by Chris Goff
Recently I read a Soapbox article in Publisher’s Weekly that gave me pause. Entitled Let Fiction Be Fiction, in it the author tackles the question of who gets to tell which stories.
The author’s debut novel, Other People’s Children, tells the story of a couple who, after struggling with infertility, adopt a baby girl. When, after four days, the birth mother decides to reclaim her child, the couple chooses to take the child and run. By the author’s own admission, the strongest characters in the book are women, and he took pleasure in learning that many people thought the book, originally marketed under the name of R. J. Hoffmann, was written by a woman. He also took umbrage that some of those readers, upon learning R. J. was in fact a man, found it “problematic” that it wasn’t a woman who authored the book.
I get both sides. Who better to tell a woman’s story about the pain of infertility than a woman? Unless it’s a man who can put himself in the woman’s space. NOTE: I haven’t read the book, so I can’t say whether I think he hit the mark.
It did, however, get me looking at my own fiction.
My first published novel was entitled A Rant of Ravens. It’s the story of a young career-woman, from NYC, turned reluctant birdwatcher through circumstances out of her control. One evening she stumbles across a dead body while “pishing” an elusive bird from the brush, and it falls on her to flush out the killer before anyone else dies.
The publisher billed the book as “A Birdwatcher’s Mystery.”
At the time I started writing my first book, it would have been more accurate to have labeled me a “backyard birdwatcher.” I could ID fifty-one species that visited my backyard birdfeeder in rural Colorado. But, by the time the book was done, I was a birder. Not an expert. mind you. More of an intermediate. But a birder, nonetheless.
Birders are a different breed. By definition, they are a dedicated group of bird enthusiasts who travel to see birds. And the stories I wanted to tell were about things happening in the world that could only be discerned by active birders.
In A Rant Of Ravens, the murder is wrapped up in the illegal trading of peregrine falcons. The book probably should have been called “A Bazaar of Peregrines,” except that it’s the raven who holds the key to solving the murder.
Death Of A Songbird (Book #2 in the series) explores the effects of the coffee industry on migrating songbirds, while the protagonist, a silent partner in a coffee shop, solves the mystery of her partner’s murder.
You get the picture. So, the question is, should I have left the telling of these stories to someone with more ornithological experience?
Some would say yes. Others would say I did a great job. Several of the books were nominated for the prestigious Willa Cather Literary Award, sold internationally, went into multiple printings, and brought more than one reader to the sport of birding—an activity that currently consumes more than 45 million Americans. And, as a bonus for doing the necessary research for these books, I developed a lifelong passion for birding.
So why move from writing traditional mysteries to international thrillers? Thrillers were my first passion. From the moment I decided to be a writer, I dreamed of writing international thrillers. Some would say it was a pipe dream, and yet….
In 2015, I published Dark Waters with Crooked Lane Press. The book was a 2019 Military Writers Society of America, Mystery/Thriller GOLD MEDALIST, and a finalist for the 2016 Anthony Award Best Crime Fiction Audiobook, 2016 Colorado Book Award, Thriller, and 2016 Colorado Authors’ League Genre Fiction Awards.
Dark Waters features Raisa “Rae” Jordan, an agent for the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service, who isn’t in Israel for more than a day before her predecessor is assassinated in a Tel Aviv square. Assigned to investigate, Jordan must also protect a US federal judge and his teenage daughter, possible next targets, while unraveling a terrorist plot scheduled to coincide with peace talks in the region.
Red Sky followed, a 2018 Colorado Book Award, Thriller Finalist, and 2019 Military Writers Society of America Mystery/Thriller SILVER MEDALIST set in Ukraine.
Here is the catch:
I am not, nor have I ever been, a Diplomatic Security Service Special Agent. For that matter, any type of law enforcement officer. Nor have I served in the military, worked in an embassy, or as a spy.
Well, unless you count the Spy Agency, ECPLE (pronounced Ex-cee-piddle-ee) that my childhood BFF and I created when were ten. We dragged an old rug out into the woods behind my house, built our headquarters, then spent the better of two summers spying on our parents and friends, creating scenarios around conversations overheard on the party line or while hunkered down below the front deck during cocktail hour.
So, like Jeff (aka R. J.) Hoffmann, who at the end of his article said, “I want writers to respect their characters, to respect their readers…but I want them to have the space to work, to imagine, to create.” And unlike the plethora of writers who do have backgrounds related to what they are writing—retired police detectives writing police procedurals, ex-Navy SEALS writing military thrillers, ex-CIA analysts writing spy thrillers—I bring to the table ONLY an active imagination, innate curiosity, extraordinary researching skills, extensive travel experience, and a tenacious desire to write fiction.
So, what comes next?
Another international thriller. My work-in-progress, working title, Operation Gentoo. It’s set in Antarctica and centers on a Chilean grad student whose research has the rapt attention of the international community. My husband and I traveled there in 2019, but time has elapsed and I may need to go back. The good news is Gayle Lynds and my eldest daughter found a way for me to do just that. It turns out the postal service is looking for someone to run the Goudier Island “Penguin Post Office.” Applicants must be willing to help maintain the historic site, cater to the tourists who come in by boat during the season, and monitor the wildlife for the five-month season. Sort of a working writer’s retreat! It’s not a glamourous job. Still, if it means the difference between phoning it in and getting it right, I do have a reputation to uphold!
Readers, what is your favorite type of fiction? And do you feel the author needs to have a background commiserate with the characters they’re writing in order to make it real?