One of the things agents and editors will often say is “Don’t write to the market.” The idea is that by the time you finish the book, the market will have moved on and something else will be popular. Unfortunately, the writers who usually get the most interest in pitch appointments are those who are pitching something that is popular at the time. Those writers also often end up selling those books, because even though agents and editors may really be looking for something new and different, their marketing departments want something that’s a sure bet.
Gone Girl came out five years ago and was immediately a sensation. It “created” a new sub-genre: the domestic thriller, with a twisty-turny plot set within the intimate circumstances of a relationship/household. The phenomenon grew as the movie came out, and then Girl on the Train and several other “girl” books had huge sales.
Suddenly, the domestic thriller/psychological thriller was the hot ticket. Of course, writers had been writing books like that for years, but now editors were clamoring for them. Other unpublished writers thought “I can do that,” and started writing them, too. Some of them sold those books, probably thinking they were finally breaking out and embarking on a great writing career.
Fast forward to this year, and I can tell you, as someone who purchases popular fiction from literary journals, that there are dozens of domestic thrillers being published. Dozens. I order quite a few, because it is a popular genre. But I can’t possibly buy even a majority of them. I have to spend our budget on other types of books for other readers. There are just so many domestic thrillers to choose from. And the longer the trend goes on, the pickier I have to be.
I think about those writers who wrote those books that are coming toward “the end of the wave,” and I feel bad for them. Because their books are probably going to tank. No matter how good they are, their books are going to get lost in the staggering pile of similar books. And suddenly, those writers’ new careers, which seemed so promising, will be over. Some of them will reinvent themselves and write something else, and find another genre where they will be successful. Others, who are really prolific and determined and energetic, will go the indie author route and keep writing the same kind of book and building their fan base and also be successful. Some of them will flounder around for years trying to find “the next big thing” so they can get another shot. Some of them will, probably, at least for a while, quit writing.
What can a writer in the early stages of their career learn from all this? There are lots of things to think about: Are you the kind of writer who can write to the market? Do you have lots of different types of stories in your head? Or are there really only one or two genres that truly call to you? Can you write fast? Are you a natural marketer, someone who knows how to promote themselves and is comfortable doing so? Are you comfortable “writing to live” (i.e., making money writing is your main goal)? Or do you “live to write” (i.e., writing feeds your soul and you need the satisfaction of creative expression to be happy)? Is your main goal to be published and get that validation? Or do you really want a long writing career?
These are things to think about before you go down the path of writing to the market. It’s a tricky, sometimes treacherous route. There can be huge rewards at the end. Or there can be desolation and despair. In this era, when there is so much information on writing, so many tools and resources, it just makes sense to think about the hard realities. I wish it wasn’t like that. I wish we could all go back to being starry-eyed, creative dreamers, hoping for our lucky break. But you can indulge those things. You just have to put all that emotion and passion and heedless longing into the creative process. Which is something that will never break your heart or let you down.
The villain in a thriller is generally not your run-of-the-mill murderer. He is someone with a goal in mind, and he is driving toward that goal, regardless of the damage he causes along the way. While he may enjoy that destruction, whether human (serial killer, assassin, strong-man dictator) or property (arsonist, bomber, unscrupulous land baron) he could just as easily be someone who reluctantly sees the damage he leaves in his wake as an inevitable cost to the good he thinks he's doing (religious fanatic, environmental extremist, patriot assassin). While she may be evil, to me it is much more fascinating to read about the villain who thinks she is the hero of the story, who is a true believer in a cause she has either lost perspective on or has just gone too far in support of.
Either way, his plans are greater than a single act, usually building to some larger, ultimate goal that our protagonist must prevent. In the book Silence of The Lambs, [SPOILER STARTS] Buffalo Bill is building himself a lady-suit [SPOILER ENDS]. In the film Taken, [SPOILER STARTS] Marko is seeking to keep a steady supply of fresh flesh for his human trafficking operation [SPOILER ENDS]. In my own book, Presence of Malice, [SPOILER STARTS] Gerald Gannery is determined to gaslight his partner for the embezzlement of which he, himself, is guilty in order to free himself up to take a lucrative development deal for cable TV [SPOILER ENDS].
