Sunday, December 08, 2019

Mrs. Smucker Grapples With Hard Questions About Fiction Writing

The transition from writing nonfiction to writing fiction is like when someone goes from being Beachy Amish to being Englisch, and they want to put an outfit together.

The Beachy Amish woman has specific parameters. Solid color cape dresses. White covering. Pullover sweaters or cardigans, depending where she’s from. However, she can get creative with the details within those restrictions, maybe putting little pleats at the end of a sleeve or combining a black sweater with a summer-pink dress for a new look.

That’s like non-fiction. You work only with facts and your interpretation of them. That's it. You can't make stuff up, but you can get creative with structure and organization and message.

Now that I’m experimenting with fiction, I feel like the Beachy woman gone worldly. Anything is possible—tank tops, sweatshirts, blouses. Long skirts, pencil skirts, mini skirts. Leggings, jeans, shorts. Solids, florals, stripes. Endless options! I sit down to write and realize I can make up anything I want. Anything! 

It’s a whole new way of thinking—fun but also terrifying.

I’m facing a question that I’ve always faced with nonfiction, but not quite to this degree: How “real” can I be?

Maybe I’ll never get a solid answer that I can seal in a canning jar and leave on the shelf, settled for all time. Maybe this is something I’ll always wrestle with.

After a year and a half in a fiction writing group, I finally finished a story that I was actually happy with. Not a book, let me clarify, but a story. I had fun writing it, the group loved it, and Emily the editing daughter felt that it could go places.

Well, I was happy with it, except for one thing. “But it’s whipped cream,” I sighed. “All fluff and froth and sugar. Not deep. Not about the Hard Realities of Life that I was hoping to address in my stories."

“Yes and no,” countered the critique group. “It’s wholesome. It’s refreshing. And it’s not all fluff! Look, the main character is this single woman who’s made a life for herself. She’s not sleeping around, she’s not bitter. That’s not fluff.”

“Hmmm,” I said.

Soon after I joined the group last year, lacking specific direction, I decided to plunge into a book-length project. A woman I know has a difficult marriage, so I decided to write about her and fix her life. I would also mix in a mystery—my friend “Sara’s” missing pies a few years ago—and solve that while I was at it.

My goodness. That got deep and dark real fast.

The book characters and action veered from real life real fast too, which I found interesting. Ok, so Carol the character was in this tough place. What was it like? Well, her husband and kids didn’t respect or appreciate her. Why not? Hmmm. Probably she didn’t respect herself! And why not? Pretty soon there was a nasty family in her background and a bit of molestation happening in school.

I was hauling this story through mud up to the axles by then, and finally I quit. My group was rooting for Carol, but I was tired of her and her complicated life. I took a break and read one of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s collections of short stories.

It was lovely. Story after story of quirky characters and romances that ended in marriage.

Why not copy her, just for fun? With shocking speed and ease, the fluffy story of a Mennonite romance took shape.
As I said, the group loved it.

And I feel torn. Carol’s life is how some real-life people actually live. Part of me wants to dig in there and grapple with those tough issues, writing them out to offer voice and hope to women stuck in shame, blame, and regret.

But when I read a book, do I want that level of painful subjects or do I want a sweet escape from real life?

What is the purpose of fiction writing, for me? That’s what I’m wondering.

Then there’s the delicate matter of discretion. Which topics and details are appropriate? Should I write so that a child can pick up my book and safely read it, as my friend Hope’s little granddaughter likes to do with Fragrant Whiffs of Joy?

Yesterday a woman told me, “Your books take me to a wholesome place where there’s no swear words and no sex.”

“Hmmm,” I said, because honestly, what do you say to such a statement? Also, in the story about Carol, I illustrate the rift in the marriage in one scene by having Carol resist her husband’s advances.

“Is this allowed in Christian fiction?” I asked my group.

“Yes,” said Pat, who hosts the group. “Because they’re married.”

They’re married, it’s realistic, it illustrates a point. But I wouldn’t be comfortable with Hope’s little granddaughter reading it. 

Then there’s the scene where two moms are talking about Jane being pregnant again, so soon, and isn’t she still nursing Hayley? Well, we know how that works, they say, and laugh.

You know that conversation happens in real life. Yes, I could find another illustration, but in that scene, that conversation told you a lot in a few words.

I have no desire to get as “real” as the woman walking into Home Depot ahead of me yesterday. She wore flesh-colored leggings and, in the nature of leggings, ripply, bouncy things were clearly outlined. I thought, “That is far more than I need or want to see. Some things are meant to stay private," and I tried to look elsewhere without tripping over curbs.

At the same time, I'm not interested in the sort of story that wears a mask of perfection—tight smile, every hair in place, perfect outfit in a long coat, with only manicured hands showing.

Where and what is the balance that connects with the reader?

Another question I’m facing is how much I can pull from real life people and situations. I consider my imagination above average, but I have a surprisingly hard time making up characters and stories out of nothing. Why work so hard to make up people when the world is bursting all around with unique personalities, free for the describing?

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the annual Author and Artist Fair in Eugene, a fundraiser for rural library programs. If not many customers show up at these events, you get to talk with other authors, so it’s always a winning situation. Yesterday was a good mix of readers who came by to talk and breaks in the traffic long enough to dash over to a fellow author and catch up.

I seized the opportunity to get advice from the fiction writers around me. To my left was none other than Melody Carlson who has written some 200 books and is well-known in the Christian book world and beyond.  Across the aisle was Carola Dunn, who is now retired but wrote over 60 books in her day, mostly the Daisy Dalrymple mysteries.

“How much do you draw from real life?” I asked Melody Carlson who, just so you know, is nice and approachable despite having sold seven million books, and the collar on her dress was turned up wonkily in back, which made me really happy.

