And I Know That You’ll Use Them However You Want To*

Prior Knowledge ReadersIn yesterday’s post, I mentioned that authors often tap their own experiences and prior knowledge as they create new stories. That’s only natural if, as the research suggests, knowledge comes from associating new things with what we already know. But what about readers? Readers come from a wide variety of different backgrounds and have a wide variety of experiences. So how does an author invite readers to tap their own life experiences to make meaning from what they’re reading, and thus connect with a book at a deeper level?

I think it’s important to start by saying that readers enjoy using their imaginations. Wise authors respect their readers, and give them credit for the ability to imagine things they may not have experienced. Just because a reader hasn’t, say, been to Canada’s Ellesmere Island doesn’t mean that he or she can’t fully enjoy M.J. McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk novels, which take place there. Authors who assume otherwise either condescend to readers, or provide so much ‘information dump’ that it distracts from the story.

That said, though, there’s also research that shows that readers engage more with stories, remember them better and make more meaning from them when they can identify in some way with a story. In other words, when readers can tap their own backgrounds, they’re more likely to enjoy and remember what they read.

If that’s true, then how does the author accomplish that? One effective way to go about this is to focus on things, events and feelings that most people can identify with and connect with their own lives. For example, one plot thread of Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark concerns Gerda Klein and her daughter Ilse. Originally from Leipzig, in what used to be East Germany, they left there during the 1980s, during the Cold War, and ended up in New Zealand. That’s where their lives intersect with the life of fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman, who is one of Ilse’s most promising students. When she loses interest in school, Ilse becomes concerned. And everything changes completely when she disappears. Not all readers have experienced life under a totalitarian regime. Not all readers know what it’s like to move to another country. But just about everyone has had the experience of being in a new and unfamiliar place, where you have to get used to where everything is, how to get things done, and how to fit in. On that deeper, human level, it’s easy for readers to identify with Gerda and Ilse Klein.

Today’s readers never experienced the Victorian Era – not on a personal level. So why do Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories still resonate the way they do? In part, of course, it’s that the mysteries are interesting. But more than that, there are common human experiences and themes woven throughout the stories. For instance, in The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the mystery of a strange set of coded messages sent to Elsie Cubitt. Her husband Hilton is concerned about them, mostly because of the change he sees in his wife. She’s obviously frightened, although she won’t tell him why, or who sent the messages. Not all readers are interested in or good at ciphers and codes. And as I say, today’s readers can’t identify on a personal level with the Victorian Era as a rule. But we can all understand at a deep level what it’s like to care about someone who’s hurting or frightened. And it’s not hard to understand the feeling of wanting to protect a loved one, as both Elsie and Hilton Cubitt try to do.

There’s another way in which authors can invite readers to tap their world views and knowledge and engage in a story: helping to build background knowledge. Some authors tell stories about places or times or particular events that others might not know very well. In those cases, giving the reader some information can be very helpful.

Of course, there’s an important caveat here. Too much information (and not enough story!) can pull a reader out of a novel. So it’s got to be done carefully. That said though, giving some background information can be helpful.

That’s what Stan Jones has done in his Nathan Active novels. Those novels take place in Chukchi, Alaska, and feature several characters who are Inupiak. Readers may very well not be very knowledgeable about those people and their lives. So Jones provides some really interesting information to help in forming some background knowledge. Yet, he doesn’t distract the reader from the story and the characters. Instead, the information is given as it’s relevant to the story, in pieces at a time. I hear you, Tony Hillerman fans…

That’s also true of Faye Kellerman’s Rina Lazarus/Peter Decker series. Those novels feature an ‘inside look’ at Orthodox Judaism, since Lazarus is an observant member of that community. Several plots in this series involve Jewish observations, history, customs, and so on. And yet, Kellerman doesn’t overload the stories with facts, background information or long-winded histories. Rather, she provides information as it’s relevant to the story at hand. So readers who don’t have background knowledge can build it and can use that understanding to make meaning for themselves.

And that’s another aspect of inviting readers to connect with a story: trusting them to make that meaning. Authors who don’t assume that readers are active participants in the reading process risk several things. First, they risk insulting those readers. Not a good idea. Second, they risk boring those readers. If an author spells everything out (rather than trusting the reader to use her or his background knowledge to ‘fill in the blanks’), readers quickly lose interest. That’s also not a good idea.

It goes without saying (or should) that readers will engage themselves more in novels with effective writing and interesting plots and characters. But there is another, deeper level at which readers can also choose to identify with what’s happening in a story. That comes when the author provides characters, events and things that readers can connect with in their own lives, no matter their background. It can also be helped with the author provides some background information when it’s less likely readers would have it.

