“Don’t be indifferent about any random idea that occurs to you, because each and every idea is for a particular purpose. it may not be beneficial to you, but can be what others are craving for”
― Michael Bassey Johnson
Possible, Plausible, and Probable
I recently had the pleasure of watching a presentation by David Baldacci. One of many excellent points he made was that mystery and thriller fiction writers are only constrained by what is plausible. We don’t have to ask ourselves, “Is this likely to happen in the real world?” We only have to ask, “Could this possibly happen?” It’s not a matter of probability; it’s a matter of plausibility. This precept doesn’t just free the author to follow their imaginations, but I think it allows writers to give the reader a richer, more entertaining experience. Writers aren’t confined to a narrow box dictated by the nightly news.
Perhaps one of my favorite examples of a novelist who isn’t afraid to step outside the box is Alan Bradley, author of the fantastic Flavia de Luce series. If you’re not familiar with the books—and you should be!—Flavia is an eleven-year-old girl who lives in a small English village in the 1950s. Like all heroines of the cozy mystery genre, her small village has an inordinate number of murders, and Flavia solves them, usually by employing her precocious knowledge of chemistry. It’s the chemistry angle that Bradley most often spins out into something that might not be probable but which is entirely plausible. For example, in a scenario where a cyanide antidote is needed, and the only substance at hand is pigeon droppings, clever Flavia remembers that pigeon droppings contain just such an antidote. In another book, Flavia cobbles together a Marsh test to detect minuscule traces of cyanide poisoning. Well done, Flavia! Well done, Alan Bradley!
Face it, as readers, we find the MacGyver solution to the problem far more entertaining than anything more mundane, anything more realistic. For fiction writers, too, the plausibility concept is freeing and much more fun primarily because it allows us to utilize our imaginations. For fiction writers, whose imaginations are generally operating in overdrive anyway, the opportunity to channel that imagination is quite fulfilling if not outright validating. It’s okay that I think of these odd things! These peculiar thought processes of mine might actually serve a purpose! Hooray!
“Now. What fun but plausible methods will I concoct to kill off the victim in my next book?” she wonders, cackling wickedly as she gleefully rubs her hands together.
Just Because It’s Fiction, It’s Not Empty Calories!
We sat down to watch Netflix’s The English Game at the recommendation of my youngest brother, an ardent soccer fanatic. The show, a period drama written by Julian Fellowes et al., is set in late 19th century England. “Football,” as they call it over there, or “soccer” as we call it in the U.S., was just getting started as an organized endeavor in England and, incredible as it may seem to us today, was dominated by teams made up of members of the upper-class. (We’re talking Eton-level upper class here). As any decent student of history knows, trouble was brewing in the late 19th century, particularly among workers fed up with their working and living conditions, and worker strikes and revolutionary rhetoric were the order of the day. The English Game dramatizes the moment when that working-class rebelliousness spilled itself all over the upper’s nice, gentlemanly game, commencing with a challenge by a team of mill workers against the Old Etonians’ dominance’ ownership of the FA Cup. I’m vastly oversimplifying the plot, but, as you can guess, things gang aft a-gley.
Because this is Julian Fellowes (whose work I love, for the record), we get a slightly Disneyfied version of what was a quite horrid time. The workers, and their living and working conditions, are substantially “cleaned up,” and things like lack of education or health care are only hinted at. We do get a sense of the unequal application of justice and deplorable position of women in society, whether upper or working class. Considering that The English Game is not a documentary but historical fiction, or “period drama,” as TV and film people like to call it, I’m okay with those omissions. It is a good story, well told, with above-average writing, acting, and cinematography—good entertainment, in other words—and that’s all it’s meant to be.
So, you may well ask, what does any of this have to do with writing? Well, in my view, it has to do with the value of fiction in our world. Julian Fellowes, as even his critics would concede, is a fine writer. His skill makes his work product consistently good, and the fact that he writes stories, scripts, and screenplays for film or television does not make him less of a writer. Ultimately, because history, like a bass line under the melody, is primarily there to provide background, context, and structure to the fictional plot(s), Fellowes is a writer of fiction. Were he a novelist, he would be considered a writer of “historical fiction,” a sub-genre of “fiction.” The word I’m boiling down to is “fiction.”
