Being part of a writing group has helped me in ways too numerous to recount. At the same time, my membership has also made me a little more hesitant to write or to trust myself as a writer. For example, I’ve been told in the nicest and most diplomatic ways possible that I tend to overuse passive voice. All I can say is, “I’m working on it,” and hope I don’t have to spell out what “it” is. The overuse of “it” is another one of my faults.
But I’m not going to let my weaknesses stop me from sharing something I learned at one of our meetings a few weeks ago. Truthfully, I already knew it but had never really considered the information in quite the way it was explained that morning.
Brenda Remmes, a member of our group who is writing her third novel, had just attended a conference in Florida, and she graciously shared some information she had learned. The most important thing I picked up from her was to make more use of sociology in a story. “Make sure that your reader understands how the location of the story and the past of the characters affect who they are and why they are making the decisions they make,” Brenda stressed.
I can’t affirm this, but I think I was probably the only person present sitting there with her mouth open. My fascination with sociology began in the fall of 1968, and I’ve often wondered why other people don’t find it as intriguing as I. “It’s just plain old common sense,” people say. Yes, maybe. But then I recall Voltaire’s assertion that, “Common sense is not so common.”
Brenda described how a conference presenter drew three concentric circles and explained their roles in a story. The middle circle is the main character, the second circle her past that has relevance to the story. The outer rim is the sociology surrounding the main character’s life and is as strong as any other character in the story.
There are so many ways to live and work and dress and eat. While you don’t even have to get out of your home state to observe this, crossing some borders is broadening. A quick example is the moose burger I sampled in Alaska. Another is the low country boil my son-in-law first tasted when he moved to the South. A native Californian, he had lived in many places and eaten a variety of dishes but nothing quite as tasty as the combination of corn, potatoes, shrimp, and sausage.
The morning after the writing group met, I listened to a podcast in which people were asked a question something like, “Which of these two men is more likely to be successful in meeting women, the one carrying a gym bag or the one carrying a music case?”
That’s easy, I thought. Gym bag. The person being quizzed originally thought the same thing. “But wait,” she said. “Is this person in Paris or New York? That’s important to know.”
She went on to explain that Americans in some parts of the nation are into fitness, health, and working out. Hence, they’d be more likely to respond positively to a man with a gym bag. In Paris, however, with an emphasis on music and the arts, an instrument case would be an ideal prop.
I just read The Color of Water by James McBride, the story of a white Jewish woman who had been married to two black men (not at the same time) and raised twelve children, all of whom grew to become successful, educated adults. The mother began her life in Virginia but moved to New York as a teen and spent most of her adult life there. Had she stayed in Suffolk, her life would have taken a different trajectory. I’m sure of that.
The culture of a place is a character, just like the protagonist, antagonist, and other characters. What are some examples you can think of that illustrate sociology as a character?