The villain's evil usually comes not just from his own selfishness, but from his willingness, even eagerness, to accede the pain and suffering of others in order to meet his aims. Even if she agonizes over each and every life taken, she takes it anyway because to her, the end will justify whatever means she sees necessary to apply.
In a thriller there is the concept of the ticking clock, which I will explain in more detail in the next and final part to this post, but I wanted to mention here (and will most likely repeat next month) that the ticking clock doesn't necessarily have to be a literal clock. In many cases it is the deadline for the fruition of the villain's plans, whether arbitrarily set by him or by his own need for urgency due to other schedules being enforced upon him (the president's plane departs, a shipment to be hijacked is en route, the laundry truck departs the prison, etc.).
As I mentioned before, my favorite villain is the one who thinks she is ultimately doing good, or better yet the one who is besieged by guilt over her own actions but compelled to do them anyway. But there is also something to be said for the gleefully evil - the serial killer, the psycho musician convinced he is a soldier for Satan, the unhinged skinhead with a hidden lair full of torture victims, etc. Whatever your taste, always remember that to keep the tension, either the villain must not be redeemed, or if she is, it must already be too late to stop the events she has put in motion (or seemingly so, until our hero takes action).
I wanted to spend time on henchmen and other companions of the villain who must be defeated on the way to the villain himself, but that will have to wait for another, longer discussion on villains.
Meanwhile, what are your favorite villains? What bad guys do you love to hate? Let me know in the comments, below.
My first attempt at novel-writing was based on my brother’s experience in the transportation industry in the 1970s. He provided the basics—overall plot, knowledge of 18-wheelers and trucker jargon. I did the writing—just barely well enough to get an audiobook contract. I had an expert co-author, so writing out of my own experience made sense. The only research I had to do concerned the real-life events of the time, a little union background, and enough information to at least mention Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance.
Then I tried a thriller. One of the main characters had been kidnapped by terrorists in Lebanon so there were scenes involving the hostage conditions, escape through the backstreets of Beirut, and the aftereffects of a long incarceration with a group of prisoners who did not escape. That was before I heard of PTSD, before Google Earth, before easy online research. Needless to say, I had bitten off more than I could chew at the time. That novel sits on my shelf, still wondering if it will ever get my attention again.
I learned my lesson. My next book was set in an environment I knew well, involved characters more like me and other folks I’d met in real life, and involved an easy-to-research crime. A sequel took the same characters to a new setting, but still one I knew well.
Even the thriller, Dead Wrong, is based in the U.S. and follows a path from Florida to Denver to Fort Collins—territory I’ve traveled through many times. The crime was easy. I based the plot on a check theft ring I’d learned about first hand when I worked for a company that was victimized by a similar case.
When I decided to try a historical mystery, I still used the countryside where I’d grown up, east-central Illinois, so the research built on information I already knew. But here’s where I drifted into new territory. One of the main characters in Wishing Caswell Dead is an elderly Kickapoo Indian, a kind man often subjected to cruel treatment by the novel’s villain. There is also a French trapper, a woman who seduces another woman, and a survivor of a lightning strike. Some of the information I use is based on solid research. Other parts of the storyline are 100% imagination.
Where must we draw the line in today’s super-sensitive world when writing about places we’ve never been, characters we’ve never met, situations we’ve never experienced?
I’m an older, white female. Is it okay that I had a female character in The Prairie Grass Murders whose parents were Mexican and Puerto Rican? I often write from a man’s point of view—one character is a Vietnam vet with PTSD, another a Cuban male crime boss.
Mental illness plays a role in some of my stories. I’ve never been hospitalized for a mental illness, but I have characters in a couple of my novels who have suffered such a fate. I do know a couple of people who have serious mental conditions, but that doesn’t mean I understand their experience. Can I write from what I do know and what I discover with research?
I think most of us want to indulge our creativity and let our imaginations weave stories that might have happened, that could happen, that probably will happen someday. Limiting ourselves to writing only about our own experience would stifle that magic.
Will I try to write a novel about a young single African-American mother who lives in an old housing project in Detroit? Probably not. That experience is way too remote from my middle-Illinois farm upbringing. Traveling to Detroit to do the kind of involved research required is not something I’d do at my age and level of creakiness.
