Friday, March 22, 2019

The Purpose Driven Novel

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published October 9, 2011.

By Jewel Amethyst

It’s 3am. My blog post is due, and I hadn’t a clue what to write about. So I did what I should have done nine days ago: I visited the Novelspaces Authors' private blog to view the theme for this month. The theme is totally optional, and most novelnaughts thus far have elected to ignore the themes. But right now, it is serving the purpose it was intended for. It is giving me a topic to blog about when my mind is drawing a blank.

The theme for this month is: “Should novels have a purpose beyond entertaining the reader?”

The short answer is, it depends.

There are many different types of novels. Some have the deliberate purpose of educating the reader. Case in point, Carol Mitchell’s “Caribbean Adventure Series.” They are a series of very entertaining children’s novels set in different Caribbean Islands. It is quite clear that they are meant to expose children to the history and to some extent geography of the Caribbean islands. I myself have embarked on a similar project but with the aim of exposing elementary to middle school students to cell and microbiology through a series of science adventure novels. For children’s books especially, the list of novels that make deliberate attempts to educate is extensive.

Even for adult novels, education is often a secondary (if not primary) purpose of many novels. Some bring awareness to the struggles of racism, classism, discrimination in an entertaining manner. One of my favorite books, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, does just that. Others expose life in certain eras, uplift women, or men or some country. The much talked about book, “The Help” brings to light the life and times of women of color working as home domestics in segregated America. And we cannot forget the timeless classic, “Roots” and its historical impact.

Some books push an agenda or a political opinion. John Grisham’s “The Chamber,” and “A Time to Kill” very entertainingly address some pressing issues like the death penalty. Time won’t permit me to list even 0.00001% of the fiction novels (and I won’t even go into the creative non-fiction genre) that pushes an agenda, political, social, or economic opinion.

But then there are some books whose sole purpose is to entertain. Many romances, horror, sci-fi and yes erotica, fall into that category. Yet even these books can unwittingly educate or promote an agenda. Even when the author’s aim is strictly to entertain the reader, there is still often a secondary purpose, subtle though it may be. Whether that purpose is to inspire, or teach, or expose something, it is there.

So in my opinion, it does not matter whether or not a novel is written solely for the entertainment of the reader. It will still serve a secondary purpose of educating the reader in some fashion. Furthermore, the readers will take away more from the book that the author even intended.

What do you think? Should novels have a purpose beyond entertaining the reader?

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Wake of Charlottesville

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published August 27, 2017.

By Amy Reade

image courtesy of pixabay, pexels

            Let’s get one thing out of the way right from the get-go: I do not write political posts. I do not post anything political on any social media platform. And in a way, what I’m about to write really isn’t political; rather, it’s a statement of my beliefs about humans, having nothing to do with either or any political party.

            The recent events that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia, following a despicable display of hatred, bigotry, and ignorance were, simply put, abominable. I grieve for the family of the woman who lost her life and for the people, like me, who felt a deep sadness and icy dread when they saw the images of the people carrying torches through the darkened campus of the University of Virginia and the streets of Charlottesville.

            The entire incident ignited in me a desire—no, a need—to spend some time in the shoes of people who may not look like me, who may not think like me, who may experience life in ways that are different from the ways in which I experience life. And I’m not talking here about racial differences alone. I’m talking about any differences, whether they be racial, religious, social, economic, educational, or generational.

image courtesy of pixabay, maxlkt

I don’t pretend that I’m suddenly going to understand what it’s like to be anything other than a white woman of early middle-age with a college education living in New Jersey, but I mean to try. And I’m a writer, so what better way to spend time in other people’s shoes than in books?

With that in mind, I’ve done some research into books that deal head-on with issues of separation: things and ideas that separate individuals, that separate people who practice different religions, that separate individuals from society. And I want to share a short list of books that I think might be a good place to start in bridging the gaps that exist in our communities. Some of the books I’ve already read, but I intend to read them again with a renewed intensity and a renewed urgency.   

