Karen here. So thrilled to introduce you to another of my extraordinarily talented crit partners, Jennifer Rogers Spinola, a multi-pubbed author who was a 2012 Christy award finalist. I'll hand right over to her and you'll soon see why. (This gal sure can write!!) Please make her feel welcome!
Writing is something that's caught me - and held me fast - my entire life. I remember the little house where I turned five, in a rickety old Virginia coal-mining town close to the West Virginia border. Clifton Forge smelled like paper mill, sickly sweet, and it was there my younger sister was born. I planted my first geraniums and sang “My Country Tis of Thee” before lunch in my first-grade classroom. And it was in tiny Clifton Forge that I wrote (scribbled/drew) my first books, stapling them together in crooked lines.
Ever since those days writing has been my constant companion. I wrote during summer vacation, on reams of green-and-white computer paper stapled and then glued together, on the school bus on wintery Shenandoah Valley days, in high school in between tests. I loved writing. I still love writing. It is one of the glues that holds all my memories together, my years, my moments.
And until I sat in front of an ancient computer screen in our hot apartment in Brasilia, Brazil, a zillion years later, trying to craft out a story to ease my homesickness, I didn’t get the “magic wand” that made the light come on in my head. It was just that: for the first time, I was writing from memories. From places I missed. From things and places that I loved and longed for, and the rush of nostalgic emotion they poured out when I tapped them into black-and-white words.
You see, all my life I had chosen writing topics that required research – lots and lots of research. Historical novels from the 1800s. Modern stories about places I’d never been (like India). Topics requiring weeks of research about adoption law.
While there’s nothing wrong at all with these topics, I realized, as I sat there with the brilliant Brazilian sun glimmering on our gray tile floor, that I’d missed the *life* of my stories. I’d chosen topics that interested and excited me, picked exotic settings, and crafted narratives that were hard (I thought) to put down. But I’d missed one important factor: emotion. The stories excited me, but they didn’t move me—because I didn’t know them.
This whole idea of “writing what you know” was brought home to me by a novel I had just read—a novel of dubious quality about a female cake decorator. I had a hard time working through the clichés and trite plot, and the whole story just felt… wrong. When I read through the dedication and acknowledgements, there was a clue: “Thanks to all the people who taught me about cake decorating.”
And… that was it! I felt like a bright light had just beamed upon the whole thing: the author wasn’t a cake decorator. She didn’t know anything about cake decorating. She got people to show her about cake decorating, which she replicated in the book—but it didn’t evoke any emotion for her or her characters. The text was accurate, but flat. It had no heart.
Right then and there I got out a sheet of paper and decided to make a list of the things I knew well, determined to come up with something I could write about from experience.
And I sat there. And sat there. With a sad little 1) and a blank line.
What did I know about? And know about well enough to craft a story and draw on my emotions? Unfortunately, not much. And when I finished the list, it had simply two items: 1) Japan and 2) rednecks. I kid you not.
While my exercise was a bit humbling (humiliating?) it did narrow down my search for topics quite a bit. Could I possibly combine the two and create a story using my (ahem) vast expertise?
I doodled on the paper, brainstormed ideas, got a flash of inspiration, took a walk, wrote a hastily-scrawled outline, and… the “Southern Fried Sushi” series was born. Shortly after that I sent chapters to a published friend, and he in turn submitted them to his publisher (Barbour). The women’s fiction editor contacted me directly, and within a few months she’d offered me a contract for the series.
Why? Because my prose was so poetic and polished, or my plot so riveting? Hardly. Actually I think it’s because you can see my heart in the locations I wrote about—the memories and the stored up emotion. The longing for places I had once known and left, and the marks they’d left on my soul.
Please don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying you can’t ever use research or chose a topic you don’t know much about. All of those things are fine, if the topics evoke emotion in you. If that is the case, then you do “know” them—from a lifetime of study or focused research or some sort of experience. But they’re not foreign to you; blank; lifeless. They are not simply crafts to be studied; they are long-lost loves. But to write about topics simply because they’re interesting or worse, trendy, can leave readers smelling a “rat.” Even a carefully crafted “rat.”