But could I write a story about a white girl living with an old grandfatherly Kickapoo Indian during a cold Illinois winter in the 1830s? I gave it my best shot!
Pat Stoltey is the author of two amateur sleuth novels, The Prairie Grass Murders and The Desert Hedge Murders. Her standalone thriller, Dead Wrong, was a finalist in the 2015 Colorado Book Awards. A short story, “Three Sisters of Ring Island,” appeared in the 2014 anthology Tales in Firelight and Shadow. Wishing Caswell Dead is scheduled for release December 20, 2017 and is available now for pre-order in ebook and hardcover (https://www.amazon.com/Wishing-Caswell-Dead-Pat-Stoltey-ebook/dp/B074VKLK8F/).
A former accounts payable manager, Pat began writing seriously after retirement. She has lived in Illinois, Indiana, Oklahoma, and the south of France, but now she’s a resident of Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Katie Cat, and Sassy Dog. Learn more about Pat at her website/blog (http://patriciastolteybooks.com), on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/patricia.stoltey) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/PStoltey).
After spending nine months on a first draft and another year and a half on revisions, I resolved to make my next book a more streamlined process. That’s why I’m spending October of this year on research, outlining, and pre-writing, and I hope to use NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to write my rough draft. As November approaches, I thought I’d share the roadmap I’ll be using.
This is an in-depth outline adapted from the books Writing the Intimate Character by Jordan Rosenfeld and Writing Deep Scenes by Jordan Rosenfeld and Martha Alderson. It’s just one of countless outlining methods available. I’ve studied several, and they all boil down to pretty much the same thing—but for some reason, this one clicked the most with me. It breaks your novel into four parts, each taking roughly 25% of the total word count:
It also focuses on four “energetic markers,” which can be thought of as key scenes or turning points:
Point of No Return
Dark Night of the Soul
The Beginning introduces the main character in her normal world. It sets up the central story conflict, as well as the protagonist’s flaw or wound—in other words, how she will need to change over the course of the story. The Beginning ends with the first energetic marker, the Point of No Return, a critical juncture where our heroine decides or is forced to plunge into the new world of the middle. She can no longer return to her old world and status quo. She may be physically trapped in a new world or situation, or she may make a promise or commitment that she can’t renege on.
When she emerges from the Point of No Return, the protagonist is thrust into the new and mysterious world of the Emerging Middle. Here, the action is controlled by antagonists and obstacles. Our heroine faces many setbacks, but is still winning in this stage. Her shadow side begins to reveal itself, both to the reader and to the character herself. She must begin to face her flaws and wounds, which will eventually force her to change. The Emerging Middle ends at the midpoint, a.k.a. the second energetic marker, the Rededication. This is where the main character is forced to reevaluate her progress toward her goal, and either recommit to that goal or identify a new one.
After the Rededication, the protagonist enters the Deeper Middle. This place is even more mysterious and challenging than the Emerging Middle, and our heroine is no longer winning—instead, the antagonists take the lead. The mindset and techniques that served the main character well in her old world no longer work, and she is forced to change her plan of attack. She faces greater setbacks and higher stakes than in the Emerging Middle, and her emotional outlook becomes increasingly bleak. Then, just when she thinks she’s about to reach her goal, she loses everything at the Dark Night of the Soul. This energetic marker turns the story in a new direction. It also awakens the main character to her flaws, strips away her old self, and gives her what she needs to succeed in the upcoming climax.
The protagonist enters the last quarter of the novel, the End, by formulating a plan and gathering resources. These include external resources (information, allies, tools, supplies, etc.) and internal resources (bracing herself emotionally for what’s to come). She no longer hesitates or second-guesses herself—she knows exactly what she must do and why, if not how to do it, and she moves toward her goal with courage and determination. This leads to the final energetic marker, the Triumph, a.k.a. the climax of your story. The Triumph is the heroine’s final confrontation with both the external antagonist and her own internal flaws. In order to succeed at the Triumph, she must come to terms with her shadow side and complete her character transformation. She is now fully united with her new self-awareness, understanding of the world, and sense of responsibility. The Triumph is followed by a brief resolution or denouement, which wraps up any last plot threads and provides a glimpse of the transformed protagonist in her new world.
