Think Globally, Write Locally

- by Barbara Keiler

I recently reconnected with an old classmate of mine (well no, she’s not old; neither am I) who is an English professor hope-street1and a short story writer.  She said she believes fiction does one of two things: it takes a specific incident and expands it into a universal idea, or it takes a universal idea and shrinks it into a specific incident.  As a short story writer, she tends to practice the first process: her stories are about small moments that ultimately resonate in a large way.  As a writer of popular fiction, I tend to practice the second process: my stories take universal ideas and make them specific.

This is one useful definition of popular fiction-the kinds of books members of Novelists, Inc write.  We explore universal themes by shrinking them into a manageable size.  The world is a chaotic place, but we create realistic heroes and heroines who navigate through the chaos and bring the reader along with them.  The reader experiences the chaos not intellectually but emotionally, living the story through the hero or heroine.

For example: rather than write a novel about “environmental degradation,” a pop-fiction novelist will write a novel about a farmer whose crop is threatened by contaminants in her irrigation water.  Rather than write a novel about “urban violence,” a pop-fiction novelist will write a novel about a detective searching for an inner-city criminal.  Rather than write a novel about “love,” a pop-fiction novelist will write a novel about a particular heroine’s relationship with a particular hero.

It’s the book version of the old slogan: think globally, act locally.  Pop-fiction writers tackle global concepts like pollution, violence and love by localizing our stories, focusing on individuals our readers can recognize and identify with.

One of the classic definitions of pop-fiction is a story that promises an ending in which order is restored to the chaotic world.  That’s certainly an essential element.  In a thriller, apocalypse is averted.  In a mystery, the criminal is apprehended.  In a romance, the star-crossed lovers uncross their stars, affirm their love and live happily ever after.  But even that concept of restored order goes down more smoothly when the reader is dealing with characters rather than philosophies, events rather than abstractions.

People often ask me where I get my ideas.  I get them by observing the chaos around me and asking myself, “How can I address this in a manageable way?  How can I condense this chaos into a small enough size that I can wrap my mind around it?”  I can’t write a novel about “breast cancer,” but I can write a novel (Barefoot In the Grass) about a breast cancer survivor figuring out how to live the rest of her life with only one breast.  I can’t write a book about “food,” but I can write a comedy (Love In Bloom’s) about two sisters who run a delicatessen and need to figure out how to deal with pickle merchants, bagel thieves and the mysterious link between sex and chocolate.

Maybe after I’ve shrunken the universal idea into a specific incident and written about it, the reader can take that specific incident and find the universality in it.  As far as I’m concerned, though, if my books enable readers to make some kind of sense of the chaos all around them, I’ve done my job.  And the best way for a reader to make sense of the chaos is to give them a story they can relate to, they can recognize, they can live.

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