More than anything else though, at least in my opinion, it’s important to remember that readers bring their own backgrounds and experiences to the reading process. Trusting them to use that knowledge and giving them some points of connection can make the difference between a good book and one the reader will always remember (and hopefully recommend).

What are your thoughts on this? Are there books you’ve connected with on that very deep level? What’s done that for you? If you’re a writer, what do you do to invite readers to make those connections?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Anna Nalick’s Breathe (2 AM). Best understood if you know that the preceding line is: ‘Cause these words are my diary screaming out loud.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Faye Kellerman, M.J McGrath, Paddy Richardson, Stan Jones, Tony Hillerman

29 responses to “And I Know That You’ll Use Them However You Want To*

  1. Patti Abbott

    I find this happens more often with me with mainstream fiction. In those books, we get a deeper understanding of a character. Not to say, I would ever stop reading crime fiction but the stakes (for both author and reader) are often quite different.

    • That’s an interesting point, Patti. I’ve read some crime fiction with that really deep understanding of character (Megan does it well). But there is plenty of crime fiction, too, where the focus is really more on plot.

  2. That is a fascinating post Margot, I love the way you have worked to describe something very specific: I know exactly what you mean, but have never seen it written about before. There is always the hope that we will understand other cultures and times better this way, that we will recognize our similarities and our shared humanity…

    • Thank you, Moira. I think it’s always helpful to move us forward if we see our common humanity. If we are able to see that people everywhere have loved ones, want the best for their children, and so on, it’s a lot easier to understand characters, even if they live in unfamiliar places and don’t speak our language. Authors who tap that invite readers to really engage in the book. And that process, I hope, helps us understand each other better. If that helps us move forward, then the author has done a fine thing.

  3. A very, very interesting post, Margot. I find myself guilty of information dumps in my own writing. I think it comes from having taught for so many years. You want things to be crystal clear and so you spell it out. But writing is not teaching (although in a more subtle way it is).
    I find that I am drawn to novels with unfamiliar settings and then having just written this I think of Louise Penny and there is something very comforting about reading a setting about my home turf. 🙂

    • I know what you mean, Carol. There’s just something about ‘the comforts of home,’ isn’t there? Lucky you to have that part of the world as your ‘home turf!’ You make an interesting point, too about teaching and writing. They are different processes, but in ways, they do resemble each other. I’ve had to keep that in mind as I’ve moved between my academic writing and my fiction writing. Sometimes I have to remind myself that they are quite different. Thanks for the kind words 🙂

  4. A great follow up to the previous post – Reading this you picked up on my pet hate which is when author’s imagine that their readers can’t make the links themselves and end up over emphasising various points or giving an information dump. This latter part is interesting because I do enjoy learning about things outside my experience but I don’t want to feel I am being taught if that makes sense?

    • It makes perfect sense, Cleo. Readers don’t want authors to condescend to them. They like learning new things, but there is a difference between that and, as you say, ‘information dump.’ I think readers also like being trusted to be able to know certain things (or be able to look those things up), so that it’s not necessary to explain each detail.

  5. Marianne Wheelaghan

    hi Margot, great post. I couldn’t agree more. William Sloan said in The Craft of Writing said that readers want to read about people like themselves. They demand: “tell me about me. I want to be alive. Give me me.” Easier said than done, of course. My novels are set in faraway places, which most people are unfamiliar with, but I’d like to think i make enough points of connections in my books for readers to empathise with my characters and enjoy discovering who they are and where they live 😉

    • Thanks for the kind words, Marianne. And Thanks for sharing Sloan’s quote, with which I agree completely. As you say, it’s not always easy to accomplish, but it is a way to reach out to readers, if I can put it that way. And I think you do a fine job of showing readers themselves, to use Sloan’s terms, as you write. We have things in common, wherever we may live, and I think you show that.

  6. This is such an interesting post – thanks Margot! I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with what you said about the Sherlock Holmes books – it’s about common human experiences. I can identify with novels far removed from my own life, if I recognise the characters thoughts, feelings, vulnerabilities – those things don’t change whether you’re in Victorian England or on the moon!

    • No, they don’t, Claire. And that, to me, is part of the appeal of the Conan Doyle stories. They are human stories, about human people. We can all see ourselves in them, or people we know, and that helps us identify with what’s going on in the story. Thanks for the kind words – lovely to see you!

      • Exactly. The only time I struggle to identify with any setting is when I can’t get into the heads of the characters – then it’s the characters at fault, not the setting.

