Growing a Writer

How background shapes a writer’s vision

We might not all write what we know, but we are all shaped by our upbringing and this bleeds into our writing whether we’re aware of it or not. I once heard an author say he believed his fans knew him better than his wife because they had read all his books and witnessed all of his little peculiarities made real in his stories.

Read on to find out how the Miss Demeanors were forged.

Alexia Gordon

I grew up in a non-descript “bedroom community” (suburb without sidewalks) about 15 miles outside of Washington, DC. At the time, it was predominantly White and still considered “out in the country” as farms still surrounded it.  It might as well have been on another planet. I grew up safe and sheltered far away from the danger (and, to my adolescent self, the excitement) of the big city, which had the distinction of being the most dangerous city in America for a while. Marion Berry was serving his pre-prison stint as Mayor. Trips to the city were major events to be endured (when Mom “dragged” me to an art museum for the “cultural exposure”–boy, was I a ninny) or celebrated (when Dad dropped Mom and me off at National Theater or Arena Stage to see a play). Even as a child, I knew my parents deliberately sought out this middle-class safety to protect me from the Jim Crow-era, Southern, rural upbringing they’d survived. I’m the first generation of my family to never pick cotton or tobacco and only the second to graduate from college. From high school, for that matter.

I walked home alone from the bus stop after I turned 14. Until then, I went to daycare or had a babysitter. Mom was taking no chances. (Of course, I thought I was grown enough to stay home alone for the 2 hours between school ending and my parents getting home from work from about the age of 10. Mom assured me I was wrong.) I rode my bike in my subdivision’s streets with my friends. However, I was never allowed to go to sleepovers and I was never, as a teenager, allowed to ride around with people my mother didn’t know (nor boys at all, even if my mother knew them). I was always aware of the danger lurking beneath that veneer of safety.  My parents didn’t like to talk about the full horror of what they endured but I’d get little snippets and I’d overhear the adults talking during family gatherings at Grandma’s house in South Carolina (every summer and every Christmas from the age of two).

In South Carolina, I saw the poverty and desperation my grandparents and parents had worked their way out of but many people, including several relatives, still lived in. There was a juke joint at the end of the street from Grandma’s house and shotgun shacks right across from it. I was not allowed to cross the street. (Dad grew up in similar circumstances in dust-bowl Oklahoma where the poverty was even more grinding than SC. At least in SC, the land was fertile and you could grow food. My dad was one of the first “Government cheese” recipients during the Depression. Any wonder life in the Army seemed like an improvement? Until Uncle Sam sent him to fight in Korea.) So, although my own upbringing was safe and happy, thanks to my parents’ efforts and sacrifice on my behalf, I was still connected to a world of constant vigilance and constant fighting against forces that would keep you down, not because of any personal shortcomings, but because they didn’t like the way you looked and they could get away with it.

This shows up in my writing through heroines who are fighters, who never show weakness because they know predators look for your soft underbelly, and who have a strong sense of family and place of origin. It also shows up in settings that are pleasant on the surface but teeming with death and danger once that surface layer is peeled back. I actually really hate the suburbs and enjoy stories where content, oblivious suburbanites get their keesters handed to them. Say, “X would never happen in this neighborhood,” and I promise, X and worse will happen in my fictional universe.

Michele Dorsey

I was born in Boston and grew up in Massachusetts and Connecticut. I spent summers with grandmother on the beach in Scituate, Massachusetts, where I returned to raise my own family.I feel claustrophobic if I am too far from the ocean to smell salt air, which is why you will never find any story I write set in the dessert. 

I appreciate having roots. When I was getting a physical before entering nursing school at Faulkner Hospital in Jamaica Plan, the nurse explained the room I was standing in was the former delivery room where I had been born. The doctor performing the physical ended up being the son of the doctors who had delivered me. I was seventeen years old, yet appreciated the magnitude of the moment and place.

In recent years, I’ve realized that New England literally means “new” England, which means to me that many people who live here often relate culturally and politically more to England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales than they do to regions of the United States. I love to visit family in the South and friends and colleagues in the West, but I feel a sense of relief when I return home to the part of the country I most identify with. I know and accept that New Englanders are often accused of being distant and unfriendly, which is why my characters are frequently introspective and may appear detached. New Englanders may be slow to display passion, but when they do, watch out. Remember that little tea party we threw?

Susan Breen

I grew up in East Meadow, Long Island, NY, which at the time I thought was the most boring place in the world. No trees! Every house cookie cutter the same. Only now, decades later, have I come to realize all the drama lurking inside those bland-seeming houses and when I sit down to write, my mind often drifts that way, even though I have spent time in more exciting places. My father had MS and was wheelchair-bound through all my childhood, and that also had a profound effect on my writing. Not only am I concerned with illness, but with how entire families grapple with it. Our house was always filled with disability rights activists, and I learned that heroism comes in unlikely forms.

