In 40 years of my writing journey, I've learned a lot about the craft of writing and the art of storytelling. I'll share some of that here each week. Let me know what you think.
When I took creative writing classes in college, one of my professors told me that I had a great style. When I told him that I loved writing for the college newspaper, he warned that becoming a newspaper reporter would hamper my ability to develop a unique "novelist's voice." He was wrong.
When I took journalism classes, one professor told me that if I wrote for the features sections of a newspaper, I would have all the material in the world to write novels or non-fiction books. My other professor, Rob Miraldi of SUNY New Paltz, showed me that you could be a reporter and develop a unique voice in his class on the "New Journalism" era of the 1960s and '70s, exposing us to the work of Joan Didion, Hunter Thompson Tom Wolfe and others who went on to become well-known novelists and authors of creative non-fiction. They had style, a distinctive point of view, and a strong voice.
Both viewpoints were right in their way. My nearly 20 year career as a newspaper features reporter (1984 to 2003) during what I now consider the golden age of community newspapers certainly provided me with a wide window on the world, and rich insight into what makes human beings tick. I met and spoke to people in every level of society, from the famous and powerful, to the average citizen on the street, right down to the homeless and incarcerated.
I covered local life close up and, in many cases, from an angle the average person seldom gets a chance to see. Like the time I squeezed into the orchestra pit under a Broadway stage during a performance of Baz Lerhman’s La Boheme. Or took a tour of a newly-built handicapped-accessible apartment building, as its excited new residents tested out the wheelchair-accessible and safety features. I’ll never forget the ominous sound of metal gates bolted behind me as I entered a women’s prison for an interview with the first female warden. And I’ll always remember the joyous chords of a massive organ that had been newly restored after water damage at a local church. Or the dazzling way a noodle maker stretched and folded and twirled one long rope of freshly made dough into hundreds of impossibly thin strands of noodles for a New Year’s banquet for the local Chinese community.
I worked for what was then known as the Features Section – the themed sections of the paper that might feature consumer news on Tuesdays, food on Wednesdays, home and garden on Thursdays, local events on Fridays, and travel, arts and culture on the weekends. It was my dream job – I was always learning something new, meeting a wide variety of local residents, and scrambling to understand the issues and trends, from education to farming to best gardening practices from the Cornell Co-operative Extension. And while I wrote about famous actors, authors, musicians, and artists, I was most inspired by the number of community leaders and innovators who worked to improve and serve their communities in all different fields, from non-profit health clinics, to domestic abuse shelters, to volunteer fire and EMT companies, to religious communities, and educational facilities like charter schools and community colleges.
All of those experiences and diverse aspects of the communities I covered as a reporter certainly have gone into a number of novels I tried to write in the years during, and after newspapers.
But my creative teacher was right too, in a way. It was hard to leave the structured life of daily assignments and deadlines, and a strong group of editors and copy-editors to write books on your own. I was used to writing short articles. Without the constant daily deadlines, the daily connection to people in the community, and a steady stream of new ideas, writing long projects can be a lonely enterprise. I've talked to other reporters who find it hard to keep motivated to write every day when you are working in isolation on a long project. It is a lonelier situation, and it's easy to lose a sense of how you're doing.
But the creative writing teacher was wrong in another way – being a feature writer actually helped me polish my writing voice. I was able to write long narratives with a sense of authority. And years of observing how people looked, talked, and explained their point of view helped me write and create characters with a deeper understand of human psychology and social interaction. Writing about community institutions over a long period of time also gave me a good foundation for creating fictional ones. While the many different social issues I tackled as a reporter gave me unlimited curiosity and experience in researching how the world works. And that's a big part of being able to write fiction and creative non-fiction. (Posted 6/14/2021)
How do two writers living on opposite sides of the world, in two different hemispheres, who didn't know each other, end up writing a book together? It certainly led to the most unusual and satisfying writing project I've ever done -- our new novel State of Innocence (Melange Books, July 2021).
I had never heard of the Queensland, Australia town where S.K. Mason lived. And she had never heard of the Hudson Valley of New York State. We had nothing in common, except for our mutual friendship with New Jersey journalist and memoirist Lorraine Ash.
Lorraine and I met through the Hudson Valley Romance Writer’s group back around 1992. Romance was a hot commodity, with book publishers expanding their romance lines and actively looking for new voices. I had taken a year off from my reporter job at the Times Herald Record in Middletown, NY, to write two historical romance novels set in New York state. Lorraine, also a reporter and editor in New Jersey, was writing one about Lenape Indians. While our interest in history and writing remained strong, we soon realized romance was not our genre.
