Family Involvement in writing; Reluctant, Conscripted or Volunteered?

March 23, 2014 | By | 14 Replies More
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Hazel Edwards

‘Is writing, your family trade?’ was a recent question at a literary festival. I hadn’t thought of authorship that way before,  the answer probably  is ‘yes.’ My family has done the ‘word’ apprenticeship voluntarily, reluctantly or been conscripted.

The family of a writer can’t help involvement in books, either reading them, inspiring or being captured as characters or caricatures in them. Even the dog or bird may get a role. Pets real or imaginary do feature. Bonuses include interesting dinner visitors, autographed copies (by other authors) and behind-the- scenes on oil rigs, TV studios, ship engine rooms, outback bush camps or researching in hot air balloons.

And then there are the tours; festivals or family visits to international Booktowns like Australia’s Clunes. Even our avid 14-year-old reader thought that a country town full of secondhand books was a ‘cool’ place to visit for a three generational family weekend.
Family has to help ‘carry’ the bag of books on wheels, answer a phone politely and host strangers with different food or cultural customs. And become travellers, not tourists.

Whether family become the ‘raw material’ is more an ethical issue, as well as time management.

PastedGraphic-2A frequent author question is: ‘Do you put your family in your books?’
‘No, that’s literary terrorism, just putting the author’s version or interpretation of relationships.’

However, I have used family holiday settings including French canal barges or Asian street markets as background for fact or fiction. Or activities like playing hockey, soccer or orienteering have been given as hobbies to characters or provided authentic clues.

Living with the child or adolescent age group for whom you are writing, is instant and unavoidable research into current trends. So is exposure to the latest technology and sports rules.

Having a mother or grandparent who writes professionally, means a bit of ghost-writing occurs. But no pinching of ideas.
I remember my then 8-year-old grandson writing a terrific story from the viewpoint of A.Virus.  Although the spelling needed a bit of work, the concept was original.

Hazel's son Trev signing books

Hazel’s son Trev signing books

Much better than I could do. I resisted ‘pinching’ that idea (despite mentioning it now as a relevant example).
Family anecdotes are re-used. All families have funny stories of when things went wrong. But author’s tales are a little more public and around for longer.

An incident involving a 4 year old may be captured in a book and that’s available years later, when he’s a man. Probably by the time he’s parent age, that’s fine. Adolescents are ALWAYS embarrassed by their family whether in print, in person or on screen.

Basically, something has to go wrong for a story to have dramatic interest. Authors tend to exaggerate ‘real’ mishaps and that’s embarrassing if your family ‘mess ups’ are translated for international readerships. And made to sound much worse.

Like getting on the wrong bus in the USA and ending up in Plymouth Massachusetts instead of Plymouth, New Hampshire. Much depends upon the tone of the ‘telling’ and whether it is laughing ‘with’ or at. Self deprecation is better.

LOW Tropical Book Launch

Book Launch Trail Magic

The age of the family matters. At certain stages, they are ‘proud’ of a book by MUM. In teen years they are embarrassed by anything public.
As children, my offspring used to give my stories the ‘yawn test’ and turn face down on the page which became boring. Ruthless. Candid. Honest. Effective. I always re-wrote after failing the yawn test. Or at least scrapped the first chapter which was only introducing, and began at the dramatic bit.

‘Did you write for children because it was easier?’
No. It was harder, BUT shorter.

Did I write for children because I had them as captive readers within the family? Partly, it was a time-management decision.
Living with the appropriately aged children meant instant research of legs in plaster, forgetful Tooth Fairies with the wrong change /overpayment in $10 notes or current language such as ‘Sick’ meaning the opposite.

Writing adult satire and writing for children is similar in process. Both are deceptively simple, and short, but there’s sub text of more complex ideas beneath and word placement is vital. So you can plot in your head, while changing nappies or cooking spaghetti (not simultaneously) and then write the ideas paragraphs which physically take little time to key.

Each turns on unexpected viewpoint, like the view of the flea on the dog on the Titanic. Or thinking through the logic of what a rooftop, cake-eating hippo might do which is consistent with the fantasy.

While young family life was most demanding, I wrote ‘short’ in snatched quarter hours, in the car during family pick-ups. With the first couple of books, my husband was an excellent proof reader because as a slow and thoughtful reader, he checked efficiently. I skim read and see what I expect to be there, not what is, so I am a BAD proof reader.

