I am delighted to introduce an author who hails from my hometown of Houston, Texas. Sandra Bretting writes for the Houston Chronicle business section and just released her debut mystery, Unholy Lies, which deals with secrets in a small Texas town. Welcome, Sandra! And a big congratulations on your new book!
Defending Your Writing Choices Without Getting Defensive
The woman at the book club where I’d been asked to speak wasn’t trying to be rude, I’m sure. She only wanted to know—rather loudly—why one of the main characters in my book is a preacher’s wife who goes off the deep end.
“Why do writers think all preachers’ wives are wackos?” she demanded.
It didn’t help that she’d asked the question in front of a room full of women made bold by several bottles of merlot.
Fortunately, my answer satiated her, because she fell silent. It took a moment for my blood pressure to return to normal after that, though. It wasn’t that I’d been challenged; although I had. What bothered me was that I’d been made to defend my story and given responsibility for the entire history of western literature, it seemed.
Looking back, what I should have said was this: “Can’t speak for all writers . . . but I wrote it that way because it was right for this situation.” Nothing more and nothing less. Forget about giving a mini-lesson on backstory or character motivation. I, as the writer, wanted to make that character a little crazy.
Now, I’m not a proponent of negative stereotypes. I don’t purposefully set out to perpetuate the idea that all pastors’ wives are wacko . . . that all Latino men are macho . . . that all married men cheat on their wives.
For this story, I needed a character who had certain traits that would make her husband’s betrayal seem more plausible. And to be honest . . . she grew to be my favorite character in the book.
The idea that all preachers’ wives are written a certain way never entered my mind. Because I’ve never met a crazy preacher’s wife. Because in my experience, the ones I’ve known have been intelligent, capable and most importantly, sane.
But back to the issue at hand. Why did the reader feel the need to question my choices? Ultimately, it was because she cared. A lot. And that’s a good thing. If people didn’t relate to the story; if they didn’t put themselves into the characters’ shoes and walk around for a while; they wouldn’t care.
Which is exactly what I find myself doing right now. I’ve almost finished Love You More by Lisa Gardner. I’ve loved it, except . . . I would have written the ending differently. Because I don’t write thrillers, the mystery writer in me wanted the killer to be someone else. But you know what? It’s Gardner’s book. She had to live inside their heads for months at a time, not me. She had to make choices about what they said, what they did, and what they ate for breakfast. Not me. If I don’t like it, I don’t have to recommend the book to anyone else. But ultimately, I question her choices because I do like it.
So, the next time someone ambushes me (because that’s what it felt like) at a book-club meeting and demands to know why I’ve made certain choices, I’ll take a deep breath first. And thank my lucky stars the reader cared enough to ask me that.
By the way . . . the woman who posed the question? Not even married to a pastor. Turns out she’s a district attorney here in southeast Texas. Apparently someone who cares about her fiction. Someone like me.
Sandra Bretting writes feature stories for the business section of the Houston Chronicle. A native of California, she attended the University of Missouri School of Journalism and formerly wrote for the Los Angeles Times and others. Her debut mystery, titled Unholy Lies, was released in November from Five Star Publishing.