It’s OK To Send a Message by Karen Harper
I’m fully aware that over the years, fiction writers have been warned by that old Sam Goldwyn quote, “If you’ve got a message, send a telegram.” I know, I know, in mass market fiction, we’re writing primarily to entertain with great stories, memorable characters, adventure or thrills and gripping emotions rather than share a message.
Yet the longer I have written novels (over 30 years now,) I find I can’t quite follow that advice. Maybe it’s because I taught high school or college (Ohio State University) for 17 years. The teacher/instructor in me just won’t quit. Or maybe it’s because, even reading fiction, I like to learn something new and not only read a good story. Really, aren’t we learning something even if we read a fairy tale? Discovery is old as storytelling itself: Aesop’s fables are fiction and yet pack a punch.
So in my writing, although I usually begin with a setting I love—one with instant conflict embedded in it—and then progress to plot and character. I’m sorry, old Sam Goldwyn, but I think I do send a message, or at least try to inform my readers about something they might not know. Of course, I realize I can’t bog down the action. Interesting information has to be worked in, maybe through the heroine’s career or something huge (and evil?) she’s up against.
For example, I’ve written nine books set among the Amish. Fascinating people, what we call old-fashioned, but people who are willing to have their genomes mapped to learn more about hereditary diseases that plague them. A surprise to me and a good hook for a book. The Amish are full of surprises to share with my readers.
My current romantic suspense trilogy is set on the edge of Appalachia, an area I know well, but that’s not why I chose it for three books. From my days attending a college in that area (Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, not to be confused with Ohio State University in Columbus) I saw the conflicts and the great divide between the people living there. Some of the “mountain folk” are still poor and steeped in their independent, loner ways. Some children are still poorly educated and underfed. Coal mines are played out, so unemployment is rampant. Fracking with all its good and bad points is invading. All this is sometimes made worse by the upscale vacation or retirement enclaves in the area—wealthy people with their own lifestyles and interests in great contrast to other people who live down the road or wait on their tables.
Still, in my new trilogy, I’m not beating a drum for reform. I’m not anti-fracking, for example, though the story points out some problems. The books just say, Think about this. Think about what it does to people and means to people you don’t know but whom you should still care about.
So the deeper underpinnings of a story filled with tension, bad guys, romance and happy endings can have just information and not a message per se. The middle book in the new trilogy focuses on an archeologist who is excavating Adena Indian burial mounds. Most people outside the Midwest haven’t even heard of the Adena. It’s probably because they are prehistoric: they came from who knows where centuries before Christ and settled from the Mississippi River to the East Coast, had a fascinating civilization, left amazing artifacts, then disappeared as mysteriously as they came. Yet they left burials mounds with bodies and treasures.
All of my historical novels set in Tudor England which center around real characters are automatically in the “Let’s learn something while we read” category. Some of the best comments I’ve had from readers go something like this, “I used to hate history, but now I really like it. I’m going to get some more books on the Tudors.” I’ve studied the English Renaissance most of my life and love to share the tragedies (beheadings!) and triumphs (Elizabeth I ruling instead of a king) with my readers. That takes hours of research but that’s a part of writing I love. I’ve just spent two years of study, transitioning from Tudor to late Victorian/Edwardian for a new novel. That book is not yet scheduled but I hope my readers love it as a learning experience as well as a gripping novel.
I must admit I love learning from my research as much as I love writing my suspense novels with ‘average women’ heroines who overcome great dangers and might even save their man, instead of the other way around.
So, old Sam Goldwyn, I always strive to be an entertainer in my novels, but if I can inform or interest a reader in something fascinating or important, that makes my writing all the more worthwhile—to me and I hope to those who spend time with my stories too.
Karen Harper is the New York Times bestselling author of contemporary suspense (THE COLD CREEK TRILOGY) and historical novels (MISTRESS SHAKESPEARE and THE LAST BOLEYN). SHATTERED SECRETS, book one of the new trilogy was voted Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2014 books. Winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award, Karen divides her time between Ohio and Florida.
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