Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Location: Books & Such Main Office, Santa Rosa, Calif.
Recently I was a guest interviewee on the popular blog, Seekerville. I love the blog’s sassy attitude, and interacting with the blog’s commenters was stimulating and fun since topics ranged from scone recipes, to dogs, to writing, to publishing.
One question I was asked that I keep going back to in my mind is whether I see the same ol’ story ideas in queries.
Indeed I do.
What, the person asked, as a followup question, can a writer do to be sure the idea he or she is passionate about is fresh and not a rehash of what keeps cropping up in my query garden?
A recent production I saw on PBS’s “Masterpiece Classic” is instructive. Entitled “Small Island,” the drama recounted the lives of Jamaicans who were sent to Great Britain during WWII and then chose to return to London at the end of the war despite the prejudice they encountered because of their skin color. Jamaican Michael had a brief affair with Londoner Queenie during the war, and she became pregnant. He was missing in action after the war. What will she do when her starched-collar husband returns from the war and Queenie delivers a black baby? Several Jamaicans are boarding at Queenie’s house, including Hortense, who loved Michael but married Gilbert because Gilbert would take her to London with him from Jamaica. The two had just met the afternoon Hortense offered to pay his passage to London on the condition he marry her. All this occurs in the first of two episodes.
What do you think happens in episode two? I had envisioned that Michael, who seemed always to stir up trouble, would return to London, discover Queenie had had his baby but that Hortense, now married but not in love with her steadfast Gilbert, was a boarder at Queenie’s house. Sparks would fly!
But the writer took the story in a different direction. Michael may have set much in motion in episode one, but the significant mover of the story turns out to be Queenie and how she responds to her husband, her boarders, and her clearly black baby. The author took the road less traveled and delivered a fresh story as a result. (If you’d like to watch “Small Island,” it’s available in streaming video here. (Some sexually suggestive scenes are in the video.)
What does that have to do with your writing? If you want to break out of the pack, it’s instructive to think about the logical, reasonable, expected direction for your fiction or nonfiction to take–and then take the reader elsewhere. Rather than having the character who is so afraid of going to war turn into a quivering mass at the bottom of a foxhole, have him discover he revels in killing. Rather than structuring your nonfiction book in a linear way; organize it in a way that surprises yet delights your reader.