If you are interested in blogging or want to promote your book, please contact E. B. Davis at writerswhokill@gmail.com.

Here are the upcoming WWK interviews for the month of July!

July 4th Christopher Huang, A Gentleman's Murder

July 11th V. M. Burns, The Plot Is Murder

July 18th Edith Maxwell (Maddie Day), Death Over Easy

July 25th Shari Randall, Against The Claw

Our July Saturday Guest Blogger Schedule: 7/7--Mary Feliz, 7/14--Annie Hogsett, 7/21--Margaret S. Hamilton, 7/28--Kait Carson.

Our special bloggers for the fifth Monday and Tuesday of July--Kaye George and Paula Gail Benson.

Please welcome two new members to WWK--Annette Dashofy, who will blog on alternative Sundays with Jim Jackson, and Nancy Eady, who will blog on every fourth Monday. Thanks for blogging with us Annette and Nancy!

Congratulations to our writers for the following publications:

Annette Dashofy's Uneasy Prey was released in March. It is the sixth Zoe Chambers Mystery. The seventh, Cry Wolf, will be released on September 18th. Look for E. B. Davis's interview with Annette on September 19th.

Carla Damron's quirky short story, "Subplot", was published in the Spring edition of The Offbeat Literary Journal. You can find it here: http://offbeat.msu.edu/volume-18-spring-2018/

Tina Whittle's sixth Tai Randolph mystery, Necessary Ends, debuts on April 3, 2018. Look for it here. Tina was nominated for a Derringer Award for her novelette, "Trouble Like A Freight Train Coming." We're all crossing our fingers for her.

James M. Jackson's Empty Promises, the next in the Seamus McCree mystery series (5th), was published on April 3, 2018. Purchase links are here. He's working on Seamus McCree #6 (False Bottom)

Dark Sister, a poetry collection, is Linda Rodriguez's tenth published book. It's available for sale here:

Shari Randall's "Pets" will be included in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies anthology, which will be published in 2018. In the same anthology "Rasputin," KM Rockwood's short story, will also be published. Her short story "Goldie" will be published in the Busted anthology, which will be released by Level Best Books on April 25th.

Shari Randall's second Lobster Shack Mystery, Against the Claw, will be available in July 31, 2018.


Monday, November 14, 2016

Writers Don't Come from Nowhere

by Linda Rodrigez

Receiving honor shawl from Chief of Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma
I’m a Cherokee poet and novelist who writes about a Cherokee protagonist and also reviews books, so people send me just about every novel written that has a major Indigenous character in it. A terrifying number of them are romances with generic spray-tanned hunks on the cover, love interests who are half-Cherokee, half-Navajo, half-Sioux, or just plain half-Indian (these authors don’t seem to know any other of the 500 tribes exist) and written without the least tiny bit of knowledge of any of these different cultures.

I also get contacted repeatedly by people who want me to give them a crash course in being Cherokee (or even just Native) because they’ve decided to make the protagonists of their books, or even a whole series, Cherokee (or just Native). These are people who know nothing about the Cherokee, not even the most basic information, and apparently have no Cherokee friends or acquaintances. My attitude toward them, I’m afraid, is not much more sympathetic than toward the authors wanting reviews for their books with “Native” characters. Basically, these folks are saying to me, “I want an ‘exotic Indian’ protagonist and the Cherokee are the most famous tribe, so I’ll choose them, but I have no real interest in the culture or knowing anyone in it. I’m too lazy to do any research on the most documented tribe in American history (the Cherokee were over 90% literate in their own written language and had a bilingual newspaper long before the Removal in the 1830s), so please do my research for me—and maybe I’ll use it or maybe I’ll just do what I want to do, whether it’s true to the culture or not, while putting your name down as the ‘expert’ I consulted. Because I clearly don’t give a real damn.”

Still, as an editor friend of mine once said, “Writers don’t come from nowhere.” He’s absolutely correct in saying that, and it speaks to a constant problem I see with manuscripts. Among other things I do to make what is laughingly called a living, I screen manuscripts for several national book contests, evaluate manuscripts for several university or small presses, and review fellowship application packets for two artist residencies. One of the problems I constantly encounter when reading slush pile or contest entries or fellowship application manuscripts is the writer who seems to come from nowhere and to exist in no particular space in the world.

Unfortunately, I read a lot of manuscripts with good technique but no life, and with no roots, history, or culture to feed them, they’re not likely to ever develop any. These writers are trying to be universal, I suppose, but they haven’t learned the lesson that the specific and particular embody the universal and make it come to life.

Everyone comes from somewhere. Perhaps from an urban slum, perhaps from a pristine upscale suburb, perhaps from an up-and-down series of foster homes, perhaps from great wealth or poverty or anything in between. Everyone comes from some place, some culture, some family. Somewhere where people talk and think a certain way and hold certain expectations. Too many otherwise good manuscripts, however, exist in limbo, in a cultural vacuum.

