What Novelists Really Do
It occurred to me during my vacation this past month to New York’s Hudson Valley and the Berkshires that one of the reasons we go on vacation is to suspend the rules we normally play by. This may also be what readers of fiction demand from the stories they submerge themselves in.
I see vacations as a chance to take a break from my normal routine, from work, from my usual surroundings. It is a chance to sleep late (not so, with kids), rest (not so, with kids), and to see new places and explore.
Some vacations require a lot of money and long travel regimens. Some have specific destinations, such as wanting to see the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Others want to soak in nature and beauty (a beach, a mountain). But my vacation took me just an hour and a half north of my house, by car, did not cost much at all, and did not include any real destination tourist attraction (of any consequence) – but it was a wonderful little escape with my family. Most of all, it reminded me of what I needed most – a suspension of the rules that I normally live by. I was in farm country and life was at a different pace.
I did not watch TV for five days straight. I didn’t visit Starbucks (none were there). I didn’t step foot on a train to go to work. I didn’t even venture into my blogging and social media gymnastics. I just soaked up 80-degree, sunny days like a kid -- biking an old rail trail one day, row-boating another. There was the air show at the Aerodrome in Rhinebeck (100-year-old planes still got off the ground) and there was the Dutchess County Fair (you can pet as many sheep, cows, goats, and pigs until you feel like you work on a farm). We also went to Lake Compounce, a hundred-year-old amusement park.
We lived a life on the road. Every 10-15 minutes we could stop in a small town, visit something like an old cemetery, and then move on. There were too many one-lane roads for my tastes, but if that was the price to pay to see open spaces to my sides and the vastness of the sky above I was fine with it. If I stayed any longer I may have seen life from the vantage point of the locals. Perhaps I’d come to see society differently. That is both good and bad. For instance, I’d start to understand and appreciate the plight of a farmer but I may also start to understand the hunter, who to me, now, is still an alien force that I cannot appreciate.
As I began to feel like I belonged somewhere that I have already decided wouldn’t be my day-to-day life, I reflected on the books that people read. We read novels for many reasons but I think one of them is that we get to live in a story we otherwise would not. I don’t mean stories of the future, time travel, or vampires – but of present day realities that we don’t feel like we would live in. The city liberal may enjoy a novel of a right-wing country hunter or an Amish woman may enjoy a slutty erotic book of the big-city college girl. But they won’t live such lives.
I think we read novels that take us into situations that are not so foreign to us, but that are alternate versions of what our lives could have been. Often we judge what we read by our righteous and self-centered eyes, but other times we let ourselves admit that we could live by different morals and customs, that we could do the things that we had for some reason feared, ignored or even hated.
Does this mean an ACLU-carrying member can enjoy a book written by a slave owner or that a conservative can be taken in by a woman’s memoir that reveals abortion, drugs, and affairs? Perhaps.
I think a good novel would find the appeal in things that we seem repulsed by and I think good vacations expose us to a world we either dismissed or never fully understood.
I couldn’t live in a small town of mountains and farms but I know now there truly is nothing wrong with that world. I just prefer, for better or worse, the existence I have carved out for myself as a city slicker. But a little of me resides in the valley, for upon my return home, I felt both more complete as a person and yet a little empty. I cannot have it all but I guess I am gambling that I am living the best life I could under the circumstances.
But I know that some of these ‘circumstances’ could be changed by me, that I am most held back by myself than anyone or anything else. So vacations both expose me to more, reaffirm that the life I live is the one I want – and that sometimes it is nice to cross the road and see life from a different vantage point.
Novelists, write what you know and write it passionately, but remember that your reader wants to see not just a mirror, but what rests on the other side.
Interview With Novelist Lorrie Porter
1. What is your newest book about? My first novel, Fury, is the story of a boy called Slav, who is cast out of his village because people think he's a murderer. Slav journeys through the forests of Eastern Europe trying to find the true killer. Along the way he meets with bandits, smugglers, rebels, soldiers, and a travelling circus. Finally he discovers the truth about the killings in his village, but it's not exactly what he expected. Fury is published by Meadowside Books and will be available next year.
2. What inspired you to write it? I wanted to write an adventure story which kept the reader turning the pages to find out what happens next. Hopefully, I've achieved that with Fury.
3. What are the rewards/challenges to the writing process? I'm a big fan of the editing process. I've done over 20 re-writes of Fury. By re-write, I don't mean I write from scratch each time. I always work with the existing text and make changes to that. Writing is a process. There's so much that goes into making a story, it'd be impossible to do it all in one go. Each time I re-write, I see the story emerge with more definition. It's very satisfying.
4. Any advice for a struggling writer? Read everything. Not just fiction, read about how to write fiction. There are plenty of good books out there on process and techniques. Also there are a lot of excellent blogs by writers for writers. I blog myself at, 'This Craft Called Writing'.
5. Where do you see book publishing heading? I'm a big fan of e-books. For me they take on a similar role to the cheap paperbacks of the mid 20th century. They make publishing more accessible to people, and anything which expands the market has to be a good thing. There will always be quality books in print but they're expensive to produce so it's a difficult market for young writers to break into. It's good to have an alternative option where writers can learn their trade and also get paid for their efforts.
Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, the nation’s largest book promoter. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.
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