The title of this post is what I say to myself when I start to take myself too seriously. I say it a lot. Take my last post, for example. Puh-leeze. Like wearing a wool sweater on a summer’s day. Not that the subject matter isn’t relevant; it is. But such dreary introspection is like putting a lid on my creativity.
In the nick of time, I got a newsletter from WOW – Women on Writing. My first thought was: I am SO not in the mood for any “helpful” writing advice. After all, I’m busy slogging through a bog. If I don’t focus, I’ll fall into quicksand or something. But, the cheery summer colours in the email caught my attention (those clever ladies) and before I knew it, I had opened it and started reading.
Glad I did.
The lead article was an interview with Elin Hilderbrand, an author whose books I confess I’ve never read. The article calls her “Queen of the Beach Novel.” The title gave me pause but since today is officially the first day of Summer, I read on. The author described her style, where she writes, and how she writes solely about the place she loves best on Earth: the island of Nantucket. The old catch phrase, “Write what you know,” popped into my mind of course.
I am currently working on two big projects set in two different locations that I know very, very well. One is set almost exclusively in a place so dear to me that I’ve instructed my family to scatter my ashes there when the time comes; a place I know like the back of my hand. I can still see and smell and feel the shores of the Chesapeake even as I sit many miles away in Toronto. It’s a place of idyllic childhood memories and bittersweet adult experiences. I can write about this place, you bet.
I’m also working on a trilogy of short stories set on the Outer Banks of North Carolina – another place near and dear to my heart although I haven’t been there since dinosaurs roamed the earth. I know it’s changed drastically since I was there last yet I’m writing it as I remember it – a place of endless summers, moonlit salty nights on a deck nestled into the dunes – writing about that place is like slipping into an old pair of soft, well-worn sandals.
Setting stories into locations I know well lets me concentrate on my peeps and their messy little lives, their nervous tics, their secrets. The location weaves its way in and out of the story, shaping the lives of the people who live there. The location does this in a subtle, quiet way…an exception would be a Bronte novel set in the Yorshire moors which makes reader want to cozy up to a roaring fire regardless of what season it’s read in.
Then I got to thinking about the term “beach novel” or “beach read.” This conjures up a convenience store paperback with a predictable plot and stereotyped characters. As I said before, I’ve never read Ms. Hilderbrand’s work but at least in the interview, she didn’t seem to mind the moniker of “Queen of the Beach Novel.” And why should she? Who am I, Little Miss Unpublished, to turn up my nose at such a label? Writing beach novels has probably afforded her a pretty nice life on a stunning island. But, does “beach novel” necessarily equate a schlocky book? Probably not. As Ms. Hilderbrand stated in the interview, her books are always set on Nantucket and it is always summer (how nice is that, by the way!) But, the subject matter can be serious. Scandal, divorce, and all matter of mayhem can happen in summer, too. Even in a lovely place like Nantucket, I’ll bet.
If you think about it, the idyllic location and season set up a nice juxtaposition from the often messy, complicated, and not-so-idyllic lives of the characters (presumably). Contrast, conflict, juxtaposition – all good things that keep the reader engaged. Summer is also a great time for delving into the loopier, zanier side of things – a side I can usually totally relate to except that I’m stuck in this holier-than-thou-I’m-suffering-from-writer-angst-and-don’t-forget-the-guilt- Bog.
So, exactly two hours into Summer and I’m giving myself a challenge: to refrain from all the weightiness, the moroseness, the seriousness. I’m going to write from somewhere I love, love, love. My characters (dear God, one hopes) will be interesting, morally challenged, and slightly crazy. They will wear flip-flops. Even when the winter comes, they will dress inappropriately. Who cares? Save the heavy stuff for when there’s two feet of snow on the ground in January.
Wee Banshee: puh-leeze, stop taking yourself so seriously.