I suspect, in part, this has become so prevalent because writers think their own backgrounds are not interesting or “exotic” enough. It seems to me that America has a paradoxical relationship with difference. We fear and hate the different, the Other, but we also exoticize it, investing it with greater interest and excitement than ourselves. These attitudes are actually two sides of the same coin since exoticizing the Other renders it even more foreign and Other and thus worthy of fear and hate. The result for writers, however, is that many writers feel their own backgrounds can never match the interest of the Other.

One evening at a lively, crowded Latino Writers Collective event, a young woman was talking with two of us and the half-Iranian wife of another member. This young woman lamented that she had no culture to draw on for her creative work and wished she were Latino or Native American or Middle Eastern since that would give her cultural richness to write about.

As I questioned her, however, I found that her father had come from Norway as a young child with his parents and her mother’s father emigrated as an adult from the Ukraine—two places rich with history, art, culture—but she knew nothing about them, had pretty much scorned them. I recommended she learn about where and what she came from instead of wishing she were someone else, someone “exotic.” These cultures and the upper Midwestern place in which she’d grown up were her donnée, her given.

Roots isn’t just a miniseries. Ancestral culture is something we all have, whether we know it or not. It’s a little easier for those of us who can’t escape it because of the faces, eyes, and hair in our mirrors or the names or accents that set us apart from the mainstream. For us, it becomes one of our obsessions because difference per se is an obsession with most Americans. And because, too often, difference equals less than to a number of Americans. This fact, underlined by radio and television daily, leaves us scribbling away to try and show that our people, our cultures, our languages are rich and beautiful and not less than anyone else’s.

We all have our own specific roots, though, every one of us. And even if we’ve fought hard to escape from them, they leave a lasting impact on us, on the way we use language, and on our worldview. Witness F. Scott Fitzgerald who returned to the status of the once-poor outsider futilely trying to enter the ranks of wealthy society and win the rich girl of his dreams for his greatest work, The Great Gatsby. If Fitzgerald had tried instead to write from the viewpoint of someone born to that wealthy stratum of society, think what his novel would have lost. If we try to whitewash our roots out of existence so we’ll fit in better with the homogenized culture around us, we’ll inevitably shortchange our work.

Increasingly in America, many people pass as homogenized, middle-class, white/Anglo Americans (though many doing that are not really Anglo-Saxon, such as my friend of the Norwegian-Ukrainian background). It’s almost always easier that way—leave behind the non-Anglo-Saxon background, the poor or working-class background. Leave behind the chance of ethnic slur (there’s one for just about every non-English background). Leave behind the chance of socioeconomic slur (poor white trash, trailer trash, redneck, anyone?). But I believe the decision to leave our histories behind is a mistake. When we do this, we rob ourselves of riches we can use to make our writing come alive.

The two most powerful aspects of writing that has a unique voice, writing that comes alive, are detail—the detail that only you would have noticed and invested with emotion—and obsession. The best writers write from their obsessions, and obsessions start in childhood and adolescence. They start back there in our family histories and the cultures in which we grew up.

I know. I know. It sounds like the old “write what you know” stuff, doesn’t it? I don’t mean to set limits, however. If you find yourself obsessed with some other culture in which you didn’t grow up—the way John Steinbeck did with the Okies of the Dust Bowl—throw yourself into that culture. Live with it and learn it. Steinbeck “imbedded” himself with the Okies as they trekked from Oklahoma to California and as they tried to live in California. That’s the way he was able to write The Grapes of Wrath with such powerful authenticity. Writers who ignore their own roots often try to write from the viewpoint of someone very different from their own experience—without bothering to learn much about that community. When you read their work, you can tell immediately that they have no real basis in that character’s world. It rings false, and that’s always a death knell for any writer, whether poet, writer of fiction or nonfiction.

If you’re going to write from inside a character from a different culture, spend real time in that culture with its people. Talk with them, but more importantly, listen to them. Ask questions. Learn the culture. I guess it is the old command of “write what you know,” after all, or rather, what you have taken the time to learn about.

My advice is to root yourself as a writer. Go back to your own origins. Mine your memories, seeking those emotion-freighted, telling details and your own obsessions. Learn about your own history and culture—all of it if you’re a mix of more than one, as most of us are. Remember the language and idiom of your earliest family. And if you want to write about cultures and people foreign to your experience, root yourselves just as deeply in those also.

Find your roots as a writer, and I believe you will find your voice. Isn’t that what we all look for when we read—a unique and distinctive voice that allows us to see the world in a way that’s slightly different from the way anyone else does? What’s the old adage about giving your children roots and wings? Well, give your writing roots, and you’ll give it a chance to take flight.