We have to stop the hatred.

1.      And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts
2.      Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
3.      Cinderland by Amy Jo Burns
4.      Generation M by Shelina Janmohamed
5.      God is Not One by Stephan R. Prothero
6.      I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim by Maria M. Ebrahimji and Zahra T Suratwala, et al.
7.      The Short and Tragic Life of RobertPeace by Jeff Hobbs
8.      Somewhere Towards theEnd: A Memoir by Diana Athill
9.      To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
10.  White Like Me by Tim Wise
11.  Wonder by R.J. Palacio

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a good start. If nothing else, it’s at least one good thing that came out of Charlottesville. It’s not what happened in the “wake” of Charlottesville, but what happened in the “wake-up” of Charlottesville. A wake-up call to understand “the other,” whomever that may be to each of us. I hope you’ll join me, and I hope you’ll add your reading suggestions to the comments below.

Friday, March 8, 2019

How Gritty Are My Mysteries?

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published May 19, 2017.

By Maggie King

My panel topic at Bouchercon 2015 was “How Much Grit Do I Want in My Mystery?” Violent content, bloody images, sexuality, and tough language come to mind when I hear the word “grit.” Gritty movies are rated R. One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of gritty is “harsh and unpleasant.” 

Raymond Chandler, Michael Connelly, Patricia Cornwell, Robert Crais, Henning Mankell, and Ruth Rendell are just a few of our renowned authors who write the “dark stuff”—noir. And they’re really good at it.

I watch many TV shows where violence runs rampant. The British and Swedish do it best—Luther is breathtakingly violent; the characters in the riveting Swedish drama, Beck, don’t flinch at a little blood; the American Animal Kingdom had a mild, if menacing, start but by the end of the season the violence had reached a nearly unbearable level. Sexuality and language are a natural part of these stories— the characters leave the bedroom door wide open and aren’t likely to say, “Oh, fudge!”

I love these depictions of a grim reality, whether in print or on screen. But do I want to write tales with a “darkness of the spirit?”

No, no, a thousand times, no! Maybe spending so much time with my characters and story makes me fear all that darkness. I write cozies, edgy cozies, but cozies all the same. My violence happens off-page and is minimally described. In one story, I have the killer picking up a weapon and using it. But I left the aftermath to the reader’s vivid imagination. In another story, a character gets killed in a pretty horrific way, but all I mention is the murder weapon. Again, I let my readers fill in the blanks. No gritty details. Sometimes a well-chosen word here or there will paint a complete picture.

My characters love sex and love to talk about sex but when they “get right down to the real nitty-gritty” (see how well the song title fits the subject?) they go off-page. I may sprinkle a mild expletive—or two—into the dialogue. My readers object to profanity and I must respect their wishes. There are ways to suggest swearing and mystery author Naomi Hirahara is so skilled at this that you know the exact word she’s not using. Another mystery author, F.M. Meredith, has this to say about the lack of salty language in her Rocky Bluff P.D. series: “Oh, the characters do cuss, I just don’t quote them.”

But Merriam-Webster has an alternative definition of gritty: having or showing a lot of courage and determination.

My main character, Hazel Rose, doesn’t consider herself to be brave and accepts her crime-solving missions with great reluctance. But, once committed, she will run a killer to earth. Mystery writers, regardless of how noir-ish or cozy their story is, want a determined detective, one with an abundance of “true grit.” It’s true grit that unites crime writers as we restore justice to our fictional worlds.

And it’s true grit that I want in my mysteries.

Back to the Bouchercon panel: Laura DiSilverio, Frankie Bailey, Lynn Cahoon, and I had a lively discussion about grit in mysteries and pretty much covered the points I’ve made in this post. Author Lise McClendon moderated. Here’s a non-very-good photo of us: 

Writers, weigh in. How do you feel about grit in your mysteries?

Friday, March 1, 2019

How to Not to Anecdote

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published February 7, 2015.

By Che Gilson