Pay attention to the emotion in these paragraphs by John Steinbeck in his wonderful book “Travels With Charley” as he describes the Dakota Badlands as barren, unworldly, uninhabitable, and even unfriendly:
“I went into a state of flight, running to get away from the unearthly landscape. And then the late afternoon changed everything. As the sun angled, the buttes and coulees, the cliffs and sculptured hills and ravines lost their burned and dreadful look and glowed with yellow and rich browns and a hundred variations of red and silver-gray, all picked out by streaks of coal black. It was so beautiful that I stopped near a thicket of dwarfed and wind-warped cedars and junipers, and once stopped I was caught, trapped in color and dazzled by the clarity of the light… and the night, far from being frightful, was lovely beyond thought, for the stars were close… And I thought how every safe generality I gathered in my travels was canceled by another. In the night the Bad Lands had become the Good Lands. I can’t explain it. That’s how it was.”
I don’t know about you, but I read that section over and over again, devouring Steinbeck’s descriptions and words, and the change in his tone. I am not even a Steinbeck fan, but his description here moved me, made me see, made me thirst to read again. Why? Because he saw the Badlands first-hand—and he was moved by them. And thus I am also moved.
Writing from experience, or love (or even hate, so long as it evokes emotion in you) is the singlemost thing that, in my opinion, makes a book or a story authentic.
Even if we can’t identify from our own experiences, we are moved by his (or her) presentation of the events, and it often strikes us as dearly as if it were our own.
Another example I love is from a book called “The Sacred Romance” by John Elderidge. He opens the book by recalling nights on his family’s childhood farm—the feel of soft sand between his toes as he visited the river at dusk, the scent of hay and grass, the crickets and stars, and the feeling that everything was all right. He writes about returning to the same spot years later as a cynical young college student, hardened, in the beginnings of winter, and standing on a bridge looking out over that same stream on that same farm. The water was muddy and cold, choked with dead branches and leaves, and the friendly “haunting” he previously described had disappeared. His cynicism was right; the farm was lifeless and had always been. He had been fooled, cheated—everything never was all right, and would not be.
This chapter brought tears to my eyes. I read it so many times I lost count; I felt Elderidge’s pain, his disappointment, the feeling we all have of cynicism and wounding. I could not put the book down, all the way through his woven stories until we realize, in the end, that all is not lost—the farm and the river at dusk were not lying but speaking greater truth than we can ever realize. It moved me profoundly, and it remains one of my favorite books of all time. Not because of his poetic words or descriptions—although he is poetic—but because of his heart.
I would encourage you as writers to take stock of several things:
1. What do you know (and love)?
2. What do you hate?
3. What moves you?
4. What are your areas of expertise?
5. What do you miss? (This one was key for me!)
6. What are some of your most emotional memories or experiences?
This is just a rudimentary list of beginning questions to make the writer think and probe—I’m sure you can come up with more. Ultimately, though, remember—your writing is not just for practicing craft and selling books. It’s about YOU—your emotions—your disappointments and triumphs in faith and walk with the Lord.
Apart from that it’s just a book on the shelf, sterile and cold, that readers will praise but put back, unmoved and unconvinced. And even if we sell a million copies, we will have still failed, for our hearts know the truth and cry out to be heard.
Jennifer Rogers Spinola lives in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, with her Brazilian husband, Athos, and three-year-old son, Ethan. She has lived in Brazil for nearly eight years and served as a missionary to Japan for two years. Jenny is the author of Barbour Books' "Southern Fried Sushi" series (first book released in 2011) and an upcoming romance novella collection based on Yellowstone National Park (also with Barbour Books). Her first novel, “Southern Fried Sushi,” was a Christy Award finalist in 2012.
You can purchase "Southern Fried Sushi" here.
Jenny, thanks so much for being our guest here today! Make sure you check out her books - they are all wonderful reads!
Karen Schravemade lives in Australia. When she's not chasing after two small boys or gazing at her brand-new baby girl, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website, on Twitter or getting creative over at her mummy blog.