        And you too! I’m happy to be out of my blog hibernation and going visiting again 😉

  7. Excellent points. I’m very wary of information dumps, and try to avoid them in my writing, I rather like the novels set in foreign climates that ‘take the setting for granted’ and only hint a bit at its specificity, rather than start sounding like a tourist guide book. But sometimes I realise I put in too little detail and that people who have not had experience of the things I am talking about are puzzled.

    • Thanks, Marina Sofia. That can be a tricky balance, can’t it? Too little information and readers can be puzzled, even if they can understand and identify with the characters. Too much information and you might as well be reading a World Cultures textbook or a tourism brochure. I think it takes time to get that balance right.

  8. Margot – this post is just so “spot on.” I am finding more and more that books that I can relate to in someway (whether it be to a feeling, an action or an event) really engage and enthuse me. I also am finding that having some sort of dialogue/connection with an author can also affect the way I read a book – or at the least influence my choice of book to read.

    • Thanks, Carol,
      That was really the main point I was thinking, too, as I was preparing this post. When a book touches on a human theme – one we can identify with and really relate to, we’re more likely to remember that book. It resonates with us.

  9. Reblogged this on Reading, Writing and Riesling and commented:
    Margot some very astute points here

  10. Excellent post, Margot. I agree when say “There’s also research that shows that readers engage more with stories, remember them better and make more meaning from them when they can identify in some way with a story.” In this context, one of the reasons I enjoy reading spy or espionage fiction, particularly related to the Cold War, is because I know so much about it, the characters and events that shaped the post-WWII years right until the late 80s that brought an end to that era. There are quite a few authors I have connected with because they wrote about my area of interest. In some thrillers, like those by Craig Thomas, Jack Higgins, and Frederick Forsyth, no detailed explanations are necessary because you know everything, more or less.

    • Thank you, Prashant. Your interest in and knowledge about the Cold War is exactly the kind of background knowledge and world view that I had in mind when I wrote this post. We all have background knowledge about some things. And all of us have experiences and general world knowledge that we bring to the reading process. When the author invites us to tap that resource, a story is likely to be more meaningful.

  11. Kathy D.

    Good topic once again, causing gray matter to expand.
    This is one of the joys of reading fiction, including crime fiction for us fans.
    We can travel vicariously to visit other countries, learn about different cultures and the flora and fauna of those lands. That’s how I travel and I love it — few costs, no long lines, no baggage, no worries about air flights, yet we find other worlds.
    If a writer tells a convincing story and has interesting, developed characters, then I want to go along for the ride to enjoy a good story and meet a new protagonist — while I’m learning something new.
    Donna Leon’s books set in Venice tell readers quite a bit about life there and the social issues and problems while we enjoy some terrific characters.
    Angela Savage sets her books in Thailand. I’d never visit the country, but i enjoy Jayne Keeney’s exploits and personality. Plus I’m sent scurrying to search for information about geography, history, ecology, sea life, etc. A great way to learn.
    So, I’m all for more of this, reading about the world through crime fiction. But books still have to be interesting and characters relatable.

    • I agree, Kathy. When a book offers the reader a look at a new place, a different way of life, etc., it can be a terrific vicarious experience. When it’s done well, readers feel that they’ve learned some interesting things, and you’ve given some terrific examples of that. But as you say, unless a story has a solid plot and good characters, even the most exciting setting may not save it. And the best characters are those with whom we can identify – those where we can tap our own experiences and really understand.

  12. Col

    Another useful reminder for me – Stan Jones is another one on the pile I need to get to soon!

  13. Oh, the perils of the information dump … As Carol points out, writing isn’t teaching. I would add that writing isn’t moralizing or preaching either. It‘s tricky to get it right. Was it Hemingway who said – or did he imply it in his style? – that it’s important what’s not said by a writer, and to let the reader fill in the blanks himself through imagination.

    • That sounds like Hemingway, Bryan. And you and Carol have a good point about the difference between writing and teaching. Certainly the author can invite the reader to learn something new. But if a book has the ‘feel’ of a lecture to it, readers may very well tune out. And you have a very well-taken point about preaching too. I say, let the characters show the reader what the author’s message is. No need to spell it out as though readers couldn’t work it out for themselves.

  14. Very interesting post, Margot. I like your examples of Stan Jones and Faye Kellerman. And I think M.J. McGrath does a good job of this as you say. Other than that book, I haven’t read that many books lately that take you into a very different place or time. I do think Emma Lathen did a good job of providing good background for every environment that she takes her protagonist Thatcher into.

    • Thanks very much, Tracy. And thanks for mentioning M.J. McGrath. She does do a terrific job of really making you ‘feel’ the environment, doesn’t she? Yet, at the same time, she doesn’t overload with information, either. Well, at least I don’t get that feeling. And yes, the Emma Lathen team did a good job of that too.

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