From time to time, readers and fellow authors email me asking for advice or sharing with me their own stories about obstacles that come between them and the stories they want to write. This past summer, I received the following letter from aspiring African American writer Shawntel Jones.
Stephanie, I am interested in writing about the 25th dynasty of Egypt, the Black Pharaohs of Kush. I wanted my story to build on the Pharaoh Piye and his brother Shabaka from boy-hood to becoming the great kings of Egypt. I reached out to a site that focuses on this history for more information on the hierarchy of the wives being that they had many wives. Stephanie, they did not answer the question and belittled me and told me to write about something else. This subject has always been my favorite and I know a lot about it…just not the little things that could mean a great deal to the story. There really aren’t any historical fiction books about this subject, so I am truly lost. Your article on how to write historical fiction refocused me. I don’t need to be an expert in the history of Kush/Nubia, I am writing about young black men on their rise to the throne…I am a creative lover of history…not a teacher of it. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
This letter, shared with Shawntel’s permission, both broke my heart, and, frankly, made me a little angry. And it’s taken me a number of months to work up the nerve to explain why.
I’ll start with the part that should go without saying. That the world needs more books set in Africa, featuring black people in roles they appear relatively rarely in the genre–as leaders, politicians, warriors, strategists, and the founders of dynasties. Anybody who wants to make an obstacle of themselves to that end isn’t, in my opinion, doing the world any favors. And of course, personally, because of my fascination with Egypt, I am dying to read a good book about the relationship between the different peoples of Egypt and neighboring Kush, and the different paths they took.
Secondly, as a teacher of creative writing, I don’t believe in discouraging aspiring authors. That Shawntel approached historians and was told to write something else, leaves the sour taste of hubris in my mouth. Historians are experts in their field; that field is not writing novels. Unless they’re studying the market, meeting with agents and editors, and have some experience in writing, you can pretty much ignore their advice.
Thirdly, what’s with people telling artists what they can do in their work, can’t say in their books, can’t paint in their paintings, can’t sing in their songs, or can’t dance with their bodies? What gives anybody the right? If you don’t like historical novels that are less academically rigorous, don’t buy them. Trying to shame fans for enjoying something nutty like REIGN doesn’t improve the genre; it just makes you a fabulous killjoy. Trying to shame authors for not writing the book you want them to write is about as lazy and entitled as it gets. And guess what, they don’t actually give out badges to the history police.
So if you’re going around confronting your fellow authors for making some mistake in their books, you’re really just a history vigilante.
In the end, I feel strongly that you don’t owe your art to anyone. That’s why I think you should write about what’s important to you, what’s cathartic to you, what moves you. If you can find a nexus between what moves or interests you, and what people want to read, you will sell books. And if you want to be a professional author, you should look very, very hard for that nexus, or you’re not going to make money. But remember that what people say they want to read, and what they actually want to read, aren’t always the same thing. And if someone tells you that they’re sick of reading about whatever it is that moves you, it’s only an anecdotal data point. If someone tells you that they want to read a different kind of story, that person can find another book. Or they can write their own. Or they can hire someone to write it for them.
It’s hard to write a book. And much harder than that to write a good one. It requires dedication. It requires sacrifice. It requires exposure of self. There are easier ways to make money. Remember who you owe your art to: You.
So here I am telling you to write something else. Not what other people tell you to write, but what makes you happy.
Write on, friends. Write on.