Writers spend a lot of time talking to other writers. We have to. They’re the only people who understand the insanity of the imaginary world we inhabit. But occasionally it’s important to trundle out of our office and interact with readers, which is to say, people who don’t actually care which point of view you use or who published your book. Friends, I’m talking about book clubs.
For more than fifteen years, I’ve belonged to a book club with ten or so other women. (There was a man, but he moved.) None of the other members are writers. They are teachers and gardeners and business people and dog-trainers. Most importantly, they enjoy reading, and from listening to them talk, I’ve picked up some information that has been invaluable to me as a writer. Here are four things I believe book club members would like writers to know.
1. Inspire us.
Book club readers talk about inspiration a lot, which is not surprising. After all, there’s a reason I’ve read Jane Eyre five times. But book club readers seek inspiration even in books that might not be considered inspirational. One of our best conversations was about Emily Henry’s book People We Meet on Vacation. Although none of us exactly identified with Poppy, we did identify with her desire to find meaning in her life. It made us think about choices we’ve made. We sought out the heroic in Poppy and we found it, or some of it. Book club readers love flawed characters, but they hope that they figure some stuff out. It’s something I think about when creating my own characters.
2. Teach us.
In March, my book club read The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, which was about how one very hard-working woman survived the Dust Bowl. Everything I know about the Dust Bowl comes from John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath. He covered a lot of territory, but Hannah offered a whole different insight. The story was gripping, but what haunts me are the images of women scrubbing their houses to try to keep the dust out and their children healthy. Reading that book created in me a desire to go back and read more about that time period, and more Steinbeck, and more Hannah. How can you teach your readers something new?
3. Make us laugh.
Sometimes we need a break. Times are tough. There’s a lot of stress out there, and if you can make us laugh about something, we appreciate it. Not that you have to write a sit-com, but you shouldn’t feel like you have to be dead serious in order to make a point. A few years back we read the Malice Domestic anthology, Mystery Most Geographical. (Confession: I suggested it because I had a story in it.) I asked each person to talk about their favorite story and invariably, the ones chosen were the funny ones. People warmed to them. Humor is a great way to connect to readers.
4. We admire you.
One of the best parts of being in a book club is hearing how much people admire authors. It’s good to be reminded of that. People are curious about where we get our ideas and how to come up with a plot and so on, and it’s nice to feel like I know some of the answers. It reminds me of how lucky I am to be in this literary world. I think it’s nice to approach writing with a feeling of gratitude. Puts you in a good mindset.
Susan Breen is the author of the Maggie Dove mystery series. Her stories have been published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. She teaches novel-writing at Gotham Writers and is on the staff of the New York Pitch Conference. www.susanjbreen.com