Tracee de Hahn

I had a ‘safe’ childhood, where we played outside until dark and rode our bikes down the middle of the street. At one point, when my father was in medical school, we lived by an old rock quarry and played there. Looking back, that was crazy!

At the risk of surrounding Dickensian, I was born in southeast Missouri, in Cape Girardeau, which, when said with a French accent sounds like an actual Cape and not a small town on the Mississippi River. I spent a few years in the tiny town of Parma, where my father’s family is from and then we relocated when he attended medical school. After that, off to Kentucky for the remainder of grade school, which my mother considered very northern, and which apparently scared me. Prior to moving, I asked if people there wore shoes (some serious southern region prejudices). Summers throughout my entire childhood were spent at my maternal grandparents, on their farm in Mississippi, where it was hot and I read a lot. 

I lived in Kentucky until I graduated college and then had the good fortune to live in Paris for a short while, Venice a few times for longer period, and Switzerland for several years. Cleary the travel bug had me and my husband and I were married in Hong Kong (unable to decide between Europe, where he is from, and the US, for me). 
My writing was clearly influenced by life in Switzerland, the subject of my first two books. I’m working on one set in Kentucky now, so place always has meaning for me.

Keenan Powell

I was an Air Force brat. I lived in five different states during the first nine years of my life. So when people asked me where I came from, I said “nowhere.” When my father retired, we settled in Vacaville, California. All the other kids in school had grown up together, gone to school together since first grade, and many of them were related. I was always the Auslander. After I graduated high school, I just kept moving, finally settling in Anchorage, Alaska, after law school.

I feel like a visitor everywhere I have lived. The only place to which I felt a physical attachment was Co. Kerry, Ireland, which is odd. None of my Irish ancestors came from Co. Kerry and I didn’t feel much for the specific villages they had come from. I was depressed for a year the last time I left Ireland. I don’t know if I’ll return because transitioning back to America is so difficult.

How has it influenced my writing? My protagonists are the same. They came from somewhere else and may be going to somewhere else. Not drifters like Jack Reacher, but still in transit. Also there’s a sense of the Other World where they should be instead.

Connie Berry

Let me begin with an image from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. My family would have been the ones bringing casseroles.

I grew up in the Great Lakes Midwest—southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Life for me (not for everyone, I know) was peaceful and pleasant. As a child I could ride my bike anywhere I wanted. I could take the bus downtown by myself, which often meant a trip to the pet store, returning with some poor creature my parents tolerated—a mouse, a fish, a chameleon (I had lots of those), even a kitten. No “play dates” then. My friends and I could play outside, waiting for dusk, when we had to be home (“When you see the first star” was the rule). Life revolved around school, church, and friends—and yes, casseroles were the norm.

My family were recent immigrants from Norway and Denmark. That meant that I grew up with traditions, a second language, and a nostalgic longing for the old country. My great grandmother, who’d grown up on a small farm in Denmark was famous for “thunder coffee.” Whenever there was a thunderstorm, she’d make everyone get up and go downstairs, and she’d put on the coffee pot. Only later was I told the reason. She’d grown up in a cottage with a thatched roof. The family had to be up and alert in case lightning struck the thatch.

In that way I felt as if I bridged generations. The love of history and the influence of the past upon the present is a major theme in the books I write. My protagonist, Kate, is a fine antiques dealer, which means she deals in the past every day. My parents were also antiques dealers, so I grew up as Kate did, with objects from the past incorporated into everyday life. My mother’s quote made it into one of my books. Once I asked her why we had to have old stuff when all my friends had modern furniture. She said, “Our furniture has a history—so much more interesting.”

I agree with her.

Emilya Naymark

Although my early childhood was spent in Russia, I grew up in Queens. I was a latchkey kid, which means I had many blissful alone hours after school to watch soap operas or go for walks. By thirteen I was taking the train to Manhattan to go to high school, and from then on I fully embraced everything New York City had to offer. To economize, I often walked over the Queensboro bridge rather than take the train, and traipsed all over the city.

This influenced my writing tremendously because it ended up being a weird mix of working class upbringing combined with the inevitable intellectual opportunities afforded by living in a large, cosmopolitan city. My characters are almost always blue collar or working class who recently joined the middle classes, and their problems are often the problems of people for whom money is an issue. They are also well-read, because in my family it was impossible not to be. My family considered speaking of money–even thinking about it–vulgar, but when it comes to writing crime, money problems are, no pun intended, a goldmine. 

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