As a reader and viewer, I rarely shy away from content displaying violence, cruelty, or explicit sex, as long as it advances the plot and is authentic to the setting and circumstances of the story. However, as a writer, I’m squeamish about it.
I’ve read four of the books from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice sequence and have watched every episode of Game of Thrones. I’m a huge fan of Netflix’s House of Cards and Orange is the New Black; and, I am anxiously awaiting the next season of Peaky Blinders. Diana Gabaldon became one of my favorite authors after I read The Scottish Prisoner, and I watched most of the Outlander series on Starz. I can read all of that and watch all of that, but I just can’t write about it.
From researching the historical background for my novel Hattie’s Place, I became aware of the gritty features of life in the South at the turn of the twentieth century, which included vigilantism, lynching, murder, demagoguery, disenfranchisement by sex and race, poverty,disease, and illiteracy,to name a few. Any one of those conditions would provide ripe content for exploiting into juicy, page-turning narrative. But somehow, in Hattie’s Place I couldn’t persuade myself to get my hands dirty.
I’ve thought a lot about it and have concluded that there are several reasons for my reluctance to dig in and write more explicit scenes. To start with, I’m a fledgling novelist and haven’t quite got my wings. As I mature as a writer, I’ll probably expand my range. But don’t expect to read about any steamy sexual encounters or stumble across any disemboweled corpses in my books just yet!
Writing historical fiction is a lonely endeavor. When I enter the world of the story that I am trying to tell, I am essentially alone, in a different time and place, with only my characters for company.Whatever happens to my characters, I must experience vicariously in order to write about it. If I allow one of them to become physically dismembered, I have to understand what it looks like and feels like to lose a limb. If I subject another to the experience of a senseless loss or to suffer oppressive conditions, I will live through their grief and trials as I write the scenes for it. That can be a real downer! I suppose that more experienced authors have learned to detach themselves from particularly graphic scenes after they write them, much like a surgeon can cut through the tissue and bone of a patient, and then go out and eat a steak for dinner. But I can’t do that yet.
Another reason I shy away from writing “blood and guts” narrative is that I’m much more of a character-driven writer than an action-driven one. That’s something I want to work on, because I think that a really good story contains a well-developed character emotional plot line as well as a dramatic action plot line. In my next book, I want to expand my range as a writer by testing Hattie’s character. I’ll cast her into uncharted waters where she will encounter people and ideas that challenge her trust in the basic goodness of humankind, as well as the homespun wisdom that she has always relied upon: “When adversity comes, you simply have to rise above it” and “You can attract more flies with honey than vinegar.” Will Hattie sink or swim when confronted with the vicissitudes of life? She may come out of her ordeals a bit waterlogged, but in the end, I’m betting that she will survive and be stronger.
When I complete my next novel, my goal is that both Hattie and I will have grown and matured and that my readers will get a bit more action. But I’m afraid I’ll have to leave scenes like “The Red Wedding” to George R.R. Martin and stick to something much tamer.