I’m in the process of submitting queries for my first novel while revising my second. It’s interesting to see the similarities between the two: both protagonists are redheads (as am I, thanks to henna), both are/were teachers (ditto, no henna involved), and both divorced (yup) and optimistically starting a new chapter in life. (That’s me again, though my new chapter is not a solo act, since I’ve recently married a wonderful man.) Other non-autobiographical similarities: both protagonists are visited often by a neighbor’s cat. A few cats regularly scoot through my back yard, but they never stop for a visit—quel dommage. Both novels involve frequent injections of a foreign language too—one German, one French. I’m studying Spanish now; will my next story be spiced with Spanish phrases? All writers have heard the old chestnut “Write what you know.” I didn’t set out to do that, but I certainly have filtered these two non-autobiographical stories through a thick layer of my own favorite things.
At my most recent critique meeting, a few readers suggested that Lola, the protagonist of novel #2, be placed in a more adventurous, challenging, unusual situation. Basically, Lola retires early from teaching (me again) and, having launched her two children, moves to a charming, hippie-dippy town in Northern California where she attempts to live the artistic, indulgent life she’d imagined for herself during the hard years of single-motherhood. Of course, complications from her past pile on, making this new life increasingly difficult, and sending her off in a new, unanticipated direction. There’s a bit of romance too, but no dead bodies this time, though I think Lola would make a good amateur sleuth for future cozy mysteries. The story is lighthearted, humorous, and full of quirky characters—the sort of people I’d like to meet more of in real life. Lola’s relationship with her grown daughter is central to the plot.
Anyway, the question was raised as to whether this scenario is exciting enough to sustain readers’ interest. Why doesn’t Lola move overseas? Why doesn’t she become a spy, or do something that places her in a life-threatening situation? Hmm. I must keep in mind that most members of my critique group are writing science fiction/fantasy, with futuristic military campaigns, volcanic eruptions, queens with magic rings who struggle to understand their hereditary powers, and so on. Now, I enjoy these sorts of stories, but I’m most interested in stories about plausible people in plausible situations—realistic fiction, as well as memoir and historical fiction. I find people fascinating, and I enjoy reading about the real-life (or believable) adventures in the real world. People I can relate to struggling against the sorts of obstacles we all face in life? Fascinating, touching, inspiring. People learning and growing and pushing their limits? That’s great stuff—tell me more. People struggling to love, understand, connect with their fellow humans? Marvelous. I don’t find real-life stories a bit boring.
This reminds me of a writing assignment I used to give to my ninth- and tenth-grade students: What’s your definition of a hero? Write about a real-life hero, either someone you know or someone you know of. I got many touching tributes to parents, grandparents, coaches, soldiers, firefighters… But many of my students (usually boys) just couldn’t wrap their minds around the concept of a hero who didn’t have superpowers. To them, a hero is an unrealistic, cartoon character who flies, who can hurl flames or become invisible. And I find that incredibly sad—some of these kids were so grounded in speculative fiction that they find the real life around them boring and not worth contemplating.
Realistic fiction or speculative fiction? Chick flicks or Shoot-em-ups? Is a movie without explosions worth watching? Are the struggles of human beings to understand each other and connect with other humans enough to sustain a reader’s interest? They can be. Movies I’ve recently loved include Nebraska, The Judge, and This Is Where I Leave You, all of which center around the difficult relationship between a parent and child—which is the core around which my second novel revolves. Women’s fiction is a genre that centers on relationships, and there’s a large readership for those sorts of stories. And frankly, I’m bored to death with stories about zombies, werewolves, and post-apocalyptic dystopian muddles.
But at their core, both realistic and speculative fiction are about the human condition: fear, doubt, isolation, connection, envy, scorn, ambition, and so on. Explosions or no explosions, that’s what it’s really all about.