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Archives 2014
May 11, 2014

Finding Genre

After having written two complete novel manuscripts, beginning another, and now well on the way to finishing my third, I’m still vaguely concerned with genre. It’s no wonder, because it seems the subjects we writers take on can shape-shift themselves from what we perceived in the beginning stages to a different critter altogether by the end. Genre has seldom defined the writing trail for me. . . but it’s certainly had a lot of bearing on what happens once the writing stops.

There are those who say they want to know genre before anything else (many literary agents stake their living on it), and there are those who say it’s all part of the process of predicting how the book will be viewed through time. Many of these folks slice genre into even finer slices to compartmentalize the story even further. To me it’s all very confusing. I re-phrased the genre of my only published novel to date (
Quick Fall of Light) at least half a dozen times. Finally, when it was all said and done, the term “eco-thriller” was probably the best description of all, and it came from a fellow writer. Like so many things in writing, objectivity eludes the author. Sometimes it takes fresh eyes to sum up the category of a 90,000-word manuscript.

I’m already considering the basics of querying publishers/agents, even this far out from the completion of
Ancestral, and one of the fundamentals of doing so is being able to identify genre. So, this week I looked at various identifying elements, starting with a neat little writer’s book called Some Writers Deserve to Starve by Elaura Niles. In it, she quotes Jacquelyn Blain, a producer/writer for television as saying, “Genre is mostly a shorthand way of talking, a way of placing a story within a certain tradition,” but that “too many writers try to play by the rules within each genre/subgenre,” putting that first instead of writing the story they intend. She adds, “The truth is that there’s room within each genre to do all kinds of interesting, out-of-the-ordinary things.” And, from what I’ve found, it’s often those out-of-the-ordinary things that skew the genre one way or the other, finally giving it the definition it needs in the publishing world.

What’s interesting is that I’ve known for a long time there’s a key difference between the novel I’m working on and
Quick Fall. A strong element of the supernatural exists in this book (which also happens to contain a healthy dose of mythology) that didn’t exist in the earlier work, this supernatural quality bringing in something more grim, more dark than fantasy, and yet leaning that way. Science plays less of a role, merely hinted at in condor research and the idea of a mega-quake threatening worldwide upheaval. If I haven’t switched genres, I’ve certainly tweaked them, and I don’t know as that’s a bad thing. It can certainly happen within a genre as wide as speculative fiction, but remains a teasing, tantalizing bit of definition right down to the end. Now, over half way through, I’ve come to grips with the fact that I’ve written something supernatural and fantastical with a touch of drama and perhaps thriller. In Ancestral, I’ve written what’s sometimes referred to as supernatural fantasy. It’s that definition that I’ll stand by, at least until told differently.

When writing the long story then, I don’t believe setting too many parameters does me a good service. Genre is one of those “open to conjecture” kinds of deliberation that writers, publishers, and readers struggle with all the way along. Why would I want it to overshadow a perfectly good writing plan? As Jacquelyn Blain says, “The best books within a genre are often ones that push the boundaries in some way, even if they’re still working firmly within that genre.” I think of some of their writers now---Diana Gabaldon, Alice Hoffman, Margaret Atwood, M. Night Shyamalan, and Peter Morgan (the last two screenwriters)---brave writers, who waxed between genres, and realize they’ve created new worlds, well-loved worlds. They mixed it up and gave us an ingenious, suspenseful, and long-lived supernatural reality.
Watercolour Courtesy of Roland Clement
June 19, 2014

Upcoming Article in
Bird Watcher's Digest:

In September 2014, I'll be thinking about Gene Stratton-Porter. Not that I haven't been for quite some time now. After writing about her rare encounter with a bird believed to have been extinct for a dozen years in the wild, I continue to be intrigued by this woman of the last century. We share some preoccupations, she and I. Some of it hinges on where we were brought up. And some of it reflects our inner nature.

Gene was raised in a time when Victorian ideals were still demanding and limiting, especially in young girls. But, through a series of circumstances, one of them being her birth order as the last of a dozen children, she was allowed almost unlimited access to the farm country in which she was raised. Rural Indiana in those days, especially that of the Wabash country, teemed with bird life scattered among orchards, sunny corners of dense vegetation, and a dismal swamp known as the Limberlost. Eventually, she would scour these swamplands for herself, but before that her father assigned every bird that made its home on his land to her, as an endowment from the Creator. The little girl, Gene, took it all very seriously. She'd been given keys to the kingdom of birds of all kinds, hummingbirds to orioles, and she visited their nests, sixty-four of them, daily. All of this was to prompt her lifetime fascination with birds, in particular, and would later eventuate in photographic discoveries far beyond those of her contemporaries.

As a natural consequence of writing about Gene's single enchanted moment with a wild passenger pigeon in about 1912, I thought about her upbringing compared to mine. As the only child of a hardworking Midwest couple who'd relocated to the wild state of Washington after the war, I lived on the outskirts of a rough-and-tumble town closely associated with logging and railroading. Until my sister was born eight years later, I lived much as Gene did, free to explore close-by wildlands. Nowhere was life as interesting as in two massive vacant lots behind our house. There I took the dog, a Boston terrier named Suzie, and built mini tree houses and mud pies and watched birds and butterflies by the hour. Not unlike Gene, I considered it all mine, eventually sharing it by coaster wagon with my little sister. Then in the fall of my eleventh year groundbreaking began on houses to fill those two wooded lots. And my entire world changed.

Turns out, Gene's childhood and mine would inevitably draw us toward nature. Born deep into the next century beyond hers, my observations were still very similar. The natural world around me continued to flourish---enough to bring in hordes of wildlife, including raccoons and robins, field mice and long-legged killdeer. I probably felt some of her sense of ownership, of responsibility for animals surrounding me daily. And I would've recognized many of them, even more, welcomed them, years after they disappeared from my world.

This fall an article I've written about Gene Stratton-Porter, the novelist, naturalist, and photographer who gave us a haunting look at the diversity of life within one of America's most beloved wetlands, will spotlight her affection for one species in particular, the now-extinct passenger pigeon. I will be with her all over again that day in the field when she was preparing to photograph a little hen goldfinch and in so doing heard the plaintive cry of a male passenger, one alone right above her. Never confirmed as a sighting, her essay "The Last Passenger Pigeon" nevertheless brings me closer to understanding what she witnessed and carried with her the rest of her life---the belief that she'd seen perhaps the very last wild pigeon on earth. I'm grateful she wrote of this personal moment in her life inasmuch as the world would know little enough about passenger pigeons after they were all gone. Through her, I see the bird alive again, hoping for some sign of recognition. I see it for the great lesson it gives and the woman who valued it enough to share.

Please look for "The Woman And The Passenger" due to be published in the September-October 2014 issue of
Bird Watcher's Digest at various bookstores and newsstands this fall.

Also, I hope to visit the Limberlost area of Indiana (Geneva, IN) over Labor Day Weekend, 2014, where I'll be fortunate enough to visit with Friends of the Limberlost, a local Audubon chapter, and many regional folks who remember Gene, her era, and her contemporaries. It's an honor and privilege to be part of the celebration of her life and the 100-year centennial of the extinction of the passenger pigeon that originally brought me closer to her life's work.

Sources for the contribution above:

At Home on This Earth, Two Centuries of U.S. Women's Nature Writing, "The Last Passenger Pigeon," by Gene Stratton-Porter, page 123

Gene Stratton-Porter, Novelist and Naturalist, Judith Reick Long, "The Hum of Life," pages 49-50