In the Family

For all its flaws and foibles, without her family, Elizabeth Bennet would never have fallen in love with and married Fitzwilliam Darcy. Pride and Prejudice is about family: Bingley’s, Darcy’s, and Elizabeth’s. And where would Game of Thrones be without the highly stressed and often dysfunctional Lannisters, Starks, Targarians, and the rest? Families define circumstances, characters, conflicts, and so much more.

About thirty five or so years ago, at the invitation of a friend, I attended a party where one of the guests was holding forth about “these kids today” and the demise of the American family or some such tripe. I found his thesis interesting but flawed. I jumped right in (I’m seldom shy at parties where I don’t know anyone and there is alcohol) with a comment that family is so important to “kids these days” that if their own family didn’t work for them, they’d create a family out of friends and fellow travelers. My utterly humiliated friend drug me aside and hissed, “Do you know who that is? He’s the professor (at the local college) of family studies!” Unabashed, I responded, “He’s still wrong.”

Everybody comes from somewhere, and even orphans, a la Charles Dickens, end up with someone close to care about or devil them. Even a nameless assassin with no past like Jason Bourne will claw his way back to being David Webb, a man who once had a family. Because you can pick your friends but not your family, kin folk can bring a story tension and conflict; allies, or rescue at the appropriate moment; insight into the protagonist and his actions; even insight into why the bad guys got the way they are.

My family has been, at various times, not fully functional, so when I went out into the world on my own, I figured I could do a better job of running my life without bothering with family interference. For the most part, that worked for me, but, as I said, family is so important that, in time, I made my own–my own community of friends, people with similar interests, drinking buddies, allies, and so forth. I also, in time, made peace with my family, or the fragmented bits of it that have presented themselves over the years.

When I started writing, I wanted my characters to be independent and self sufficient. But I found if I introduced some of their family as well as their friends, colleagues, and lovers, the story got richer, like the stories of many of my favorite fictional characters who have lovable or maddening or otherwise noteworthy family members.

Some of the family that show up in my stories are modeled after my own relatives. But I have had enough scrapes with other families that I think I’ll have a supply of notable characters for the rest of my writing career–enough to round out a lifetime’s worth of  work.

Image: A slice of my husband’s family. By Warren C. Hutchins, Sr.

The Sound of My Own Voice

I’ve had the good fortune to take a few writing classes taught by Brian Shawver through The Writer’s Place. Either he is a fantastic teacher (very likely since he is now chair of English and Modern Languages at Park University), or I was lucky enough to have the teacher I needed at the time I needed him–maybe both. At any rate, one piece I worked on in one of his classes was Wasting Water. The story is told by a teenaged girl who lives on a farm with her mother and their animals in the near future when the rain has all but stopped. Brian noted that the voice of the character, Livie, is quite different from my own. That was the first time I realized my character’s voice was borrowed in large part from my father, the only person I knew well who had grown up on a farm during hard times and without one of his parents for much of that time.

Voice for a writer, so I am told, tends to be unique to that writer–his or her own way of using words and seeing the world, of interpreting that world and putting that interpretation down on paper. The voice used by Mark Twain in his many writings in unmistakable, as is the voice of Ernest Hemingway. The voice used by Jane Austen would never be mistaken for one of those other authors. Apparently, most editors in the universe are looking for writers with unique and distinctive voices.

I’ve just finished reading a chapter in one of my writing books about the use of voice. One of the things that struck me as good advise was to be sure your voice is consistent throughout any given book. Some writers may have a voice that comes through from the very first and remains constant throughout their career. Others may need to develop theirs over time. As a writer learns and grows, there is the possibility that how they express themselves may change, perhaps even within a single book. That is something I will be watching for in my own writing.

One might think it’s hard to write in anything but your own voice. However, I suspect a character that has a strong personality might be able to express themselves in spite of the author, just as my Livie did. I did not mean to write Wasting Water in my father’s voice, but his was the one I heard in my head. Livie spoke, and I just wrote down what she said.

Wasting Water will be appearing in Undeniable: Writers Respond to Climate Change to be published by Alternating Current Press. They still are open for submissions through April 30, so check it out if you have poetry, nonfiction, fiction, or hybrid pieces dealing with climate change.

Image: My father, John P. Evans; mother, Geneva; older brother, Paul; and me, on a farm my folks once owned. Photographer unknown.

From Where I Stand: POV

One of the things that writer’s should never, ever do, we are repeatedly told, is “head hop.” You must establish your point of view and stick to it. You can change POV if you make a solid break in the narrative, but the rule is, no head hopping, keep a consistent point of view throughout a scene or chapter. The thing is, one of the greatest of writers, one of my favorites, anyway, Jane Austen, can tell you within a few paragraphs and within the same chapter, what two different people are thinking or feeling. And when she does it, it does not disconcert the reader in any way.

But, but, you may sputter in protest, she didn’t know the rules, or those were different times, or she was a great writer so she could get away with it. Maybe those things are true, but the real reason she did it was because it served the story. Without knowing what her characters think and feel, there is no story. She does this even if it means the scene or chapter is not told entirely from one person’s point of view. Nor is she being god-like with the ability to know and see all, distant and omniscient; rather she can jump from person to person because what the people are feeling is immediate and important, and that is how the story must be told.

People will tell you the dead (with the exception of zombies or vampires) can’t be narrators, can’t have a point of view. That would be silly–they’re dead. But Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett wrote Sunset Boulevard with a dead man as the narrator. Alice Seabold in The Lovely Bones has a dead girl tell her own story from her personal Heaven. And in both cases, the story is told this way because it is the best way to tell the story.

Rules for writing are not made to be broken–they are made to keep us from looking like idiots when we write. Rules, however, are just rules, not laws carrying the death penalty if broken. It’s best to follow them when you’re a beginner, like I am, but if the story requires it, think long and hard, then break the rule without apology. After all, telling the story as it demands is not a rule–it’s the law.

Image: Stourhead, Wiltshire, England; view from the back. By Marilyn Evans.