This article originally appeared on A Literary Vacation on August 23, 2016.
Like many authors, I pick up bits and pieces of my fictional stories from real life, like the “pretty” rocks my son collected when he was five. Eventually he collected so many tiny, beautiful stones he had to continually carry a backpack. And inevitably that pack became so heavy I was forced to carry it every time we went out. But that’s another story.
While writing my debut novel, Root, Petal, Thorn, I collected a variety of story pebbles from a treasure trove of family lore, and used them to build the foundation of the book. It’s far from a memoir, but many of my story nuggets came from time spent with my grandparents, and though my grandma wouldn’t tell me much about her own life, she loved to talk about her mother (my great-grandmother and namesake). If I was asked to describe Great-Grandma Ella’s life, the first thing I would do is pare it down to a series of noteworthy events.
1) When she was seven years old, everyone in her church class (except her) died of diphtheria.
2) Her mom died in childbirth when Ella was eleven, leaving her an only child who was then raised by her father and her maternal grandmother.
3) That grandmother (who was my great-great-great grandma) was the third wife to her best friend’s father. In other words, she was an unenthusiastic polygamist wife. She bore him eleven children. One of them was Ella’s mother, who died.
4) Great-grandma Ella married and became pregnant right before her husband left for WWI. He died in France from influenza and never met his daughter (my grandma).
As an impressionable child, I considered each of these life-changing circumstances with no small amount of hand-wringing. I was named after my great-grandma; might I not also suffer her fate? In fact, after learning exactly what diphtheria was, I tried more than once to convince my mom I could feel my throat constricting, even going so far as to gasp helplessly for a doctor before collapsing onto my bed. She didn’t buy it.
Decades later (having barely survived diphtheria), I put my hands to the keyboard and wove many of these legends in to narrative lore. While I wrote, I got to thinking: Why do readers seek out traumatic events in the stories they read? And why am I, myself, most interested in exploring the bleaker parts of a story?
According to a study conducted by The Ohio State University (2012), “People seem to use [narrative] tragedies as a way to reflect on the important relationships in their own lives – to count their blessings – which helps explain why tragedies are so popular with audiences. Despite the sadness they induce; [narrative tragedies] result in an overall increase in happiness.” Case in point: In the bestselling novel by Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale, both sisters suffer tremendous loss, yet at the end (no spoilers…don’t worry) the reader is overcome with the continuity of their love, come what may. I wiped a tear after finishing this traumatic tale and closed it with a satisfied sigh.
Here’s the beauty of fictionalizing harrowing family history and embarrassing secrets. I love family stories, but my collected stones were un-cut gems, because most events are like the list above: fact-filled. Perhaps distressing to learn about, but they lack emotional context. The end of many a true story is dreadful or, even worse for the teller-of-stories, boring. But the fiction author is free to expand upon their tidbits of ancestry and explore possible consequences using a range of emotional details. The author is free to ask, “What if?”
So how to get away with it? The intent is not to harm, obviously, but to expand. In mixing up the events, changing the names, throwing in a few more characters, and altering the most-telling of details, the truth and consequences (so to speak) can be explored and no one can cry foul. You can explore your family history and have your happy ending (or your disastrous one) and no one can sue for slander. No one can say you didn’t get the story right. Because, of course, you didn’t. You wrote a fictional story. This, for me, is so much more fun than writing a memoir.
I challenge you to read Root, Petal, Thorn, or any of your other favorite novels. Then take a closer look at the author bio or acknowledgments. See if you can find a little fact in the fiction. Because no matter how implausible the story, there is always a whisper of truth.
This guest post originally appeared Amy Sue Nathan's Women's Fiction Writers Blog on October 6, 2016 http://womensfictionwriters.com/2016/10/06/guest-post-debut-novelist-ella-joy-olsen-talks-about-spheres-of-influence-in-writing/
Today we have author Ella Joy Olsen here on WFW talking about Spheres of Influence. I’ll admit, I’d never heard of this before reading Ella’s post, and I was intrigued. It gave me a lot to think about it…and I’ll share my own ideas in the comments. I hope you’ll do the same and tell us all about your Spheres of Influence. Now, let’s congratulate Ella on the publication of her debut novel, Root, Petal, Thorn! You’ll definitely want to check it out!
