Everything’s Fodder

That’s something you hear a lot from writers, especially when their or their friends’ lives are going down the toilet. No matter how bad a day (or week or month) you’re having, there’s going to be something in it you can use in your work down the line. Trust me.

Three years ago this month, my sister’s only child died just days after his seventeenth birthday. It was an amazingly awful time, but those emotions were there to tap when I wrote a character who’d lost her fifteen-year-old daughter. Last year I broke my wrist and had to have surgery. I know exactly what my current hero feels when he breaks his wrist. And earlier this year, my husband broke his  wrist and had to have surgery, so I know exactly how the heroine feels taking care of him post-injury. (And I’m convinced that no matter how whiny or grumpy my hero gets, anyone who’s ever nursed a man through an injury will know that there’s no such thing as “too much.” LOL.)

Granted, we don’t have to live through an event to be able to write characters experiencing that event. After all, we’re authors. Imagination is our biggest tool. I’ve never killed anyone (though maybe I’ve been tempted a time or two), but I can imagine it quite well.

But emotions that we’ve felt ourselves can certainly add a feel of authenticity to our stories, and emotions are the backbone of romance novels. In other genres, the focus is on other things — the who-or-how-he-dunnit in mysteries, the world in sci-fi, etc. — but romances succeed or fail on emotion. You can have the best characters, plots and twists ever imagined, but if the emotion’s not real, the readers won’t care.

I knew a woman who lamented that her books weren’t finding the success she wanted; in the same conversation, she remarked that she hadn’t read a certain book — a really emotional laugh-and-sob romance novel that was flying off the shelves — because she didn’t like anything that made her feel too deeply. Duh! That was the problem with her own books: she had good characters, good plots and good writing, but nothing really touched the hero and heroine or, as a result, the readers. The emotions were superficial, and so was her readers’ connection to her books.

How are you with emotion in your own books? Do you have any tricks for getting it in, or do you rely on your critique buddies to send your pages back with “more, more, more!” scrawled on them?

Can you think of any books that really, truly reached down inside you to tug at your heart? The one that always comes to my mind first: Always to Remember by Lorraine Heath. I cried from about the second page on. I loved that book!


9 thoughts on “Everything’s Fodder

  1. I’m one of those authors who likes to have a TS or friend read my work for the emotional part. Marilyn, you always grab me, whether to laugh or cry or feel the frustration the characters are going through. Other than your books, Jodi Picoult is an author who grips me. And I cried when Dumbledore died, as well as Hedwig and the others.

    I hope that my work evokes emotion from my readers.

    • I cried when Hedwig and the twin died! And Lupin and Tonks! I put off reading that book for almost a year because I’d heard about the deaths and I wasn’t ready to read them. If she’d wanted to kill a Weasly, I would have happily offered up Ginny or Percy; who cared about them?

      You got the emotion in the right places in the latest one. I’m taking this time to finish it so I can find out what happens!

  2. Marilyn,

    Lorraine Heath made me cry my eyes out… the character who carved stone monuments for graves… and couldn’t go to war?? Oh man. Like a baby I sobbed and sobbed.

    Emotion is tough. It’s hard to find a good balance. The relationship HAS to have emotion enough to grip the reader, but different sub genres of romance have a different need for emotion in the conflict/story.


    • Wasn’t it an amazingly touching book???

      I have it on my keeper shelf in the office, but you know, I’ve never read it a second time. In my memory, it was just so absolutely perfect (though I did have a few quibbles with the ending, but that doesn’t matter). I think I’m afraid if I read it again with all the time that’s passed that I may not love it as much as I did before. That’s happened to me with other books that I’ve tried rereading after ten or twelve years.

      So Always to Remember will stay on my keeper shelf and I’ll remember it as one of the best books I ever read. 😉

      • there aren’t enough Kleenex in the world for me to ever re-read that one. I had an autographed copy and I pitched in the recycle bag and traded it in.

        I still remember just gnawing on my pillow as tears streamed down my face. I do NOT like to cry over fiction. spw

  3. I always feel cheated when I read a story that skimps on the emotion, even if it’s not a romance. Granted, in mysteries, I don’t really expect it because it’s not the focus of the story, but sheesh, even mystery protagonists go through some bit of emotion when a child is kidnapped.

    I do know a few writers who are – for lack of a better word – afraid of delving too deeply into emotions. Everything in their books is just surface deep, because if they look too closely at what their characters are feeling, they might have to also look at what they themselves are feeling. They’re happier not being in touch with their inner selves and not having to deal with unhappy things that happened to them.

    Which always makes me wonder why they’re writers, since IMO it’s impossible to be a good writer without delving into your own emotions, fears, experiences, etc.

  4. I can forgive some foibles in books if I’m gripped. I’ve read contest entries where the writing was less than stellar, but the emotion and characters were good.
    A TIME TO KILL by John Grisham was his first published book, but it wasn’t as well crafted as some of his later ones, yet it will always be a favorite because of the emotion.

    • I’ve seen that before with other authors — they were obviously so passionate about their first books. They were hoping to get published, but they were writing for themselves first and foremost, and that passion really comes through, even though technically they may have some problems.

      Then, in the other direction, I’ve seen authors whose first books are pretty polished and attention-grabbing, but then their second or third or fourth books don’t live up to it. It usually turns out that they wrote the others first, but the latest one just happened to be first published.

      When I sold my first book, Leslie Wainger asked to see my only other completed manuscript, but I said no. That book had been rejected for a reason!

  5. I know when I had to write my scene where the heroine’s child goes to surgery for his kidney transplant, I pulled on the emotions when my youngest had neurosurgery for his skull fractures. That’s where I get most of the emotion for my stories; I pull it from my life experiences.

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