Taboo Topics

Some years ago, my fabulous Gotham boss, Kelly Caldwell, wrote an article about writers’ taboos. Were there any topics you just would not write about? I was thinking about that article the other day when I was at my daughter’s bridal shower. I adore my daughter, I loved everyone there, and yet the mystery writer in me could not help but think that it would be a perfect set-up for a murder. I began to plot, but then pushed the idea away. It was my daughter’s day and I didn’t want to appropriate it. (Not now, anyway.) That led me to wonder, however, what topics my fellow Miss Demeanors find taboo. This is what they said: Cate: I don’t consider any topics taboo in a suspense or thriller. Maybe that’s because I started sneaking my mom’s V.C. Andrews books right after I finished reading The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe. Alexia: I can’t think of any subject I consider taboo–off limits, would never, ever go there. (Never say never.) However, I don’t care to write about subjects that I wouldn’t read about. Not because they’re verboten, just because I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I’m okay with not spending my limited time on things that hold no interest for me. Stories about not-too-bright submissive women involved with wealthy, sexually sadistic psychopaths come to mind. Also stories where sex and violence are gratuitous, just there for the shock value, not to serve a plot purpose.I would love to read a murder mystery centered around a bridal shower, unromantic cynic that I am. “Bridezilla Gets Her Due.” How’s that for a title? The caterer did it. D.A.:  I absolutely write about the taboo … in the textbook definition of a social or religious custom forbidding discussion of a particular practice.  My books are about what many Latter-day Saints consider sacred. There are particular challenges to writing about what you’re not supposed to write. It’s easy to understate, exaggerate or avoid. I think readers sense when a writer’s not being honest or fair, and the story suffers. When I’m dealing with a taboo subject, I’ve found the best way to ensure accurate and respectful treatment is to let my characters be themselves. My detective has left the church and her father is a devout and active member. I defer to the characters’ intelligence and let them wrestle with the taboo topics. They do a much better job than I could. The reader then is left to sort things out on his or her own, which really is what you want to happen when you read suspense anyway. As a nod to the taboo, I’ve attached an image of the Salt Lake temple, a structure where sacred covenants no one is supposed to discuss take place.   Michele: My answer to the question of the week is that I could never write about explicit violence to children. I can allude to it, but I can’t even bear to read details about children being hurt, let alone consider writing them. As much as I love Elizabeth George and have read just about every word the woman has ever written, I had skip sections of In the Presence of the Enemy. I didn’t want to experience what Lottie had to endure. But I also believe writing about the abuse and harm to children can raise awareness and help to prevent it. There’s a delicate balance between letting readers know about the cruelty children suffer from and including such graphic details that they recoil from them and stop reading as I do. Tracee: Children and animals are two hurdles I treat carefully. I agree with Michele that awareness can be raised if done correctly but I can’t write about them explicitly. I have a part in a current manuscript where the heroine tries to abandon her dog to a good home and some Beta readers balked – even though she and the dog are re-united a half page later and bond permanently soon after!I’m a big fan of Martha Grimes and she’s raised awareness of cruelty to animals with plot lines involving testing, I thought she handled it well. Revealing enough for awareness without making the reader want to flip though the chapter without reading. Of course I also don’t write about serial killers or other situations which require descriptions of torture or other physical horrors. Robin: I embrace taboo topics a little too readily (ask Paula about that :)). There is one thing I will likely never write, though, and that’s anything involving harm to an animal. Maybe I got scarred by reading Old Yeller in grade school. There are books I love that handle such things artfully without feeling contrived or manipulative, like James Herriot’s books and Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing In The Rain, but I sometimes have to take breaks after scenes I write involving humans; jeopardizing an animal would bring me to a full stop. I’m too much of a sucker for fur babies. Paula: I won’t write about anything I won’t read about. Which means sadism or torture or harm to kids or animals. There are dog heroes in my books, and I worry about the challenges they face just as much as I worry about those my human heroes face–from flying bullets to n’oreasters. As an agent, I know that selling stories  where a child or an animal is killed is very difficult, if not impossible, especially for debut authors. To pull it off requires great craft and greater luck. So if you’re looking to get published for the first time, you might want to avoid these kind of storylines. Then a further thought from Alexia, to our agent: As a tip for aspiring authors who read our blog, does that include child murders that occur “off-screen” (say as part of a character’s backstory or something that happened before the action began)? Or only child murders that occur on the page?Any other topics aspiring authors should think twice about including in their debut effort? And Paula’s reply: Probably best to avoid altogether. Those are the biggest issues. But many editors shy away from graphic violence, rape, incest, and the like. It’s also true that some are avoiding sex trafficking, drug trafficking, serial killers, and terrorism, as they’ve been overdone lately. So if you’re including any of this plot elements you need to find a fresh take…. And here’s the link to Kelly’s article:  

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