Our friendship morphed into a professional one, when Lorraine hired me to work in the Features section of the Daily Record in Morristown, NJ. Despite our busy careers, we both continued to write books on the side. We celebrated my son’s birth, and mourned Lorraine’s daughter, Victoria Helen’s, still birth – a tragedy that formed the basis of her inspiring memoir Life Touches Life (2004, New Sage Press). Her book helped thousands of couples around the world who have lost babies and became a resource for hospital obstetrics nurses.
Life Touches Life was also the connection between S.K. Mason and Lorraine, who met through an online, worldwide parents’ bereavement group. S.K. had also lost a child who did not live beyond a few hours. Lorraine also ran writing workshops to encourage other people to write their memoirs. S.K. decided to write about the experience of losing a baby as the basis of a fictional book. An avid fan of American thrillers, S.K. decided to set her story in a small town USA, and created a family that loosely mirrored her own. She wrote the story as a novella (a short novel) in the first person, creating a fictional therapist who worked with children to explore what the loss of a child can do to struggling families.
With no luck in publishing the novella – but enough encouragement from editors who liked the core of the story – she cast around for a writing coach to help her rewrite the book. Lorraine gave her my name.
Something about S.K.’s story spoke to me: a story of two families, from opposite ends of the social spectrum, both experiencing the loss of a child. There was a mystery involving one of the families. And there was the main plot line about a therapist with her first real case, who comes to realize that she is not yet experienced enough to be able to help her clients – especially their two sweet, innocent girls who were experiencing emotional distress. I loved the idea of a newly-minted professional being plunged into a new career and finding herself “in over her head” in a way that would ultimately create real cracks in the foundation of her own marriage and family.
What S.K. needed was help in breaking open that first person story into a bigger, more commercial domestic thriller. She wanted to incorporate more elements of danger and impending disaster into the original storyline. And she wanted to make the book more American, while still figuring out a way to honor her Australian connections.
I felt the story needed a stronger sense of place. I suggested the Hudson River Valley where I live and work. Having been a community reporter in the City of Newburgh, I knew it had a rich history of a once-prosperous small city that had lost its manufacturing base, gone into a steep decline, followed by various revivals and renewal projects that created a fractured community: one part picturesque river-front tourist town, one part small university town, with deep pockets of poverty, crime, and decay that seemed impervious to long-lasting change.
For me, it was a perfect metaphor for the widening gap between Kimberly Mason’s educated, prosperous suburban world, and the stubborn decline of hard-working families who lost good manufacturing jobs, and felt left behind -- a story I had personally witnessed throughout my adult life.
Changing the setting opened my mind to all kinds of new possibilities for the novel. Many of the scenes still took place in the therapist's office. But now I could show the clinic's neighborhood, the run-down section of the City of Newburgh where the Mackenzie family lives, a restaurant in the colorful downtown area, their daughter Alexia's school, the waterfront area where Connor Mackenzie works, the hospital where the girls' grandmother works. I contrasted all those city settings with the prosperous suburban neighborhood and house where therapist Kimberley lives with her husband and three children, her parent's house, and the highway on a dark stormy night where the therapist pulls of the road after a long day's work.
That in turn led to new characters populating our novel. I invented neighbors, teachers, a school psychologist, a social worker with Child Protection as an adversary to therapist Kimberley, other teachers in the school where Kimberley's husband teaches, police officers, hospital workers, clinic colleagues and patients, and a strong secondary character I came to love dearly -- the fiercely protective abuelita or grandmother of the two little Mackenzie girls. I also added two other criminal characters that I will leave unnamed -- one of them is a pivotal villain.
Although I kept Connor Mackenzie and his two daughters almost the same as they were in the original version, I changed Connor's live-in girlfriend by giving her an Hispanic heritage, as a way to deepen both her character and the conflict between the way she and Connor sees the world.
I also found a way to honor S.K.'s Australian roots. By making the therapist Kimberley Mason’ Australian born-- as well as her parents, older sister, and her husband Ammon -- I not only brought in some Aussie flavor. I also created more drama and tension in having Kimberley work with troubled clients in a city her immediate family members consider to be "dangerous."
All in all, I have to thank Lorraine Ash for bringing us together to write what has been, for me, both one of the most challenging books I've ever written -- and one of the most rewarding. (posted 6/9/2021)