Thursday, October 17, 2013

Writing Difficult Topics by Claire Rogerson

Today's guest blog is by writer Claire Rogerson and includes a topic near and dear to the heart of my protagonist Ryan Murphy in Gumbo Justice and Jambalaya Justice. When the mystery series begins, Ryan has begun drinking somewhat excessively to cope with some issues from her past.  Read what Claire has to say about writing about this and other sensitive topics.

Late Nights, Not After School: Writing Difficult Topics
There are some topics which have to be handled with respect - not necessarily the kind of respect you’d give royalty, but the kind you give to volatile chemicals. One wrong move and you can explode the hard work you’ve put into the rest of your novel, leaving the reader feeling cheated, used, and thoroughly disengaged from the story. Call them the after-school special topics: addiction, rape, abuse, and mental illness. They’re the big guns a lot of beginning (or just subpar) writers reach for when they want to create drama without doing the work, using them as a cheap shortcut to sympathetic characters, “gritty” plots, and a general sense of edginess. Not only does this disrespect the people who actually live through these things, they’re easily sniffed out by disappointed readers. Of course, there are ways of avoiding using these topics lazily; all it takes is knowledge, consideration, and understand the story you’re trying to tell. 

Do The Research
Before you start writing, start reading. Although almost all stories require - and definitely benefit from - research, we can extrapolate from our own lives for most emotional states. Yet with so many cliches, incorrect tropes, and “everybody knows” ideas around these topics, it’s particularly important to let go of what you think you know and start fresh. You can do everything else right, but your story will feel hollow unless you start with facts and lived experiences. It’s fine to have a character with OCD, but there’s a world of difference between one who just washes their hands a lot and one who struggles realistically with intrusive thoughts.

Read everything: websites, books, and forums where people who live with these things gather to talk. (For the latter, it can be helpful to introduce yourself; not only is it polite, but you might find people you can ask specific questions.) As a way of ridding yourself of misconceptions, one trick is to write down everything you believe about the topic and then making notes on each belief as you learn more - some of them might be true, but even those will likely have much more to them.

Where Are They, And Why?
One of the rookie mistakes writers make when writing these topics is to use them as high drama, placing their character squarely inside the most intense moments. While this is a legitimate story, it can also be a major distraction (and a source of cringe-worthy melodrama) if it’s not applicable to the actual plot. Instead, it’s possible to acknowledge these topics as part of life and examine the subtleties instead of the shouts.

Take addiction, for example. It’s possible to have believable, appropriate characters who are deep within their addiction, but it’s also effective to have their addiction be only one part of their complex whole. They might have gone through alcohol addiction recovery a decade earlier, or they might be on the cusp of addiction - those months or years when it’s anyone’s guess whether it will one day be something to worry about. Particularly for the latter approach, sometimes it’s something you know (that in ten years they’ll be regular AA attendees, for example) that doesn’t need to even be mentioned; it informs the way they are now, but might not ever be said outright. Considering your character’s addiction - or mental illness, or abuse - in the context of their life will bring a new sense of truth and solidity to its inclusion, allowing your words to ring true even to people who have experienced what you’re writing.

How Does It Fit?
Finally, it’s critical to examine why you’re including one of these topics. Is it because it makes sense in the context of the plot, does it add to characterization and deepen your story, or is it being used for shock value or another reason? There’s some genres where shock-value inclusion is valid, but for most stories it will have the opposite of the intended effect: instead of deepening the reader’s interest, they’ll see it for what it is and roll their eyes, pulling them out of your story. Not really the reaction you’re looking for, is it? By getting a handle on why you’re including one of these topics as background, a plot point, or anything else, you’ll be closer to recognizing the best way to write it.

These topics shouldn’t be taboo - in fact, it’s the much-maligned after-school specials which helped to bring them into mainstream conversation. Yet we’re a lot way from the days when they automatically brought an exploitive thrill simply by inclusion, and they should be treated with dignity and healthy respect. With those in place, you’re well on your way to writing something with real bite.


Claire Rogerson is a freelance writer, who made a career change after giving birth to her first daughter. She now enjoys the perfect, if busy, combination of researching her passion for helping people overcome addictions with writing and at the same time looking after her family. When not doing all of that, she's an avid volleyball fan and gardener. 


Holli said...

Thank you Claire for the great post. Sensitive issues can cause a writer to lose credibility if they are handled poorly or awkwardly, so thanks for the tips.

Holli Castillo

Anonymous said...

Excellent advice, Claire. Many make the mistakes you've pointed out. Great post.


marja said...

I particularly like what you said about writers adding these things for shock value. If the writer isn't familiar with the topic, then the shock is that they'd even use it. Great post, Claire!
Marja McGraw