And I also prefer to move onto the next project. After a couple of books, the novelty wore off, and he left proof reading to me. Except for the time I was beset in the Antarctic polar ice with 34 blokes and 4 other women, and he proof read the current project as it looked like I might be in Antarctica for the whole year.

My generation of females has lived through interesting times sociologically. And reading biographies of women has sustained me through difficult times. Participant-observation is a technique I’ve used, but in ‘Trail Magic’, my son did all the THRU walking. And daughter is my marketing manager.

Collaboration. The family trade continues.

With over 200 books published, Hazel runs non-boring writing workshops and mentors aspiring writers online. An enthusiastic  Reading Ambassador, Hazel has a comprehensive range of resources for teachers and children to encourage reading and writing within the classroom. Hazel’s online store also offers e-books including a downloadable literacy mystery series for independent readers, and ‘Authorpreneurship: the Business of Creativity’

Follow Australian author Hazel Edwards on Twitter @muirmoir

Visit Hazel Edwards’ website www.hazeledwards.com.

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Category: Being a Writer, Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing

Comments (14)

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  1. My daughter showed little-to-no interest in my writing when she was in high school. Then she went off to England for “a semester of college.” That turned into permanent resettlement in the UK, where she published a self-illustrated children’s book! You just never know.

  2. Hazel, what great insights. Your bit on adolescents rings true – waving at them in public can ruin their entire year. I’ve taken to asking my now adult “kids” if they mind if I include a certain incident or memory and they almost always say yes.

    It sounds like you have such wonderful support and what a treat to have your entire family in on the business of your books!

    • Suzanne, Thanks for your comments as a fellow writer including family anecdotes. It’s a fine line between diplomacy and embarrassment.Currently I’m writing my memoir ‘Let Hippos Eat Cake, Being a Children’s Author ‘or Not?’ and it’s a technical challenge to get the tone right but also acknowledge previous inspiration for now popular stories

  3. Jo Carroll says:

    I saw an interview with Hanif Kureishi in which he saw no problem in plundering family angst – including his divorce. He knew it would impact on his ex-wife and his children, but shrugged it off – he’s a writer, what did they expect.

    I disagree with him – my daughters are precious and wonderful, and I’d never write anything if I thought it would hurt their feelings. Even though one of them reads everything for me and is my severest critic!

    • I agree with Jo that family relationships should be protected. But there’s a difference between re-telling and dramatising a humorous situation, and the ‘revenge’ motive of a writer using the literary terrorism of presenting only the personal interpretation with the aim of destruction rather than compassionate understanding. In my ‘Authorperneurship;the Business of Creativity’ I added a last minute chapter on ‘Therapy Writing’ where the value lies in exploring traumatic events, but only with the aim of understanding NOT publication. That can be valid writing, but only for self. (www.hazeledwards.com)

  4. Yes, it’s always a challenge when writing ‘close to home’. But in the ‘Hidden Diffability’ book, the realism of the casestudies and the strategies suggested is what has been so helpful for many families.

  5. Adventure memoirs are also a kind of family history.

  6. Pauline Luke says:

    Writing Trail Magic with her son, Trev, must have been a terrific experience for Hazel. And having that support of family, whether it simply be being proud of your achievements as a writer, or in a practical sense, such as reading and commenting on work or coming to the rescue when the gremlins get into your computer so very important. Wondering if Hazel is anticipating any more projects co-written with family members – or friends?

  7. Sherryl says:

    Great insights as always, Hazel. Those snatched “bits” of time are how many of us with kids started to write, I think!

  8. Carolyn Hirsh says:

    Hazel’s an extraordinary writer. Her Non-boring Family History is a wonderful resource for the amateur genealogist, as my brother, the family’s historian found. I thoroughly enjoyed Hazel’s latest involvement with her family through ‘Trail Magic’ written with her son Trevelyan. What an adventure that was.

  9. Much rings true here for me. Writing about Aspergers, which my teenaged son has, gave me lots to think about re sharing too many details of our lives. He was, and is my most important critic / early reader. I don’t want my children to hate my books when they’re grown up. Using case studies of other families, with pseudonyms of course, enabled me to tell real stories warts and all, with everyone’s blessing. My son also helped with the series title ‘The Hidden Diffability’.

    I believe all writers face this dilemma to some degree. If writing fiction, fictionalising personal facts helps, as Hazel has explained in the past. Faction, anyone? But writing non-fiction removes that option.

    Thanks for another thought provoking piece.

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