Sunday, July 5, 2020

Telling It Like It Is?

Stephen King says, “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.” Should an author be concerned about the impact of their stories on the reader? Is there a point where you believe that truthful is too truthful? Have you ever cut something from your book for fear of offending somebody?

Brenda Chapman here.

This question is not as easy to answer as one might think and I'm keen to hear what my fellow bloggers write on this topic as this week progresses.

The first thing that comes to mind is that my daughters would say I'm waaaay too truthful when it comes to writing sex scenes although I believe these to be quite restrained passages, only hinting at what's taking place. Still, I've received several surprised comments from friends who can't believe I wrote as much as I did. Some even appear to look at me differently ...

This leads to a hurdle that all authors need to get past at some point: setting aside the reader in your mind and writing freely without worrying how the scenes or language will be received. I'll admit to toning down some scenes, both sex and murder descriptions, but not because of the impact on people I know or have yet to meet, but rather because no more was needed. I don't like a lot of graphic violence as a reader, preferring to let my imagination fill in the blanks, and tend to write in the same fashion. Still, I know I've shocked some people with my crime scenes.

Early on in my writing, my friend and author Alex Brett would critique early drafts of my manuscripts. She always gave incisive and honest feedback, which I appreciated and incorporated into my rewrites. The one piece of advice that she said to me that made the most impact was: "If you ever let yourself go and write without self-censure, you're going to be even more wonderful."

Since then, I've striven to let go and write as if nobody is reading :-) I tuck away the thought of anyone reading my work and attempt to write honestly and just let the ideas flow. Once the book is published, there might be a few times I cringe thinking about who's reading some of the passages, but I'm quick to shrug this off too. I suppose it's like having your mother go through your diary ... what kid wants that?

Another way to look at this week's question is should we write honestly about friends and family if we have characters based on them or if we're writing stories about our own lives? For me, there is no equivocation  I won't be writing a true, tell-all book about anybody in my life and I avoid writing anything that would embarrass or hurt someone I know. I pretty much have the same code for people I don't know as well, so you won't find me saying nasty things on Twitter, for example. (And there have been times I've had to back away from the computer.)

Whenever I've included someone in my true stories or articles, I run past them what I've written if there's a chance it could be offensive and revise if necessary. For instance, I wrote a short story entitled "My Sister Caroline" that was published in the anthology When Boomers Go Bad. In this story, the narrator kills off her sister by pushing her off a cliff. I ran the piece past my own sister before it went to print on the off-chance she read it and thought I was working out some unresolved childhood resentment (which I was not). Happily, she took no offence at all and I didn't change a word. 

I will admit to using bits and pieces of real people or events that have happened in some of my fictional characters and story lines but disguised enough so that nobody takes offence. A few times, my friends have cottoned on. For instance, my brother realized that a family and story line in one of my kids' mysteries were based on an actual event that took place in our home town although I changed a lot of the details. Luckily, nobody else (up until now) made the connection since it was a rather horrible crime.

While I was writing Cold Mourning, we had a serial killer named Russell Williams on the loose and then captured in Ottawa. In fact, he and his wife moved into our neighborhood a month or two before he was caught. He was in command of an armed forces base not far from Kingston and did not fit the serial killer profile. What finally did he in were the unique tire tracks on his vehicle which matched those found outside one of the homes of his victims. (I digress.) Anyhow, the story dominated the news for weeks and I was so disturbed by him that he became a character (altered and fictional) in the book that many have since recognized. I don't feel any remorse if I've somehow offended him.

As for cutting something from a book for fear of causing offence, I can't say that I consciously do this, but I do have an example. I set my Stonechild and Rouleau series in Kingston, Ontario and often use real restaurants and locations. One of my books was about to go to print and I'd used the name of a real hotel as the place for a crime. I'm not sure if other writers do this, but sometimes I'll use a name as more of a placeholder and by the end of the manuscript it's become part of the story. Anyway, none of the editors questioned this name choice but I had a niggling doubt and raised my concern as they were finalizing the manuscript for the printers. We quickly agreed it would be wise to make up a hotel name rather than risk being sued. Sometimes preventing offence is the better part of valour.


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Dietrich Kalteis said...

Good post, Brenda. That's funny about your daughter reading sex scenes you wrote.

Brenda Chapman said...

Thanks Dietrich - Yes, my daughters prefer the murder to the sex scenes :-)