She draws from broad themes, she said, but not too many specifics. For example, she had a family member with schizophrenia, so she wrote a book about it, but changed all the characters and such, so that the mental illness and the family’s feelings about it were the only elements from real life.

She also mentioned that if Hallmark adapts a book into a movie, it’s not ok to have a divorced mom. She has to be edited into a widow.

Of course Hallmark shows are all about escaping from real life, but still, I wondered about that. There are lots of divorced moms in this world. When is it ok to be realistic about this in our stories? I’m not faulting Hallmark. They know they want happy fantasies in the falling snow, so they can do that all they want.

I’m just not sure if it’s what I want for me.

When I asked Carola Dunn for advice, she said to keep asking "Why?" "Why are your characters doing this? What's behind it?" She also said she pulls characters from real life all the time. The funny thing is, people say they find themselves in her stories, but they never name the actual character Carola based on them. It’s very odd. But it works out well.

Lucy Maud Montgomery, I am told, had a difficult life. Her diaries confirm that she encountered levels of frustration and loss that you’d never guess from her hopeful writings. However, notes of loneliness, regret, sadness, and even abuse show up in her stories if you look for them. But things almost always turn out in the end and I can close the book with a happy sigh and return to my complicated life feeling like everything will come out right in the end for us as well.

Montgomery's books endure a hundred years later. A child can safely pick them up and read them. Is that my answer that I can seal in a jar and cease to reckon with?

I doubt it. I think I’ll be wrestling with these questions as long as I keep writing. Maybe the wrestling is more important, in the long term, than the stories themselves.


  1. "What is the purpose of fiction writing, for me?" That purpose may vary from story to story. But once you have answered that question, perhaps the other questions will be easier to answer. LRM

  2. I'm grappling with many of the same issues as I try to write fiction after writing and publishing nonfiction for three or four decades. Thanks for sharing your insights. I'm not alone in this transition after all. :-)

    1. Thanks for sharing this, and I wish you clear direction and much success.

  3. Fiction is a way of exploring a story world and letting all the frayed edges of life be displayed. Fictional characters can say things people in real life never find the courage to say. That can be cathartic in and of itself. But when your readers find themselves in your story and connect you have done your job. And as the "Pat" you mention here, I find your writing a breath of fresh air. Very much needed in this dark world of ours.

    1. Thank you, Pat! I've learned so much from you.

  4. And maybe you'll share the story of the single lady with us? Here's hoping!

  5. Have you read Jan Karon's Mitford series? She grapples with "real life" in a way that leaves you feeling uplifted. Her main characters, an Episcopal priest and his wife, are the kind of people you'd want as your neighbors! Writing about hard things can be done without graphic descriptions or bad language. I have faith that you'll figure it out through God's grace. I've written a couple of stories myself and ended up crying with and about my fictional characters as they struggled through the hard things of life. Sometimes it's good to build the compassion muscle in our hearts and understand a little bit more what God feels towards us and how much He wants to bless us and fix things if we'd only turn to Him and make righteous choices. Keep up the good work; you are a master story teller and I look forward to more of your work!

    1. Interesting that you mention Jan Karon, because I just told Carola Dunn on Saturday that Karon is my model. She created this whole fictitious place with a cast of characters that continues from book to book. Also, like you, I just LIKE her stories.

  6. Dorcas, your writing reminds me of Jan karons. I just absolutely love her early mitford stories. But she should have quit before she got to number 8 etc. Her later characters aren't very likable or real. And it seems like she is pushing an agenda.

    1. Interesting observation--I never saw that at all, and felt her later books were her best.

  7. Are you really responsible for what other people's children read? Relieve yourself of that burden by letting it rest in the hands of the parents. Is it not your responsibility to write as the Spirit inspires leaving the results to Him?

  8. Dorcas I'm sure the Lord will give you wisdom and the words to write for your fiction writings. You are a great author!

  9. Interesting. I always liked her latest books best. Ah, well, some people have different opinions than others.

  10. In a recent re-read of "Footprints on the Ceiling" I thought of this post as I read the last chapter. You wrote about stories and what they should be like.

    You have already fine-tuned the art of writing true stories. How about starting out writing fiction with a true story, including details that would be too personal to include in fiction? ...and then changing it to remove identifying details and to add the twists that you want the story to take to achieve your purpose of writing that story. LRM

  11. I'm so happy to learn you've begun your fiction-writing journey you talked about way back in 2012 at the author's table at the county fair! Feeling unsure with how much "truth" is in a story is a sign you're growing past your comfort zone. What I do is write just for me, then I dial it back as needed before showing it to others. This is pre-publishing stage, of course. I have many stories that skidded sideways and ended up in a ditch, so maybe not the best example LOL. Happy writing!

  12. I think stories may be a good writing outlet as you grow in writing and explore various things. They're short so not as much involved like a book. I'd love to read your story.

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  14. I just want to read more of your fiction. The one story you posted a while back was hilarious and did such a great job of weaving in all the seemingly random details into a surprising and satisfying ending. But it wasn't syrupy either. The foreshadowing reminded me of James Herriot, somewhat, minus the swearing. I've heard that he wrote his stories in such a disguised manner that almost no one could recognize themselves.

  15. I for one want to read more of your fiction! Sometimes fluff's not as fluffy as you think. I wonder what you would think of two books. Dorothy Sawyer's book, "The Mind of the Maker," on the topic of what it is possible to write as a fiction writer. Fairly weighty, but very interesting concepts. And then "Writing for story", by Jon Franklin, which you may be familiar with. Basically, I don't think the field is quite as wide open as it first appears. In my very limited experience, I can't actually make my characters do whatever I want them to without doing violence to the story and the characters.