What I like about this approach is that it’s a roadmap, not a formula. It helps me find the bones of my story before I start writing, while giving me the flexibility to discover the rest as I write. It also forces me to keep in mind both central story threads, action and character arc, and how they work in tandem. I’m looking forward to trying it out in November. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, good luck, and I’ll see you there!
When I plan a trip, one of the first things I think about is what kind of research I can do there. Not because I’m looking for a tax write-off (because, hey, I still have to pay for the trip even if I can write some of it off later), but because I want to make sure I know where to go and what to do to get the most bang for my hard-earned bucks. It doesn’t matter if I’m by myself or with family. It might mean I plan some alone time for when they want to do something I don’t, or I look especially hard for places to do research that I think they’ll enjoy. I hate sitting in a hotel room, so I go out of my way to find something to do.
I was in New Orleans a year ago and took a walk after lunch, just to stretch my legs. I headed south, away from the French Quarter, and found myself in a not-really-nice part of town, but not scary. About the time I decided to turn around, I came across this amazing old Civil War Museum that had a ton of information I was able to incorporate into an historical romance I was working on. The next morning I got up at 5 a.m. so I could walk two miles to a huge outdoor market in the French Quarter and had hot beignets for breakfast—I can now accurately describe the sights and sounds, the tastes and smells. I rented a bike and rode around the French Quarter residential district, photographing beautiful old homes with mansard roofs, ironwork, gingerbread trim, and walled gardens. I visited the building that housed the New Orleans Mint during the Civil War (which gets robbed in my story) and I could describe the different rooms, the door lintels, the stonework—it was fantastic. A work trip to Philadelphia let me see what the Founding Fathers saw, read what they wrote, and see a pop-up Stevie Wonder concert (only because I’d taken a walk and turned down a street).
If I’d wasted these times in new places, what a loss it would have been for me. Yes, I was often alone as I wandered around, but it didn’t matter. There were people everywhere. I could ask questions, get directions. Waiters, bartenders, hotel staff—they all knew places for me to visit. I had only to ask.
I’m headed to Las Vegas this week to visit my son. But I have to admit, going to a Barrett Jackson classic car auction holds almost as much attraction (but don’t tell my son). I want to see the layout, hear the talk, see the cars, the people who attend, the booths and what they sell—all for my Bad Carma series. Yes, I could fake it. I’ve been to auctions before and I’m not using the Barrett Jackson name in my story, but I like realism, even in fiction. I think readers like it, too.
So if you’re planning a trip, even to the next town, think about what kind of research you could squeeze in. Is there a museum you haven’t visited? A road that leads to an interesting canyon? A building you could take a photo of and use somewhere, sometime? Don’t just think of current WIPs; plan for what might come later. File this information away for when you need it, even if you never do (you won’t know, though, will you?). After all, it’s research, dear.
I spoke to a writers’ group in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after the publication at age twenty-six of my first book, a nonfiction guide to backpacking and camping in developing countries. I described the vagaries of finding an agent and publisher, and revealed to the audience my real dream as a writer. I told the group that while I was proud of my nonfiction debut, what I really wanted was to write and publish fiction.
I made clear in a know-it-all way—as twenty-somethings are wont to do—that while nonfiction was all well and good, I saw fiction as the only true form of writing.
An elderly woman in the crowd was kind enough to not put me on the spot during the Q&A se
ssion that followed my remarks. Instead, she confronted me afterward, face to face.
She told me she was writing a memoir about her family’s roots, and that she’d found her nonfiction work to be extremely challenging and wholly satisfying, even as she was aware that her manuscript—nearly complete after several years’ work—had little chance at publication. Why, she asked me in conclusion, was I disparaging the very type of writing I’d been so fortunate to have published?
I backpedaled clumsily and offered the woman my apologies.
In the years that followed, I poured myself into writing and publishing several more nonfiction books, one of which won the National Outdoor Book Award. I wrote each book with pride and enthusiasm, and always with the woman’s comments in mind.
But I always kept alive, in the back of my mind, the desire to write fiction.
Four years ago—twenty-five years after the publication of my first nonfiction book—Torrey House Press published my debut work of fiction, Canyon Sacrifice, book one in my National Park Mystery Series. I’ve written three more installments in the series since then, with book four, Yosemite Fall, scheduled for release by Torrey House in June 2018.
