancy, artistic obsessions--none of which are parts of the traditional romance genres. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I don't use those themes the ways that traditional romance novelists have done.
Even in the 50 pages of a historical novel I started writing, sexual identity and gender issues worked their way in. The novel was set in the Civil War in Charleston, SC, a time when I figured that women could be a bit more free and leave their gender roles, since the city was in smoking ruins. And I threw in a female pirate who dressed like a man (based on a true historical figure!) for good measure.
I may return to that novel some day. The Internet leaves me better equipped than I would have been in 1994, when I first started writing it and quickly got stymied by questions of what was the furniture like back in 1864 and other details of daily life. It was easy to determine the big questions of war: who fought when and how was the city barricaded. It was more difficult to determine how women would have lived that history on the ground. Diaries and journals gave me a sense, but at the time, if a comprehensive analysis of civilian life during the Civil War existed, I wasn't able to find it. Now I suspect the problem would be just the opposite: too much information.
I still have that novel in my head. Maybe it's time to get it onto paper/pixels.
I'll probably return to writing that historical romance and curse my migratory self. I started writing it after a January of expeditions when we bought "Be a Tourist in Your Hometown" passes. Because it was off-season, we got to see all sorts of historic homes and plantations that I never would have paid for otherwise. Those excursions inspired me in all sorts of ways. When I started writing, I always thought that I could go back if I needed to check on any information or be inspired anew. Now, those historical spots are much further away.
But they're still within driving distance, and I still have good friends in the area. Maybe the Piccolo Spoleto Festival will invite me to read my poetry, and I can create a trip with multiple purposes!
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