Unless it is literature, fiction gets a bad rap in our world. Non-fiction is the protein on our plate, literature is the green vegetable, and popular fiction is the starchy side dish (usually enhanced with cheese, butter, sour cream, etc.) that we all love even though it’s not very good for us. I would argue, though, that popular fiction is not necessarily empty calories. Like time spent on vacation, there is value in entertainment, and even the fluffiest novel fills that prescription for some. As I’ve said in other contexts, fiction has the capacity to show us places and cultures we might not otherwise see, broaden our minds by exposing us to thoughts and perspectives outside our own, and exercise our brains by forcing them to engage in fantasy or abstract idea, all encapsulated in an easy-to-swallow pill. Unlike non-fiction or literature, popular fiction can subtly explore such topics as the inner lives of humans or social injustice in a way that goes down more smoothly and thus is less likely to be rejected.
Is there danger in historical fiction? Maybe a little. I’m not a fan of fiction that purports to tell the “true story” of a person or event when it is actually based on gossip and speculation. As is the case with non-fiction news articles or stories, the danger lies with the viewer who does not bother to explore further and accepts that what they are seeing is the whole story or, in the case of historical fiction, the “true” story. One should always “read more about it.” (If you are my age or older, you will remember that catchphrase from a time when television tried to combat the criticism that they were dulling the minds of our children.) I know far more about Wellington’s Peninsular War, or the effort of Alfred the Great and his successors to forge a unified England than I would otherwise know had I not read Bernard Cornwell’s excellent novels and then gone on to “read more about it” on my own. Yes, The English Game is a sanitized, fictionalized look at a critical and serious time in English labor relations history. As such, it is good entertainment that gives viewers a taste of the period. But, if it prompts even a handful of people who previously knew nothing about the period or its social issues to do a little digging into the “true” story, it has a value that is different but on a par with a piece of literature.
We tend to find what we look for. If we look for meaning and illumination in fiction, we might just find it. It’s not all empty calories. To look down one’s nose at popular fiction is to miss the point. It dismisses the big picture and ignores the realities of the daily lives most of us live.
In short, I wish the world would give us fiction writers a break, and so too fiction readers. The next time someone asks you who your favorite author is, and you suspect they are the sort of person who will scoff if you name anyone less than Hemingway or Faulkner, don’t blush and mumble your answer. Stick out your chin and proudly say Diana Gabaldon or George R. R. Martin or whoever you want. Should they have the bad manners to scoff openly, tell them to put a cork in it!
A Word About Book Bloggers
I want to say a word about book bloggers. As far as I’m concerned, they’re the best thing to hit the internet since, well . . . I don’t know when. I just know I think they’re fantastic! Book bloggers haven’t merely edged their way into a niche once reserved only for a media-connected elite; they have remodeled and built additions onto that niche so that it now stands as a mansion. Book bloggers have taken the realm of reviewing books and shining the spotlight on authors from a tiny, inaccessible storefront to a mega-mall, and I love it!
These hard-working individuals do what they do not because someone pays them to do it, but because they love books. That fact, perhaps more than any other, is what warms us to them. You’ll rarely find snarky, intellectually condescending comments (read: “I can judge what is good, and you can’t”) on a blog site. Instead, bloggers write reviews that come from their hearts. If they don’t like something, they’ll usually find a way to say so without crushing the author or patronizing their readers. When they do like something, their genuine enthusiasm is infectious. They love books, and they love to read—just like you and me. It’s as simple as that.
The number of blog sites is overwhelming, and the quality ranges from “okay” to “excellent.” It is interesting to me that SO MANY of the blogs trend toward the latter end of that spectrum. You’d think it would be the other way around. Perhaps this is an example of market forces at work; if your blog is not up to snuff, folks won’t visit, and it will die on the vine. Not all bloggers are brilliant writers, but that’s okay. We’re not asking them to be Shakespeare or to have Strunk & White memorized; we’re asking them to tell us about the books they’ve read or to spotlight books we might have missed. When we find bloggers whose taste is akin to ours, we turn to them to help us navigate the flood of books on the market. Period.
Another wonderful thing about bloggers is that they help us discover independent authors. Particularly in certain genres, the emergence of the indy author has been a godsend for readers whose cravings for more material are not filled by traditional publishers. Readers want more of what they love, and the proliferation of indy authors not only serves that demand, it does so in a smorgasbord of ways alien to traditional publishers who can’t afford to take a chance on the unproven.
The Light Catcher Murders has completed two blog tours and will do another one in January. Such tours give me and other indy authors exposure that we could never get on our own. Heck, maybe even more exposure than a traditional publisher would afford new authors! As anyone who has ever heard Louise Penny speak knows, traditional publishers don’t do book tours for new authors. Furthermore, book bloggers set up their sites so beautifully that having your book appear on one of their blogs can be as impactful as getting it on the shelf of an independent bookstore—if you can get it on a shelf.
