January 2015

Just Whose Story Is It?

(This blog first appeared as a Guest Post for Elizabeth A. White's Blog

I'd like to reflect upon what sounds like a simple question one I ask myself with every novel: Just whose story is it?

When I started my first series, I had a character and setting Barry Clayton, funeral director in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. Since my father had been a funeral director, I used some of his stories and my own imaginings of what it would be like to be in that profession to blend the "what was" and "what might have been" into a family story.

But as the writing process evolved and fictional events unfolded, the characters' paths diverged from my original intentions and characters became whom they needed to become, distinct and individual entities. A friend of mine, writer Robert Inman, remarks that he knows he's in his most productive zone when his characters start talking to him. I need to take it a step farther. I know my story has grown beyond me when my characters start talking to each other. It is no longer my story; it is my characters' story.

Sometimes a story creates a new cast because the premise isn't right for the ensemble of characters who have already come into being. My first experience with this change of "ownership" occurred when an elderly friend told me about his journey through the Jim Crow South transporting a body from Asheville to North Georgia. When he was ten, he and his father, both white, aided an African-American funeral director who had only a horse and wagon. My friend's boyhood adventure sparked a mystery requiring a genesis of characters unfettered by the "history" established in four prior novels. And with this project, the new characters quickly assumed command and took me in unanticipated directions. I've come to think I am not so much writing a story as discovering a story waiting to be found.

Now that observation could be a suitable ending. Except it's not.

In the final analysis, the story is neither mine nor my characters. Too many readers have told me how certain scenes, events, or characters touched them in very personal ways, whether dealing with Alzheimer's, racial discrimination, or, in one case, a young woman who had undergone not one but two heart transplants and wanted me to know how accurately my character's experience mirrored her own.

Just whose story is it? If my characters and I can claim any success, it is when the story is no longer ours. It is when a story becomes the reader's story, a creation interpreted in a unique way with meaning each discovers for her or himself.

And maybe because of that ownership, they will read the story again, even after knowing how it ends.