07-21-18 Patricia Sargeant

Monday, August 24, 2015

One Thing I Wish Writers Knew

By Courtney Pierce

This month’s subject is a fun one. I’ve learned tons of tips. I could wax on about the importance of honing craft. I often beat the drum of discipline for the long hours of focus needed to produce an engaging novel. I could talk forever about the cerebral dexterity we employ to write a book versus sell one. But these are the basics required of all authors. No secrets here. A few well-chosen workshops by reputable instructors can teach these technical skills.

Photo: Stuart Miles
But one aspect of writing comes from living long enough. At the ripe age of 55, it sparked for me after my first book. Yep. I’m a baby boomer. Here's my tip:

All great fiction is threaded with truth—not the litigious kind, but inner truth.

Writers come to the profession with a compost pile of life experiences. The older we are, the bigger the pile. People, relationships, places, bonehead decisions, and dinner-table stories get shoved into the grinder, then they steam and percolate. Out shoots rich fertilizer for fictional prose. While my characters are born from imagination, they only become real when infused with truth. Some characters receive physical attributes and quirks of people I know; others speak with unique turns of phrase or expose the inner fears of those who've crossed my path.

A former corporate colleague phoned me after she’d read one of my books and said, “I know who your antagonist is.”

“Do you now?” I said, and laughed. “I’m not talking.” The name, gender, and physical description of this person had been changed in the book. The only clues to a real identity were the inclusion of a few key personality traits—but they were real. I drew from those days of driving home in tears after being undermined, lied to, and pushed aside by a boss with a vicious, competitive ego. My private hell. Poisonous venom oozed through of my fingers and into one of my characters. Is that literary revenge?

On the flip side, my husband of 36 years got a twinge of jealousy with my new book Indigo Lake, due out later this year. One of my characters gets a love interest. This man looks nothing like my husband, so it took some finesse to make him realize I wasn’t fantasizing about another.

Photo: Stuart Miles
“Look closer, you goof,” I said. “He’s you in a different skin. My character responds to his predicament like you would. When Olivia meets Woody, the chemistry is me meeting you.”

My elderly mother ran into herself in my fourth book, The Executrix. As one of my toughest beta readers, Mom gave me “the call” after the second chapter.

“Hey! You killed me off before the book even got started?” she said.

I rolled my eyes. “No, Ma. It’s fiction. She’s not you.”

“I know it’s me. Ellen Dushane says things the way I do.”

Of course, Mom was right. Aren't all Moms right? While I didn’t exactly lift my mother from life, I infused a slow drip of her in my book. I wove the character of Ellen Dushane with tiny stitches of gold truth thread—fine stitches only visible under a magnification loop. Ellen becomes three-dimensional as the book progresses, even though she dies on page thirty. In the end, my Mom laughed and took it all in stride. I expressed “the real” at the safe distance of fictional prose, which crystallized my own fear of losing her. Beneath the outrageous humor in The Executrix, I confronted the ever-present lump in my throat for the inevitability of becoming a middle-age orphan.

The greatest compliment a writer can receive is when readers say their fictional characters are real. That they identify with their attitudes, moral dilemmas, and chemistry. My latest book spawned these comments, which is why The Executrix is now a trilogy about the Dushane sisters. The enthusiastic response allowed me to expand the arc of the three colorful sisters. Yes, they’re modeled after my own two siblings. At signings where my mother attends, readers ask her to autograph the book. Mom writes, Truth is stranger than fiction in jiggly scrawl.

Some stuff you can’t make up, and as a writer it takes courage to slip truth on the fictional page. Dig deep into the compost pile. That’s why my favorite T-shirt displays the saying, Careful . . . you’ll end up in my novel.

Courtney Pierce is a fiction writer living in Oregon with her husband of 36 years and bossy cat. She writes for baby boomers. Her novels are filled with heart, humor, and mystery. Courtney has studied craft and storytelling at the Attic Institute and has completed the Hawthorne Fellows Program for writing and publishing. She is a board member of the Northwest Independent Writers Association and is a member of Willamette Writers, Pacific Northwest Writers Association, and Sisters in Crime.

Colorful characters come alive in Courtney's latest novel, The Executrix. When three middle-aged sisters find a manuscript for a murder mystery in their dead mother’s safe, their view of Mom take a whole new turn. Is it truth? Or fiction? Sibling blood becomes thicker than baggage, while Mom looms larger in death than she was in life.

Look for the second book in the trilogy, Indigo Lake. Due out in fall, 2015. Visit Courtney's website at www.courtney-pierce.com. Her books can be purchased at Windtree PressAmazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books, and at several independent bookstores in the Portland and Salem area.


Judith Ashley said...

Great post, Courtney. My son believes I modeled my first book's heroine's son, Charlie, after him. Not really but I can see how he came to that conclusion. It is high praise indeed when readers really relate to your characters!

Sarah Raplee said...

"Writers come to the profession with a compost pile of life experiences.......(everything) get(s) shoved into the grinder, then they steam and percolate. Out shoots rich fertilizer for fictional prose."

What a great description of the process! Great writing does, indeed, contain truth. Wonderful post!

Courtney Pierce said...

Thanks all! It's a fun topic because every writer has their own unique take on the process. I love the circuitous route for speaking truths from the mouths of fictional characters. What's even more fun (and sobering) is what I learn about myself in the process.

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Great post, Courtney. The best authors have characters that jump off the page at the reader. And it's okay if those characters are inspired by reality.