I have thoroughly enjoyed writing fiction these last five years—so much so, in fact, that I had assumed writing nonfiction was forever in my past. But when I ran across a fascinating, true-life historical tale while researching Yosemite Fall, I surprised myself by leaping at the chance to develop the story as a work of narrative nonfiction.
In returning to nonfiction after my mystery-writing stint, I’ve found tha
t the woman who confronted me thirty years ago knew what she was talking about. I’m relishing the challenge and satisfaction of writing nonfiction again.
Moreover, I’m leaning hard on everything I learned while writing my mysteries to make my new book as compelling and fully realized and many-layered as anything I’ve ever written.
After three decades as an author, it took my move from nonfiction to fiction and back again to recognize what the woman in Albuquerque tried to impress upon me at the very start of my career: it’s the writing itself that matters. When the question is fiction or nonfiction, the answer, I’ve finally learned, is both.
Scott Graham is the National Outdoor Book Award-winning author of the National Park Mystery Series for Torrey House Press. The fourth book in the series, Yosemite Fall, will be released in June 2018. Graham lives in Durango, Colorado. Visit him at scottfranklingraham.com.
For the past few months, I've been so focused on my own stuff that I realize I've been missing the bigger picture. Time to reevaluate.
As some of you may have heard, we've been moving—downsizing—and I've been angsting over a variety of things:
How do you get rid of a thing that someone else has saved for you and that goes back generations when it's something that doesn't fit your life anymore, maybe it never fit your life, but the guilt of letting it go is numbing?
Case in point: the secretary desk that belonged to my grandma Esther. She loved that desk, used it daily and thought I would love it. I did, for a while. Then I put it in my daughter's room. She used it, and her sisters used it, all through high school. It had a glass display case above a desk top that folded down to reveal cubbies and drawers. They loved it.
Now, with no place to put it in the new house, I thought one of the girls would want it. Not! However, with the brilliance of the Millennials, one of my daughters suggested I take a picture of the secretary and post it up to a private account on Instagram. That way I could see it whenever I wanted, remember Gram whenever I looked at it, and free myself of the tangible object. We snapped a photo, then she helped me place it up on Craig's List. It sold right away, and I had an anxiety attack! BUT, lo and behold, the young woman who bought it was so excited to get it I forgot all about feeling guilty. It turned out that her grandmother had a desk exactly like it. After her grandmother died, her estate went into foreclosure and everything had to be sold at auction. I now look at the picture I have and am delighted to know that Gram's secretary is somewhere being cherished.
2. My identity.
I grew up in Evergreen. After a few years at CU in Boulder, I moved to Frisco (CO) and became a ski bum for a while, married, had kids, and moved back to Evergreen. We lived in the Country Club neighborhood of Denver for a few years while my kids were in high school, but we always had our house in the hills. Now, for the first time in nearly 60 years, I live in Denver. But I'm a mountain girl, I tell you. Except I now own a home and live in the DTC area. I can see my mountains (notice how possessive I am), but I no longer reside in a house tucked back into the woods. Who am I?
3. My career.
While I was at Bouchercon in Toronto, I met with my editor. To my dismay, he told me that international thrillers across the board just aren't selling very well right now. Even the superstars writing espionage and geopolitical thrillers have seen a drop in their numbers, though you're still hitting the list if you're one of the big boys. My editor told me he wants the next Raisa book, just not now. He wants a "different kind of thriller, perhaps a standalone" for my next book. That means if I want to continue writing for Crooked Lane, I need a new premise.
F*^k! I have a few more Raisa Jordan books to write, and I was deep into plotting Book #3.
On that note, I headed to Maine after Bouchercon to visit a friend who had been diagnosed with uterine cancer. She had undergone chemo, the tumors had disappeared and her blood counts were good. I had planned to visit in July after ThrillerFest, but I ended up with pneumonia then and figured that someone on chemo didn't need to be exposed to me. The fact she was doing so much better had me really looking forward to seeing her. I called her the night before I was scheduled to arrive and she said, "Oh, I'm so glad you're coming. I didn't tell you before because I was afraid you wouldn't come, but the cancer is back with a vengeance. They started me on hospice care last week."
