Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Using It All Up - Anne McAllister

One of the things I love about writing is that anything you do -- in fact anything you've ever done (so don't sit home!) -- is there to use. Grist for the mill. Ore to be mined.

If you think of your whole life as 'source material' you've just about got the idea. Nothing is sacred -- for better or worse.

I mean, sure, you can deliberately go out and research a topic for a book. Why do you think I went to bull-riding school?

But equally, I find myself digging back into all sorts of boxes in the attic of my mind for just the right detail, experience, moment, emotion that will allow me to tell the story. They are there -- the fleeting memories, the glimpses of details, feelings, thoughts -- and I'm continually astonished, and delighted, how often I get to tap into them.

I dug into my days on sand and in surf at Manhattan Beach for quite a few early books and, amazingly (to me at least), I'm right back there again on the one I'm working on now.

I have found inspiration, not to mention detail, in a couple of Bahamian jaunts that occurred 15-20 years ago, in a trip to Vienna when my children were small, the horseback riding I did when I was eight and the chicken pox I got when I was seven.

If any character of mine ever picks the landlord's peach tree bare, you will have caught me mining the summer when I was four.

And it isn't just the details that find their way into books. It's the emotions.

Some of them are, frankly, emotions I would rather forget. They weren't always the happiest times of my life. But I remember pain, I remember loss. I remember fear.

Even if my characters are nothing like me and, admittedly, most of them aren't, they still hurt, they regret, they are afraid. And I can give them those feelings because I've experienced them. The same, of course, goes for the happier emotions. And, truth to tell, I much prefer writing them.

A former editor of mine refers to some of this process as "writing out of one's emotional landscape."

She says that the strongest books come from those parts of a writer's emotional landscape that are of deepest significance. They are the ones that writers return to again and again, to explore in different ways, to look at from different perspectives.

From the standpoint of having written now 61 books, I completely agree with her. While I am going to Cannes in October to get some 'on site' research of detail and such -- to get hangers to put my story on, as it were -- the emotional landscape is one I am familiar with.

It's a story I find worth exploring again and again: duty and responsibility to oneself and one's family and, at the same time two people finding they are more themselves in relation to another, that they ultimately bring out the best in each other.

What makes this my emotional landscape? I'm not entirely sure. Experiences I've had, no doubt, play their part. Hopes and dreams for the future, maybe. And, of course, a strong desire to make it all come right in the end. It's an emotional landscape based on hope, not justice (which is more of a mystery writer's landscape) or one based on "you're damned if you do and damned if you don't" (which to me often seems a more literary writer's landscape).

If you're a writer, do you find yourself exploring a particular emotional landscape from a variety of angles? Or do you go someplace new emotionally every time?

If you're a reader, do your favorite authors tend to explore the same emotional landscape you like to explore? Or do you go wherever they take you? What attracts you to favorite authors -- and who are they?


Pat Cochran said...


I usually go where an author takes
me. I trust them to have knowledge
about where they lead me. My special favorites include Debbie Macomber, Loretta Chase, Anna Campbell, Carly Phillips, Jane Porter, Brenda Novak, Nora Roberts, Terry McLaughlin, Caridad Piniero, Susan Crandall, and many more!

Pat Cochran

Aideen said...

Hi Anne,

Definitely agreeing with Pat here. I'll go anywhere with an author if they tell the right story. I don't science fiction but if an author I love decides her/his next book takes place on Mars with martians for people, then I'll happily go along for the ride. My list of favourites would be far too long to insert here but I grew up reading and loving Isaac Bashevis Singer. His stories of Jewish life were so colourful and rich that more than once I wished I had been born into that life myself. (Irish Catholic, bit of difference I'd say!)
Nora Roberts can take me anywhere with her written word, she has that magic where her landscapes are all so different yet familiar once you identify the plot. She can do no wrong.
And I'm not getting into M&B authors who transport me all over the world because there are definitely far too many. I love them all!!!


Anne McAllister said...

Hi Pat,
That's a wide variety of really good authors you've listed there. Some of them I'm not familiar with, though, so I'm going to have to check them out. Thanks for sharing them. And it's great that you'll go wherever they do!

Anne McAllister said...

Hi Aideen,
I love Isaac Bashevis Singer, too. I read his books and stories when I was still at school and felt a real affinity for the world he described even though, like you, I didn't come from "his world." I think it's not just his characters and his cultural world that appealed, but also the emotional landscape out of which he wrote. I was at home there, even when I was a "foreigner" to the culture itself.

I have a shelf of Nora Roberts keepers, too. Haven't read the new one yet. But maybe when I get home from my trip out west.

Jill said...

I will read across any genre, any author if I like and understand the characters, but I don't like my characters to be perfect.
There is nothing that annoys me more than reading a story where the main character is so wonderful and good-looking that everyone falls in love (or lust) with them at first sight.
As for specific emotional landscapes that attract me, that is harder to describe. I love characters that seem ordinary, but are filled with hidden strengths, talents, or maybe even a quirkiness that comes out as the story goes on. Of course that covers everything from Harry Potter to Anne McAllister ;-)

Ellen said...

Like others as a reader I am willing to follow the author wherever they lead as long as I am enjoying the story they are telling. I don't really like historical romance so I won't usually pick one up. And I don't like horror. There are too many authors I like to list them all so I'm not listing any.

Margaret McDonagh said...

As a reader I enjoy a range of genres but some author's voices speak to me more than others and involve my emotions much more. Theirs are the books that most draw he and most move me.

As a writer, I agree completely with you and your former editor. Experiences I have had, emotional upheavals, happy times, sad ones, and all manner of places and peoples and feelings, definitely help me to get into the heads of my characters, however different they are from me. And, I hope, to bring out all those facets in the characters themselves and make them real on the page.

I've definitely found that as I get older, I can plumb the depths of far more emotions and feelings than I ever could when I first tried to write when I was young.

Mags xx

Donna Alward said...

"She says that the strongest books come from those parts of a writer's emotional landscape that are of deepest significance. They are the ones that writers return to again and again, to explore in different ways, to look at from different perspectives."

Oh ANNE. What a fabulous post. This part of it really reminded me of being asked if there is a theme in my books. One concept that goes from book to book. I know what mine is, I don't know if it is always visible to the reader, but I can see it.

What I usually remember about books isn't the setting so much as the emotional landscape. So thank you!

Anne McAllister said...

Hi All,
I tried to respond to this yesterday, but I kept getting an error message. I hope it will let me today.

Jill, I agree that 'perfect' characters are annoying. There's no room for change, for growth, for the love of a good woman helping make him a better man (that sort of thing!). And, like you, I do enjoy the quirkiness of people. Definitely makes them more interesting to read about.

I don't like horror books either. I read a lot of regency romances, but I don't read much in other eras.

Mags, yes, it's the author's voice as well as their view of the world -- their emotional landscape -- that draws me to them. And, like you, I find that I'm better at figuring out and, I hope, conveying the complexity of emotions now than I was when I began writing.

Donna, I can never decide on my own "theme" but I do know that there is a definite emotional landscape that I explore over and over in a variety of ways, part of life that I find compelling and worth spending time with. It's great that you can identify yours.