Saturday, October 19, 2013

Calling Dr. Freud...

...or Novel Writing for Fun and Self-Analysis

by Donis Casey

Over the course of my novel-writing career, it has occurred to me to wonder about the psychology of those of us who create whole worlds on paper and populate them with characters who do exactly what we want them to do. Are we indulging in self-psychoanalysis without being totally aware of it? I’ve often pointed out that what readers say to me about my books tells me more about them than it does about the books. So I’d better admit that what I write says a lot about what’s going on in this unfathomable (to me) little brain of mine.

Things change in the course of a life, and what did the trick for you when you were younger may not fill the bill after a while, and time may come for a change. The one constant in my life has been the love of storytelling. I started writing short stories when I was very small. The first story I remember writing was about a girl who turned into a cat. It had pictures and everything. I was an English major in college, and have always been a prolific reader, but I always felt I had to be practical and concentrate on having a successful career, be self-sufficient, make a living. 

I surely did not want to end up like my mother, who drove herself crazy trying to be the epitome of a perfect 1950s wife and mother. So for the bulk of my life, my fiction writing was just for me.  I have a trunk full of short stories dating from the early 1960s, but  before I wrote my first mystery novel, all my published works consisted of professional articles, including a book on U.S. Government tax publications. I’m sure you remember. It was riveting.

I was always fairly successful at my various career endeavors, but I found none of them particularly fulfilling. It took me half a century to realize that maybe I really didn’t want to be a captain of industry or a leader of men. So the day came when I asked myself, Donis, what has always given you joy in your life?  And I had to admit that I’ve always been happiest when I was telling a story.

So I took a leap. I sold my business and went home to write. And interestingly, the book I decided to put my heart into was entirely different than anything I had ever written before. All the earlier books and stories I had written had to do with cool people, usually unmarried, childless professionals, often scientists, always intellectuals, mostly messed up and angst ridden.

But this time I wrote a historical mystery series set in rural Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th century, featuring a farm wife with a very large family: Alafair Tucker, who couldn’t care less about cool. How I conjured up this character I do not know, for she could not be less like me.  And yet she obviously is me to some extent, since she lives in my head.   

Am I wish-fulfilling? I don’t have the slightest desire to romanticize her lifestyle. It was tough.  Alafair lives the life I never did, or never could. I couldn’t abide it.  However, it seems I imbue her with all the virtues and strengths I do not have.  She knows what she knows and takes action.  Then once she has, she doesn’t second-guess herself.  I agonize over every decision and sometimes take no action at all.  She’s kind and tolerant of human weakness.  She takes care of everyone.  She’s patient with the follies of others.  Me: not so much. She’s a moderately well-adjusted mother of children, who doesn’t worry about her own shortcomings nor her place in the world, instead of what I am, which we won’t go into.

I never set out to deliver a message or make a statement when I write.  I just want to tell a ripping yarn. However, every time I finish an Alafair Tucker novel I do find myself wondering what Dr. Freud would say about the story.  Alafair is always much more successful at confronting her fears than I am. And she is never afraid to fail. She sticks herself out there.

For the first time in my fiction writing life, I created a character who isn’t hip or svelte or rich or independent or even particularly young. Or male. She goes against all conventional wisdom. Yet I had immediate success with Alafair’s first novel, The Old Buzzard Had it Coming.  Why it couldn’t have happened when I was young and thin and beautiful I don’t know, but we come to our authentic place in our own time, I guess.

Maybe I want to spend time with Alafair because she reminds me of some of the women in my past whom I loved, but didn’t fully appreciate at the time. She is funny, reflective, wise to ways of the world and the ways of kids, and a bit sad because of the losses in her life, like my own mother was.  She’s the center of her family, loving and giving to a fault, adored by her children, and a legendary cook, like my late mother-in-law.  With the best of motives, she’s all up in your business and can drive you crazy, too, like a relative of mine who shall remain nameless, lest she recognize herself (though she won’t. They never do.)

I may have created Alafair out of pieces of women I love, but she’s much more than the sum of her parts.  The great British mystery novelist Graham Greene said, “The moment comes when a character says or does something that you hadn't thought of.  At that moment, he’s alive and you leave it to him.”  I first put Alafair on the page, but then she stood up and walked away, and now I just follow where she leads. And what that tells me about myself I do not know.
Donis Casey is the author of six Alafair Tucker Mysteries, including the recently released The Wrong Hill to Die On.  Donis has twice won the Arizona Book Award and has been a finalist for the Willa Award and the Oklahoma Book Award. Her first novel, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, was named an Oklahoma Centennial Book. She lives in Tempe, Arizona. Readers can enjoy the first chapter of each book on her web site at


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Donis, in my pre-mystery writer life in publishing, I edited an extremely soporific accounting textbook, but I think your book on tax publications has mine beat. And as a shrink in my extra-mystery writer life, I say of course we play out in our stories the scenarios we can't or wouldn't in life. As I write this, I'm drinking my coffee from a mug that says, "Please do not annoy the writer. She may put you in a book and kill you."

Donis Casey said...

Elizabeth, I used to try to figure things out, but I gave that up long ago. Now I write fiction and let my subconscious do it.

Sheila Connolly said...

Donis, I used to write grant proposals requesting funding, often for things I knew nothing about. Great training for fiction writing!

I sometimes think that our main characters are the women we'd like to be--a little smarter, quicker with the right retort, braver, and maybe more interesting people than we think we are.

Donis Casey said...

Sheila, I also like to let my characters be meaner than I let myself be.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Donis,
I used to write scientific reports and papers, so you can imagine why I'm particularly attentive to the overuse of the passive in my prose! But your Freud reference reminded me of my TA in N. Scott Momaday's class on English prose and poetry--I could guarantee an A on a quiz or paper just by connecting almost anything up with a Freudian quirk. Momaday was an excellent teacher and lecturer, but his TA was a pompous idiot--he never caught on that I was jerking his strings!

Barbara F. Leavy said...

I really enjoyed The Old Buzzard...although I started counting the calories in the recipes Alafair provided!

I think the psychological aspect of writing and reading mysteries works both ways, which is why your readers' responses tell you about your readers. Why we have our favorite writers and favorite genres, why we shrink from some subjects and identify strongly with others, these are all a part of our psychological profile. And the wish-fulfillment traditional mysteries gave us, that justice will prevail and all will be right with the world, is what many historians of mysteries claim is its appeal. I sometimes wonder at the psychology behind writing and reading mysteries in which the old buzzard prevails, for that seems to be a new direction many mysteries are going in.

Barbara Fass Leavy