The Grapes of Wrath…Of Mice and Men – okay, okay, John Steinbeck knew a thing or two about writing fiction, so I was interested to come across this quote from him on the Goodreads site,
“If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen. And here I make a rule—a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.”
I think it goes to the heart of why we read – to understand our own experience and find some kind of affirmation of it. Most of us are looking for illumination and reassurance from the books we choose (as well as excitement, entertainment, catharsis, diversion, information – are you sure you want to be a writer?)
When you are starting work on a novel or short story, I think you should have this issue of reader identification at the forefront of your thinking. Finding your voice as a writer is one thing, making sure it speaks to your reader is something slightly different and that is where your choice of subject and theme comes into play. Be wary of taking the advice about writing about what you know too literally – if you work in a hospital, don’t necessarily write about routine on the wards, but draw on your experience of what it feels like to save (or lose) the life of a child so that you can write vividly, in heartfelt tones, about striving, disappointment, elation, loss. These feelings are universal, but the events that give rise to them are specific to an individual.
Perhaps that’s what Steinbeck is getting at – use your narrative to anatomise one person’s particular experience of an emotion that is generally felt. When you are reading, the best moment is always one of recognition – of I know how that feels. Use your writer’s guile, your literary smoke and mirrors, to reflect their own emotional truth back to your readers – it isn’t their narcissism you will be speaking to, it’s their desire to share….