Thursday, December 18, 2008

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Author as Anachronist

Over the years, I've gotten some interesting feedback on my heroes' and heroines' characters; especially, of late, is mention that my heroines tend to act older and more mature than their stated years. My crit partner charmingly called the heroine of Voice of Innocence a little too "tweeds and tea" for being 28. I thought the young woman was fine, and I could come up with various reasons why she was the way she was...but until this morning, it didn't really dawn on me that there's a much more straightforward reason I write young women the way I do.

It's because of Mary Higgins Clark. That's how her heroines are, and I've completely internalized that type of character.

Over the years, MHC has consistently written young women who are, for lack of a better word, "well-bred." Many of them come from some family money, or have some family "class" connections, which inherently set them a touch above the riffraff. She doesn't have to make a point of it, of course…her heroines' occupations speak for themselves. She's got several lawyers, reporters (both print and TV), she's got daughters of actors who are themselves creative people, etc. Even the heroines who are "only" wives and mothers are people who have had Ivy League type educations, come from the rich corridors of New England or New York, have family who are educated, or the like. If her heroines come up from poverty, they've made it their life's work to disavow any connection with their "white trash" backgrounds and rise above them—sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much, in that sometimes their drive becomes their fatal flaw. But in all cases, the women she writes about are intelligent, resourceful, tough, and mature beyond their years.

So, considering how often I've reread MHC books, it's not surprising at all that my heroines are as anachronistic as hers are. And MHC's are anachronistic, make no mistake about that. I like them that way, but I have to admit that not a few times, I've found myself reading a cultural reference one of her young heroines makes and thinking, "How many women her age would think that? How many women her age actually would even know what that meant?" She has her heroines knowing old show tunes—or old standards, be they musical, cinematic, or literary—with alarming regularity. She has them look at the world almost with the kind of lens one sees in "classic movies."

This can turn into a problem, unchecked. In one particular instance, it has. At one point or other, in most MHC books, her heroine (or sometimes a hero) will come out with the phrase, "Approbation from Sir Hubert is praise indeed." Usually this is used in a dry, almost sarcastic way, to indicate that the person they're actually referring to isn't easily pleased.

Now, I'm assuming that's Shakespeare. And I'm assuming that in the early books, since her heroines had your traditional high-class liberal arts education, even a young woman in her 20s could be argued to have decided to use that phrase as her own unique slang. But the problem ensued when MHC used it again...and again...and again. Now, it's almost embarrassing to encounter it in a book, since she's put those words into diverse characters' mouths for so long that it can no longer be attributed to true characterization as much as it's simply a pet phrase the author likes a lot. When something becomes that's time to cut it.

That quibble aside, I recognize now that MHC's making her heroines the way she does is so comfortable to one who "speaks her language"—as I do!—that it would not be out of the realm of possibility for me to emulate that trait in my own work.

Which is, apparently, precisely what I've done.

As I said, I tend to like my characters that way. I like what might be called "throwback" characters—people who understand morality, manners, and some degree of refinement. I'd like to see more young women act in the way MHC heroines act and appreciate the old-fashioned cultural references they appreciate. So if one writes fiction to portray a world the way one would like to see it rather than the "real world" one actually wrestles with—then I'm golden. The only problem I have is walking that tightrope of trying to write people I can like versus people others will actually identify with. The two, I've found to my chagrin, are not often the same….

But at least knowing the root of this now makes much more sense. All I need to find now is a publisher who's always wanted a MHC clone and I'll be "in clover." (Yeah, I know, I can't stop myself.) If not...I have a dilemma. How to write characters who don't utterly dismay me—and yet with whom readers of any age can identify.