F*^k! I'm not ready to lose a friend. And the world's not ready to lose a New York Times bestselling romance writer, who—despite the ravages of cancer—lamented, "I'm not ready to die. I still have two more books in me." It turns out she'd been stringing her fans along with the promise of something to come in her series, only to run out of time.
I’ve finally figured it out! There are two signs on each car I drive seen only by Special Drivers. (Special, of course, meaning unusual, distinct, specific and obviously run-of-the-mill.)
I’m sure the sign on the front bumper says, “Pull immediately in front of me, proceed really, really slowly, and then wash your windshield.” The sign on the rear of the car has got to read, “Please tailgate.”
And don’t get me started on weekend traffic.
I’m not perfect, and I have vowed to change my ways: turning weaknesses into strengths like…say…cussing at, cursing, or calling other drivers dirty names. Currently, my employment involves driving various vehicles. I had almost made my nearly unachievable goal of being cuss-free for an entire week, but then...
Back up the truck to last Monday and find me buckled in, engine running and sitting at a stop light. With my own eyes I witness not one, not two, but three drivers speed past me and through the intersection—through the red light. What? Only one car was hit and it wasn’t mine. (I was happy as h*ll is hot about that.) Before I realized, words escaped over my tongue and between my lips for God and everyone with a window rolled down to hear. I called all three of the Special Drivers the same bad name.
Tuesday, different intersection and one car length ahead of me, a driver decides to change lanes. Oops—doesn’t see the car next to him. “D*mn, that’s gonna hurt.” The word blurted itself out of my mouth as though my voice had a brain of its own.
On Wednesday, I figured saying Sister and Brother to acknowledge the sobs are children of God too would be a good thing. Plus, and this is a big plus, instead of saying naughty words, I substituted good words. For instance, Sister Wad of Dip, Brother Adam Henry, Sister DS, Brother What are You Thinking? Are you thinking? Sister were you born (insert word of choice) or are you practicing for a contest? That kept the cussing away until a semi truck came inches from rear-ending my 2018 automobile.
Honestly, Thursday began with cussing. An oil truck, complete with a dirty, round tank, (one that either delivers clean auto oil or picks up used oil), was eastbound down Mt. Vernon hill. Rear brake (singular) was a-burnin’. I sped past that driver, who reminded me of a supervisor I once had—round and constantly smoking.
On that very Friday I created fictional—sort of—characters from dippy drivers I witnessed behind their wheels. Not one of my creatures received a dirty name! I know, b*tchin’, huh?
But I learned not all idiotic things happen while driving.
There I was delivering paperwork to the Jefferson County Courthouse (not my own). Alas, I was NOT in the now, not focused on the job at hand, head in an imagined book… I lost the one and only key to my employer’s new car. Wait—there’s more. Wearing out my shoes, I repeatedly raced to the parking lot to ensure the car was still there. The last time out, I ran into one of the sheriff’s deputies—he was on duty—Sh*t! Armor is stiff. In my defense, he stood on my side of the walkway.
I’m humbled now and mending my ways. However, I’ve enrolled in Cussing Anonymous because I still drive for a paycheck.
Why is it at least 60% of gray or white vehicles being driven in fog are done so without headlights on?
Why do people signal after they’ve changed lanes? Why do so many new vehicles have broken blinker bulbs? Why do blinkers not shut off after people have turned?
How in the world is it possible to read a Playboy Magazine and drive at the same time? (rhetorical question only)
I find my morning commute to work is indicative of the rest of the day.
When there are three lanes headed in the same direction, why can’t some drivers pick one—just one?
For those who don’t remember learning about Marxism, the Bourgeoisie were those who stood at the top of the economic ladder because they controlled the means of production. They were the land owners and factory owners. When discussing African-Americans, the “Black Bourgeoisie” are the very top of the socio-economic period. They are the doctors and business owners. The ones who attended traditional black colleges and joined traditional black fraternities and sororities.
