Their Eyes Were Watching gods in Alabama from the Midnight Bayou while playing The Westing Game

This month we’re talking about the authors and books that inspired us to become writers. I get asked this question all the time: why did you decide to become a writer?

I didn’t choose to be a writer; writing chose me.

You could say it started with my affinity for Go, Dog, Go! At the tender age of three. Or the L. Frank Baum  and Nancy Drew books I plowed through a little later. I fondly remember Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly in which the main character’s uncle is a writer who’s always working on his magnum opus. Then it was thumbing through my mother’s English textbooks to read Twelve Angry Men and “Harrison Bergeron.” Or The Westing Game or Jane Eyre or. . . Certainly my love of reading was one half of the equation.

Two writing experiences stand out as the other half. In fourth grade we suddenly had a new assignment: writing stories with all of our spelling words. I loved the challenge of fitting words that didn’t go together into a story, the sillier the better. Then in seventh grade, our gifted teacher had us write a story round robin style. While several members of the class bellyached about it, I thought it was the best assignment in the world. So did a couple of my friends. We started our own round robin soap opera and cast all sorts of celebrities as well as ourselves into a crazy world where the best trick was to put characters in a sticky situation and then pass the story off to someone else. *Ahem* It’s possible there was kissing in these stories.

When my friends couldn’t write fast enough for me, I started writing my own stories on the side, sometimes writing two or three at a time. I wrote historical, gangster stories, even an episode of The Love Boat.

This is what I did in junior high AND high school. Because I am a nerd.

By the time I got to college, I had a pretty good idea I needed a major that would put bread on the table. Despite this, I chose English. Extracurricular reading and writing took a hit in college, though, for a couple of reasons. One, I actually did all of my class reading instead of binging on Catherine Coulter and Judith McNaught, an offense fellow bad girl Tanya Michaels won’t let me forget. Two, college is a time of trying to find yourself, and I didn’t feel as though I had anything important to say to the world just yet.

Within a few months of graduating college, though, the writing bug had found me once again. I fell in
love with Nora Roberts’s Midnight Bayou. It was a romance, but it wasn’t like the ones I used to, um, “borrow” from my mother. Since I wasn’t ready to write a *sniff* literary novel, I thought I would write a romance. After all, as a summa cum laude English major how hard could that be?

The cast of Austin Powers mocks my naïveté.

So, it’s hard. It’s really, really hard, y’all. I could smack myself for ever thinking it would be easy to craft a love story that focused on only two characters and brought something new to the table while still working within the constraints of the genre.

Okay, so the next idiot who says he/she is going to whip out a romance because it can’t be that hard, I say we just challenge them. I wrote at least six manuscripts trying to write a romance and learned some very valuable lessons. The most important of these is that the best romance writers can teach you more about craft and the business of writing that colleges, mainstream writing groups, or just about anyone else. 

But I digress.

Another pivotal moment in my life came when I read Joshilyn Jackson’s gods in Alabama. I fell in love, y’all. I fell in love with southern fiction, with trying to capture the essence of that weird place where I grew up. I told myself I was going to write whatever story I wanted to write, and The Happy Hour Choir is what came out. I named my honky tonk piano player heroine after an apparently obscure hymn I grew up singing in my little church. To ensure the proper amount of shenanigans, I had her fall for the last person in the world she would want to love, a minister. With their story and that of Ginger and Tiffany, I found my voice.

My current WIP has been indirectly influenced by another novel that has inspired and continues to inspire me, Their Eyes Were Watching God. I read Hurston’s book for the first time while I was studying for the GRE Literature subject test, and I put the book down knowing I’d just experienced something monumental. I didn’t know how that book was going to change my life, but I knew it would.

Fast forward to a year or so back when I reread Heart of Darkness and then treated myself to a reread of Their Eyes Were Watching God just to redeem my faith in literature. Hurston’s prose is still gorgeous. Her characters are complex. Her dialogue reflects her anthropologist’s ear for idiom and dialect. I don’t think I’ll ever write as well as Hurston, but I’ve shifted to third person in an attempt to juxtapose my English major prose with the southern vernacular of my characters’ dialogue. Wish me luck on that one!

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