In short, I wanted to applaud the emergence of the book blogging phenomenon and the ladies and gentlemen who have given it life. Traditional media reviewers are great, and we certainly need them and enjoy what they write, but bloggers cover a more comprehensive range of genres and feature an astonishing, previously neglected array of authors. Long may they blog!
Digital vs. Paper
(And, does it matter?)
How many arguments have you had with friends over your preference for either paper books or e-reader books? If you’re like me, that discussion has arisen more than once and has occasionally turned heated. The thing that gets me is how some people think they have to choose one or the other. I have a foot in both camps; for some books, I buy the hard copy; for others, the e-reader version is fine.
I love the feel and smell and general sensation of holding a real book between my hands, and my tendency is to want to hold on to every single book I read. I do have a small library, and there are bookcases and stacks of books scattered throughout my house. Still, accommodating all of the books I buy is impractical, if not impossible. So I had to come up with a system. I tend to purchase hard copies of non-fiction books, reference books, or books for which I have a particular fondness. An exception to this rule is books that are part of a large series that would overrun my bookshelves if I tried to keep them all. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is on the shelf, all of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s books are on my e-reader. For “beach reads” or “weekend reads,” I tend to go with the e-reader version.
In my view, the important point is that—regardless of the format—one is reading a book. When, I ask a new friend or acquaintance if they like to read, I am left somewhat speechless if their answer is “no.” I mean, what the heck?! How can that be?! I usually stammer a little as I try to smile and pretend that it’s okay with me that they don’t share my passion, but inwardly I’m appalled. The reason is quite simple: aside from the obvious pleasure to be had, reading books is, in my view, a fundamental building block toward being one’s best self.
Because you’re here, my guess is that you already appreciate the sensory and soul-fulfilling experience of reading a book, the emotional bond one forms with characters, and the emotional and intellectual journey on which they can take us. A book is an immersive experience that can do everything from merely entertaining to expanding our minds. Books force us to exercise our imaginations. At their best, books also improve our ability to handle abstract thoughts, sharpen our critical thinking skills, and broaden our understanding of people and places we might not otherwise experience.
I suppose there are other methods by which one can achieve this state of literary grace, though I’m hard-pressed to come up with one. Television and movies, wonderful as they are (and I am a HUGE fan of movies), simply don’t offer the intimate, in-depth experience that a book gives us. Travel is great and certainly gives one a broader appreciation of the terrestrial world, but it is transitory and often lacks depth, not to mention that it IS limited to our terrestrial and physical world. As far as I know, no travel agency offers tours of Narnia, Wonderland, Arrakis, or Westeros. And, travel can be out of reach for many people. A man named John Lubbock once wrote, “We may sit in our library and yet be in all quarters of the earth.” Books are democratizers of both intellectual entertainment and information.
The point I’m trying to make here is that, like exercise, it’s not the method but the doing of it that matters. I know that, in addressing this audience, I’m preaching to the choir. But, if you’re like me and find yourself somewhat speechless when you are confronted with sheepish, lame excuses for why a friend or acquaintance doesn’t read books, maybe I’ve given you a word or two to get you started with your argument for a change in their habits.
The Plant Which Cannot Be Forced
I noticed on Amazon that The Light Catcher Murders is doing well in the “Women’s Friendship Fiction” category. I’m not sure what that means—aside from the fact that there must not be very many entries in that category! If that’s the case, then HOW ODD. When I think about friendships between women, the first thing that strikes me is how different those relationships appear from friendships between men. Unlike men, who seem to mostly want guys to “hang” with, a pack, or a club, women seem to seek friends with whom they can connect on the very personal soul level. Of course, I’m talking about genuine friendships here, not social media “friends” or co-worker-only relationships, or any of the other transient relationships that last only as long as we stay in one place. I’m talking about friendships that represent a sharing of highs and lows, intimate thoughts, adventures big and small, and moments that stay in our memories as we age. I’m talking about a kind of sisterhood, I suppose.
It is that kind of friendship I tried to celebrate as I wrote the relationships between the women who form the main cast of The Light Catcher Murders. Each of the women is quite unique; their personalities, backgrounds, professions, interests, and personal situations so distinctive that it is difficult to imagine that they could have ever become good friends. And yet, they have. Like sisters, they may occasionally bicker, some may be annoyed by certain personality traits of others, and they have varying tolerance levels for socializing, but on some fundamental, subconscious level, they connect. The women are there for each other. They rally ‘round when one of their number is in trouble. They have each other’s backs.
It is a marvel, this business of how and why women form friendships, and I hope to explore it further in future Kate Atherton Mysteries.
“Friendship however is a plant which cannot be forced―true friendship is no gourd spring up in a night and withering in a day.” ― Charlotte Brontë, The Letters of Charlotte Brontë