For many people, the idea of acting white seems odd. How do white people act? Is there a secret handshake or something? Do all white people act the same way? The answer is, of course not. But one way African-Americans have traditionally defined themselves is in opposition to the dominant, white culture. When a black man or woman becomes economically successful, they usually take on the cultural norms of the peer group they associate with. In my opinion, this is only natural; if you want to be a successful lawyer, you hang around successful lawyers. However, once a black person begins to acculturate with their new peer group, a group which is probably sparsely populated with other black people, tensions can arise within the black community and family they live with. More on this later.
There has always been a black bourgeoisie. Going back to before the Civil War, there were community leaders in the free black community that owned business, owned farms, even owned slaves. (Yes, it was legal for free blacks to own slaves in the American Antebellum South.)
When the Civil War ended, abolitionists went south to start colleges for former slaves who showed the drive and the ability to better themselves. Colleges like Morehouse and Spellman, private schools that opened in 1867, were followed later by dozens of segregated schools of higher learning, both public and private, throughout the American South. It was here that the elite of the African-American community learned, socialized, and prepared themselves for leadership in the black community. They even formed their own fraternities and sororities.
Alpha Phi Alpha was the first black fraternity, formed at Cornell in 1906. It quickly spread to traditional black colleges across the south. Its members include W.E.B. Dubois, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Justice Thurgood Marshall, to name a few.
Through traditional black colleges and the exclusive black fraternities and sororities, leaders were molded throughout Reconstruction and most of the 20th century. These leaders, while clearly middle-class by American standards, and affluent by the standards of the black community, were always aware that their position was precarious. That their wealth or political clout within the black community did not shield them from systemic racism. I believe this began to change in the early 1980s.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s took a turn toward the radical with the rise of Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power Movement. While previous generations of African-Americans tried to work within the system with legal proceedings and civil discourse, some in the Black Power Movement argued for separation of the races and a consolidation of black people in their own communities, with their own schools, with the power to physically defend themselves. (In light of 100+ years of lynching in the south, as well as police violence nationwide against peaceful leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., self-defense was seen by many as the only option.)
They began to separate and distance themselves from traditional organizations, like the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Paralleling to Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther Party, as well as Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, began to mirror, roughly, the same message of self-reliance, self-restraint, self-discipline and segregation from the greater American community.
These people began to openly criticize the traditional Civil Rights Movement. They also criticized the traditional leaders of the black community, the black bourgeoisie. They mocked them for “acting white,” for selling out and for playing Uncle Tom. They might even be called Bourgie.
At the same time, a social movement called Black is Beautiful sprang up in the late 1960s. The people involved were black artists who tried to embrace black skin and kinky hair. If this makes no sense to you, please understand that many of the original members of the black bourgeoisie were the descendants of slave owners; they were mixed.
The racism of the time was mimicked by the black community; lighter skinned African-Americans felt superior to their darker skinned brothers and sisters. African-Americans tried to emulate white people by dumping chemicals in their hair to make it straight and wavy. They put harsh chemicals on their skin to bleach and lighten it up.
I am a mixed race child. My hair is dark and curly. When I was growing up, all my relatives said I had good hair. Why? Because it wasn’t kinky. This is institutional racism. Hair isn’t good or bad, it’s just hair!
The Black Power Movement fought against that. It openly mocked black people who tried too hard to emulate the dominant culture. Many of the Black Power leaders (though not all) came from severe poverty and single-parent homes. Consequently, if embracing “Black Power” meant rejecting those who emulated the dominant culture, it also meant embracing, in many ways, the culture of poverty.
This tension is strongly related to the tension felt by middle-class black people with relatives still in poverty. When it comes to wealth, the tension is: How and when do I stop helping those in the community I feel some responsibility for? When dealing with the issue of acting white, the question becomes one of identity and authenticity.
What is authentic for me? Am I more authentic when I’m around my professional peers and my fellow hobbyists? Or when I am around my own people?
Are these speech patterns I use around my professional peers authentic to me? Is this how I sound when I think to myself? Or am I mimicking speech that will make me fit in?
Do I feel like I don’t fit in when around other African-Americans? Or when I’m around white people?
OK, why is this important to your character?
If you’re writing fiction set in today’s world, and your black character has a white collar job, chances are they struggle with the transition from the culture they’ve grown up in, and the culture they now inhabit. Conversely, if they grew up middle-class, how do they interact with other African-Americans who are poor? Do they mimic the language of Black Power? Do they reject cultural differences? Do they look down on other black people and adopt the dominant culture? Are they ashamed of their success? Defensive?
