Being a member of author groups on social media and interacting with other writers can be rewarding for a job that is solitary and yet creative. For romance writers, it’s especially important because we feel on the ‘outer’ in certain writing circles AND because we write intimately about people. I am an introvert myself and could happily spend a week holed up with my laptop, but I’ve learned that stuff happens when you put yourself out there – and that’s the stuff that will make it into my books.
An experienced author posted some advice in a social media group a while back, which was to identify your signature themes as both a way to develop author voice and, in future, author brand. I found it an interesting idea at the time and when I had to sit and hammer out a plan for something that wasn’t much more than an idea, it was helpful to have already thought about my themes. They don’t always come out in every book, but they are woven into my work.
The times that have had the greatest impact on me as a person all had to do with learning a new language. It was the experience of being effectively mute with all of my brainpower absorbed with trying to understand enough to complete a transaction of some sort. Even now, although I speak my second language well and can make friends and conduct any transaction, I am a different person in German than I am in English. I am more willing to listen and more willing to understand others and I like it. But I definitely feel on the outer and that’s one of my themes: the many facets of immigration/emigration and cross-cultural exchange.
To bring it up onto a broader level, my main overarching theme which I think will run through almost everything I write is identity: what consists identity; self-worth from identity; mixed-up opinions of identity; expectations from identity. It can be a thorny topic and result in an exclusive worldview or it can be a source of inner turmoil. I’m not sure when I’ll be ready to write an Australian character, but I’m not, yet. I grew up there, but left and it is something that seeps into my writing without me intending to, even though none of my characters are ever Australian. And what is ‘Australian’ anyway? Every citizen you ask will have a slightly different opinion. It brings me back to the ‘outside looking in’ phenomenon which crops up in my themes and in my characters.
I expect my themes will evolve with my career and that’s how it should be, but I found it a useful exercise for reflecting on what makes my writing unique. It was also interesting to realise which snippets from my life had the most impact on my writing career. I have occasionally wondered if I write romance because I haven’t personally experienced anything particularly dark or difficult (for which I’m thankful and respect to people who have gone through tough times and write romance for that reason!) I am not the biggest risk-taker in my personal life and I have a tendency towards perfectionism. But the times I made mistakes or was less than what I needed to be have turned into some great memories to raid for books.
There is a short scene in my music-inspired WIP at a club that I experienced as a completely clueless eighteen-year-old and although the memory of how clueless I was is cringe-worthy, it made for a great scene and contributed a lot to my understanding of people and different cultures. Travelling across Russia with a phrasebook and trying to book train tickets from the stern women at the ticket boots is another memory with bizarre a mixture of pride and humility. I also clearly remember trying not to fall asleep as I strained to understand the sermon at a Korean church (I had better luck with the hymns). And then there was the Breton farmer with the moustache who looked like he’d stepped out of an Asterix comic or a French film and we didn’t get to eat the welcome dinner until 10pm, after which my stomach was very angry at me. And now I don’t live in London anymore, it’s allowed to feature in my writing – places that fascinated me like Pimlico and Woolwich and Elephant and Castle.
I certainly don’t always write what I’ve experienced myself or from my own life, but it’s good to know that my experiences do inhabit the themes that I return to over and again, even if I extrapolate them onto characters who are certainly not me.
Writing this outline has also shown me that my creativity is at its best when I’m bouncing it off others. Having critique partners has truly changed my writing life. It started when I found who I stubbornly claim is the world’s best critique partner who simply tore into a manuscript I sent her, but when I worked through her advice, I found the project infinitely better. She’s since read everything I’ve done and when she told me my music-inspired wip was ‘strong’ I glowed for a week. When I sent her the draft of this outline, she basically challenged me with lots and lots of ‘why’ questions and pointed out the difficulty of some points that I had drawn from ‘the flow’ instead of critically planning and questioning. My other critique partner looked at my draft with an eye for the emotions and she helped me to heighten the drama, to push the characters further and to wind up the tense moments even more. What resulted was a much better proposal than I would have reached alone. And I’ve never met either in person!
Reader, I finished that plan and it was good. It covers immigration, the success/failure dynamic, identity and belonging. And it may feature quite a LOT of coffee. That’s how I roll right now…