The ultimate payoff for a writer is when a reader says, “That reminds me…” meaning that something you wrote – a character, a place, a situation, an emotion – triggered something from the reader’s own experience. Sure, a check in the mailbox is nice, especially when it arrives in the nick of time, but checks get cashed and money gets spent. What connects with a reader is more likely to last.
I thought about that when I got a note from a friend who had read my recent blog “Among The Graves At Thiacourt,” about my visit to an American cemetery in France, the final resting place of 4,000 of our soldiers from World War One. For my friend, it brought back the memory and emotion of his visit to the cemetery at Omaha Beach, where American casualties from World War Two are buried. And that’s the magic of writing and reading: two imaginations intersect through the telling of a story. What I wrote resonated with my friend. I couldn’t ask for more.
I get a fair number of similar responses from folks who read my stories. My first novel, Home Fires Burning, is set in a small town somewhere in the South. It bears a pretty good resemblance to the small southern town where I grew up. I set the story there because it was familiar territory. I populated my fictional town with the kinds of people I knew growing up. After the book was published, I got a letter from a reader who said, “You wrote about my hometown in Iowa.” That told me there was a good measure of universality about the characters and the story, and that’s why it resonated with a reader from another part of the country.
Setting and plot can trigger something in a reader’s imagination, but the part of a story that’s most likely to connect is character. For that to happen, a writer has to be honest and authentic with the characters he or she imagines. The writer is asking a reader to take a leap of faith into the story, and to do that, the leap has to start from solid ground. You have to be able to believe the character is plausible – someone you might know – and the character has to be presented warts and all. We human beings are combinations of dark and light, and if, in presenting a character’s story I omit the dark places, you know right away the character isn’t authentic. The same goes if something the character says or does doesn’t ring true. And that probably means you aren’t ready to take the leap of faith.
The central character in Home Fires Burning is a crusty curmudgeon of a small-town newspaper editor named Jake Tibbetts. I knew I had presented Jake honestly and authentically when a reader called me and said, “I stayed up all night with that book, and if I could have gotten my hands on Jake Tibbetts at three o’clock this morning, I’da wrung his neck.” But then he went on to say that Jake had a fiercely independent streak and a willingness to speak his mind, good traits for a newspaper editor. My reader and I had connected through Jake.
A story is a meeting place between two imaginations – the writer’s and the reader’s. Every reader brings his or her own knowledge, experiences, beliefs and emotions to the reading of the story and finds things in it the writer might never have suspected were there. It’s a kind of alchemy, a magic that exists nowhere else, and it makes each reader’s experience with the story unique. When a reader tells me it worked, I’m satisfied.
But…I’m also happy to find a check in the mailbox.