Spheres of Influence
By Ella Joy Olsen
I started thinking about Spheres of Influence, in relation to my writing, the day after my fantastic, wonderfully attended, launch party. Someone asked me if I sold a lot of books. “Did I ever!” I squealed. “I sold through the bookstore’s purchase of one hundred copies. Plus twenty of my own.” The owner was giddy! I was thrilled. Everyone went home a little drunk.
The next morning, in the haze of my book/champagne hangover, I realized that likely everyone I knew and loved (and could guilt into buying) now owned a copy of Root, Petal, Thorn. And one hundred and twenty books, though super flattering, does not a best-seller make.
After the hangover lifted, in a moment of clarity, I decided to categorize these book launch peeps into what I would call: Sphere One. These people–all attendees and all who I invited– were my most immediate Sphere of Influence, my sure thing. Every author has one of these beloved spheres. Mine consists of my family, friends, individuals I can identify on the street, or any person who I’d eventually know if they did (or did not) buy my book. These are the people I can ask candidly (or beg) to write a review on Amazon to get my reviews up to fifty, so the algorithm will give me a boost out of this small but important sphere.
On to Sphere Two. I’m lucky. My book is set in my hometown and includes a bunch of local history. Plus my hometown is Salt Lake City, a place where not many novels are set. This is not like a New York City author writing a book based in Manhattan. I knew if I poked around I’d get a little local coverage simply because I was unique.
And I did. I secured a nice article in the Sunday paper, a glossy local magazine, even a bit on a daily noon show. Sphere Two is a space where I have influence. I don’t know any of these people personally, but I can touch them through my OWN marketing efforts. I know where they live so I can send Facebook Ads their direction, I know they might be interested in my book because it involves their hometown, I can hold readings in their neighborhood book stores.
I can say honestly that I have worked this sphere with all I got. At the risk of sounding sleazy, I’ll admit to pimping myself all across my state. This is my only shot to be a home-grown debut author and my hands are cramping, because I’m milking it. I can see from Neilsen Book Scan that it’s working. I can check on my geographical sales and the area all around Utah is a beautiful dark blue. But am I a best seller? In any category? Not even close.
Enter Sphere Three. Actually, I wish I could enter. I want someone to give me a boost and pull me in, because to get a good spot in Sphere Three you need to know the bouncer. Lots of things can help you enter the party but most are outside of the author’s control. They are the “best of” lists compiled by widely read publications or celebrities, publisher dollars used to purchase banner ads on Goodreads or spots in pop-culture magazines, placement by a coveted retailer, or enormous giveaways that get your book into the hands of thousands of readers. These are the books that someone bigger than the author expects to be the “next big thing” and these books are given every opportunity to reach their hopeful potential. But will they make it to….Sphere Four?
Sphere Four is truly behind the veil, because no one really knows the path one must take to get here. To enter you have to break-out (or to keep on theme – break in). Some authors may have breadcrumbs leading them to this sphere, meaning a recognizable name, a loyal following, a trendy genre, or a bunch of advertising behind them. All these things help…but to enter there must be consensus. One must receive approval from all the little people who matter the most: the readers.
This is word-of-mouth, this is the book people are actually talking about, this is the book you have to read to keep up with water-cooler discussion. This is the genre-jumping, barrier-breaking, break-out hit. Once in this coveted sphere, you get to hang out for a sweet-spell, playing around on the biggest lists with the famous authors, while readers everywhere figure out that you’re in the cool circle and try to be your friend.
There are all walks of folks at this party. James Patterson enters through his own private revolving door (sometimes in the company of an unrecognizable side-kick), Andy Weir is truly looking around like he’s on Mars, E.L. James uncovered a naughty little trend and entered through the backdoor, J.K. Rowling worked some magic…and so on. Some get here once and never again and some can’t seem to leave.
Why? Now that’s the hundred thousand dollar question. Maybe the answer is engraved in the hallowed halls of Sphere Four, but I haven’t visited, so I’m not sure, and I have no answers.
But I do have this…one final takeaway: To make my point I’m going to drag you back to dear, sweet Sphere One. This lovely sphere of true-blues always thinks that there is a direct path from Sphere One to Sphere Four. If they don’t know any other authors, they believe that right after you walk out of the launch party at your local book store you’re boarding the fun bus to Sphere Four.
“Who knows?” Their eyes glisten with encouragement, as they buy one copy of your book. “I’ll look for your name on the best-seller lists.”
And that’s the crux of it. Who knows? And I won’t be able to help myself. I’ll be looking for my name on that list, too.