October 30, 2009

What to write, what to write

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 6:08 pm

How do we writers find our topics? How do we decide what to write about?

The author Michael Connelly–whose work I haven’t yet read, but now will–talks about this topic in two interesting articles today. His angle is actually not finding a topic, but what happens when the subject he has already found turns out to have eerie overtones in real life. The interviews are quite poignant. Mr. Connelly’s connection to his material is intense, and he communicates that wonderfully.

Suspense and mystery novelists write about terrible things. So do many literary and women’s fiction and fantasy and other writers. Why we write about them is too big a topic for a blog, or at least for this post tonight, but what I am going to say something about is how we find these topics.

I have written about the death of a toddler twenty-five years in the past, an abducted family, a husband who never shows up to meet his wife after work, an octogenarian who torments a new mother (or does he?) and a little girl who must face the man who molested her, among other topics.

And the reason I write about them is this.

I write to ward off fear. I write because I am all too aware of the thin line between reality and horror, the moment when everything changes that is so instantaneous we can never see it coming, the befores and afters of our lives. I write to show, or acknowledge, that there but for the grace go I.

Why do you write what you do? Please let me know.


  1. Excellent question, Jenny. You’re making me think, so this is a kind of stream-of-consciousness response.

    I write to prove to myself that as horrible as things get, as crushing as events can be, we (I) can still survive them and come out victorious.

    I write to explore dark places. Weaknesses. Vulnerable areas. Perhaps, as you do, I ward off fear by exposing it.

    The most difficult thing I can think of to write (and maybe one day I should) is that thing that ends badly. That fear, that dark place, that doesn’t make me stronger, but evacuates all hope. Kind of like an Oprah Book Club selection, eh?

    Ugh. Think I’ll go pan-sear our sea bass for dinner. As messy as that is, it’s easier than thinking about this.

    Comment by Peg Brantley — October 30, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

  2. Wow, sounds like we have some similarities, huh, Peg? I’m with you. I’d rather pan fry fish than conceive of an ending without redemption on some level. I guess I should also have said that I write to order an unjust world. Without that, fiction is for me…life.

    I find it amazing–in a I’m-so-glad-there-are-all-kinds-in-this-world kind of way–when writers say they want to create worlds as lifelike as possible. Not that I don’t enjoy reading those books–I often do. But the (yes, sometimes predictable) arc of a mystery or suspense novel is as reassuring to me as hot soup.

    Comment by jenny — October 30, 2009 @ 7:27 pm

  3. Hot soup. Comfort food. Stories that end well.


    These things make life bearable, and although they weren’t included in the Julie Andrews song, but they should’ve been.

    Comment by Peg Brantley — October 30, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

  4. I write what I do because I prefer the unpleasant truth to pleasant lies. Likewise, I read fiction to strengthen myself, to become a larger, deeper human being, rather than comfort myself.

    Comment by Sara — October 30, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

  5. That’s really interesting, Sara. I wonder what decides this…who reads to stretch and reach and tolerate the ungainly, and who reads for pleasure, and escape, and…soup? I think conventional wisdom would have that the former is deep and the latter more superficial, but I’m not sure that’s so. I mean–I do think the former is deep. It’s brave and wrangles with the meat of matters. And the latter does go down easier. But in comfort is such a leap–into an alternate reality, away from reality–that it might be just as much of a stretching of the mind.

    OK, probably rambling nonsensically here!

    Comment by jenny — October 30, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

  6. I have no idea why I write the things I do, but every time I am inside the mind of a madman. It’s an uncomfortable place to be. I like darkness, I like mystery, I like people who think they should be gods on earth. I like that which is bigger than life. I like tragedy and I like passion. I like people who devour themselves in their attempts to change the world.

    Why? I don’t know.

    I never write about real life. Real life is boring, or, worse, tragic in a way I do not wish to face. I think my dark historical fiction gives me a nice distance from which to view madness and obsession and tragedy.

    Comment by sapphiresavvy — October 31, 2009 @ 11:02 am

  7. Sapphire Savvy, I would say you ARE writing about real life– the dark undercurrent–but in a metaphorical way. Readers also appreciate a safe lens (history) through which to view the ongoing madness of the world.

    Jenny, I don’t think it’s a matter of deep/superficial. I think it’s a matter of the reader’s own life experience. As I wrote in American Fuji, Gaby and Alex were “the kind of people who need the truth.” Some people need to know what’s going on in order to get by; others don’t–a moment of hope or inspiration that dreams can come true is enough. This doesn’t mean I can’t get truth from science fiction or mysteries or horror novels, but that I read for truth about human nature rather than reassurance that everything is okay and every ending will be happy. Either way nourishes a reader and helps him/her cope with life’s rich pageant.

    Comment by Sara — November 1, 2009 @ 8:54 am

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