Linda Rodriguez's book, Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, forthcoming Nov. 29, is based on her popular workshop. Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery featuring Cherokee campus police chief, Skeet Bannion, is due in June, 2017. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, and Every Last Secret—and her books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart's Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in the anthology, Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.


Grace Topping said...

Excellent points, Linda. Thank you. For whatever reason, many people don't look back at their own backgrounds and choose to write about something different. Or if they do write about a group of people, they rely on tired stereotypes. I realized that I had done that in a drafted manuscript and made changes, fortunately before anyone else reviewed it.

Margaret Turkevich said...

Ohio is under-represented in fiction, but the small college town I write about is an actual place where I once lived. I know the flora and fauna, the sights, sounds, and smells, and how the seasons change. I know the people who live there, and the facades they build to keep their little world a safe and sane place.

I wrote a short story about New Orleans, a place I'm getting to know more about with each visit, though I hadn't experienced the Red Dress Run in person. I researched the event, its history, food, and music, and interviewed my daughter, who had participated. The characters I created were based on southern women I had known.

Warren Bull said...

Once a woman filled out a form about me for employment. I knew her. She had been married and divorced twice. at that point in my life I was single and had not married. Looking over the form to make any corrections I noticed that under marital status she had written "None."

Sometimes I write about people of color. I have chosen to live and work in place where, as a Caucasian, I was part of a minority.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Grace, if only everyone would do that, but they often don't realize they're using stereotypes because they don't know any people from those backgrounds.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Margaret, I've read your writing about your Ohio small town, and you do an admirable job of making it come alive--because you have such a background there.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Warren, so if you weren't married or divorced, you had no status, at all? What about good old "single" or "bachelor"? This is the thing, so many people only view the world through their own self-centered, limited view. Everyone and everything else is Other.

Kait said...

Writing ethnic background is difficult. While my protags are Caucasians, because they live in South Florida they both have ethnic friends. I'm lucky to have long-term friendships in the Latin community that have created a posse to keep me straight. Even then, I get tripped up. In my first book, my protag had a Puerto Rican friend. When I gave the scenes to my friend to vet she called me out--I had used some Cuban, not Puerto Rican references. Subtle, but telling differences.

Linda Rodriguez said...

But see, Kait, you're doing it right. I don't think anyone expects perfection, but we do expect that writers will do their due diligence and try their best to be accurate. I think any writer who wants to write about diverse characters and doesn't have any people from diverse backgrounds in her/his life needs to self-question why her/his life is so segregated and what to do about that first. Most of the time, it's by choice, and that usually means that person has internalized the negative stereotypes about people who aren't from her/his own background. Not a promising beginning.

Donna Volkenannt said...

Congratulations on your award, Linda, and thanks for the reminder that the specific and particulars embody the universal and make it come to life. I especially appreciate the advice that finding our roots will help us find our voices.

Gloria Alden said...

My books take place in a fictional town in N.E. Ohio where I've lived all my life. Even though I've visited many places throughout my life, I don't feel I know enough about those places to feel comfortable writing about them

A few years ago a writer who I knew only through Malice and the Guppies, got a contract to write a series for a publisher who publishes lots of cozy mystery series. I was looking forward to reading the book because it took place in an Amish community in Ohio, and I like books with an Amish theme. However, she never visited Holmes County where it supposedly took place with the name changed. I got so upset reading the book because there were very few references to the Amish in there except for a young girl who was breaking away from being Amish. Obviously, she hadn't visited the area or even done any research on it. Especially, when she had a young English teenager come in all excited because he saw this old guy with a beard in a buggy. There is no way anyone living in almost any section of Ohio would not know the guy was Amish or be excited about seeing an Amish person especially in the area the author was writing about.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Yes, Donna, writers who focus on telling details will bring things alive on the page, and voice is almost always a function of who we are in this world and how we react to who we were born in this world.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Gloria, exactly! That's a perfect example of what I frequently talk about when I talk about writing other cultures. Stereotypes only. And the falsity makes a discordant note that ruins the whole book.

Anonymous said...

You've reminded me of Dan Keding's experience working in Alaska. A student complained there was nothing to write about. Then a bear clawed the window . . . "Oh that happens all the time." We don't think what we see is special because we're used to it.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Mary, your friend's experience in Alaska is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.

KM Rockwood said...

Great advice, Linda.

I'm hesitant to stray too far away from things and people I know. I'd like to expand my use of characters from other ethnic groups, but I've read so many cringe-worthy passages about them that I fear I will write something cringe-worthy, too. And I won't even realize it.

And it's not just in writing. Today I was out with a group and someone asked an obviously Chinese man if he were Vietnamese or Korean or what. While sometimes I have difficulty visually identifying people's ethnic background, Chinese and Koreans and Vietnamese people really don't resemble one another much.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Yes, KM. You're right about that. There's a big difference among those three groups. Though I know people who would say, "Well, they all just look Asian to me." Certainly, a big difference between Korean and Vietnamese.