If they are artists, musicians, love something quirky like ballroom dancing or they read steampunk; if they worked at the Renaissance faire, or voted Republican; if they loved comic books or ballet; they had struggles within their community or their family about being a sell-out. They might be accused of being fake. They might be accused of being a sell-out, even by those they help. They might get called an “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside).
Fortunately, my own experience with these issues has led me to believe that things are changing. As more African-Americans claw into the middle class and stay there, a new hybrid identity develops that takes the best of both worlds. A new black bourgeoisie that is aware of black history and black struggles, while unashamed to participate in the broader culture on their own terms.
Here are some writing exercises.
#1.) Write a scene where your black character is surrounded by his professional peer group at a restaurant, a sporting event or wherever. Have your character run into a friend they grew up with, or know from a long time ago. How will your character react? Will their speech patterns change? Will this person’s presence make them feel uncomfortable? If so, is your black character embarrassed because her peers see her black friend? Or, is she embarrassed because her black friend sees her peers? How will your character get out of the situation?
#2.) Write a scene where your black character is explaining to his white friend a confrontation they’ve had with family or friends. They’ve been accused of selling out because of something they love to do. (Ballet, opera, comic book conventions, acting, etc.) Make a point of having the white friend not understand the issue. Will the black character be able to explain it? Or just give up?
Last month, we compared and contrasted WANT vs. NEED. Again, we’re using Jami Gold’s beat sheet as a basis for these articles. This month, we’re moving on to the Inciting Incident.
If you research “inciting incident,” you’ll find that most definitions include the idea of thrusting the protagonist(s) forward into the main action of the story. It’s the event that hooks both the readers and the characters. Note: The term is most often used in the Hero's Journey plotting. In the beat sheet it says, “Give a glimpse of how right the characters could be for each other (Essence), but they’re not ready yet (identity)."
In a romance, this is usually the first time the hero and heroine cross paths, the first time they meet. It is generally found in the middle of Act One.
This scene can be a reflection or bookend to the Final Image/Resolution of the story. It can happen in the same place, or use similar words. Note: How much fun is it to actually see that Final Image that was used in the beginning and see how perfect this pair of lovers is for each other? If you’re thinking about doing the reflection/bookend thing, feel free to write both scenes right now. That doesn’t mean that last scene is set in stone. It probably isn’t.
Remember, this scene is all about the possibilities. Why should these two be together? What attracts them? Why might they want to fall in love?
I hate, hate, hate to throw this monkey wrench in here. But I have to. Since we’re using Jami’s beat sheet, I’m sticking with the point-by-point within it. But don’t get me wrong. It is not the ONLY way. How many of your favorite romance novels have the inciting incident be volatile and negative? Before they get out of the room, these two detest each other? That’s certainly a valid “inciting incident” as well. Then, they have a mountain to overcome right off the bat.
But let’s say you do it Jami’s way. Does that mean there’s no mountain? Well, shoot, no. There has to be a mountain. It just comes a bit after that first meeting, that first inciting incident. After they’ve met and smiled at each other and left that place with that warm, fuzzy feeling. After they’ve maybe even smiled for the rest of the day and fantasized about that perfect person.
It won’t be long until they find out who that person is - the guy that holds the mortgage to the ranch - the girl that got the job he wanted. Conflict! But for now, there’s that amazing moment in the coffee shop when they are perfect for each other. The realization that crashes the dream is so much sweeter then.
This inciting incident will be a scene you want to work hard to get right. Whose Point-of-View should it be in? What will the characters remember from this moment? The lighting? The music that’s playing? What he’s wearing? Her perfume? It’s important to get the details right. The takeaways for each character.
Craft this scene. Make it sing. Is that easy? Not really. But who told you writing a great book was easy?
Oh, and by the way, you don’t have to get it right the first time. You can write that scene and keep going - as a matter of fact, you should. If you get hung up with your inner editor making that scene perfect the first time through, you may never get the book written. Just know that it’s an important scene to get right.
Your homework is to take a few favorites off your keeper shelf and study the “inciting incident.”
Until next month - remember, Campers, BIC-HOK. Butt in chair, hands on keyboard.