I’m writing this while they’re still counting votes after the election, when tensions are running high on both sides and the entire country could use a little something (non-liquid) to calm them down.
The best choice for readers is what might be called “gentle books,” straightforward tales of ordinary people in mostly every-day, low-key situations. No psychotics, no wrenching twists, no gore, no vampires or werewolves or demons.
Often comic, sometimes inspiring, these sorts of books were popular from the thirties right through WWII and into the sixties. Gentle books – the work of Angela Thirkell, D. E. Stevenson, Elizabeth Cadell, and many others – offered readers well-written, character-driven stories that reminded them of their own lives. Gentle books continued to thrive through the sixties and seventies with Miss Read, James Herriot, and others. Garrison Keillor and Alexander McCall Smith are among those who carry the tradition on today.
But don’t be fooled by the familiar settings and characters of these books. They are notoriously difficult to write well. It’s just too easy to sink into either banality or saccharine gooeyness – what might be called Hallmark Holiday Special fiction.
One problem is that the sources of tension available to you are, by definition, gentle. It’s easy to keep readers on the edge of their seats when your characters are trying to escape horrible deaths or fending off the destruction of the world. It’s a lot harder to keep readers interested over whether Bertie will be able to escape saxophone lessons or James Herriot will be the one who receives a cocoa tin full of goat droppings to analyze for parasites (considered an honor in Siegfried’s practice). Yet readers need to care enough about such minor, everyday problems that they will want to keep reading and will feel satisfied with the conclusion.
The only way to get that kind of tension out of minor matters is to pay sharp, detailed attention to who your characters are. The threat of a horrible death will motivate anyone, so you can get away with characters who are a little vague – there never was a lot of emotional depth to James Bond. But to get readers interested in small things, you need to understand why these small things mean so much to your characters. And the reasons are almost always because these small things are resonant in some way, they speak to something deep in the character. They mean more than they are.
In one of Keillor’s dips into Lake Wobegon, Florian Krebsbach hits a pothole hard while driving his lovingly preserved ’66 Impala, which he uses sparingly because it only has 47,000 original miles on it. When he looks down, he finds that the odometer has snapped back from 47,000 to 27,000. He’s so overjoyed that he decides to take the long way to work. It’s certainly a small thing, but for Florian, watching the meter slowly climb was a constant reminder of his own mortality, of the slow decay that comes to us all. Hitting that pothole gave him a whole new lease on life.
With gentle novels, you don’t simply have to create deeply imagined characters, you have to create a wide variety of them. Here’s a little secret about small town life (I live in a town with 1800 people on about 40 square miles). In a city, you can choose your friends from among the few hundred people who agree with you about everything. You can live in a bubble where everyone thinks alike. In a small town, you get the neighbors you’ve got, and you’re stuck with them. You have to learn to get along. This is why the “eccentric villagers novel” is almost a genre unto itself. Even Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street books, technically set in Edinburgh, are limited to a neighborhood that acts in most ways like a small town.
In fact, most gentle novels draw their tension from this forced association. The connections with people who think very differently from yourself can help amplify the importance of small things. Here in Ashfield, one local resident has not yet forgiven another (both are in their seventies) for hitting her with a rock on the beach when they were ten.
In News from Thrush Green, the news is that someone new has moved into town – a young woman, Phil, and her son, Jeremy, have bought Tullivers, a somewhat worse-for-wear place in the middle of the village. She is a mystery at first – a young woman with no husband – until residents discover she is in the middle of a divorce. Her arrival hits a couple of residents in different and unique ways. Harold Shoosmith, who retired from India long ago looking for a simple, peaceful life, finds himself attracted to her, even though she’s much younger and any attraction would upset the settled life he’s come to love. And Dr. Bailey’s nephew, Richard, a young man with an obsession about diet and limited people skills who is visiting the village for the summer, views her as naturally belonging to him – he’s the most likely possible suitor in the village. While these complications are playing out, the rest of the village watches, reacting in their own way, from eccentric Dotty Harmer rooting for Harold to curmudgeonly Alfred Piggot blaming Phil for “setting her cap” at Richard.
Phil’s story also shows something else about gentle books – they can include serious drama and even grief. They just handle it differently than more tension-filled books. Halfway through News, Phil’s estranged husband is killed in a car accident. It’s tragic for both her and Jeremy, but the tragedy happens largely offstage. Readers aren’t asked to suffer it with her. What they do experience is the way the village rallies around her to help her through her grief.
And that may be the best feature of gentle books – they’re driven by love. Even though there is conflict, even though occasionally bad things happen, the characters almost without exception love one another and try to do the best they can for one another. No abject cruelty or depraved indifference. No wrenching grief or all-consuming rage. Just ordinary people being good to one another, who are sometimes the hardest characters to bring to life.
And in case you feel that the situations in gentle books are simply a feel-good fantasy . . .
Thirty years or so ago, my wife, Ruth, went through a difficult divorce in which she received 25 acres of land and almost no money. She struggled to move onto the land and build a house, living for a year in a 1951 house trailer, often with no running water, while she got the foundation, well, and septic put in. Throughout it all, the town was behind her, from the retiring plumber who gave her a clawfoot bathtub, to the road crew who happened to pick her driveway to turn the plows around in (with the blade down), to a local carpenter who volunteered to build the house for her. I’d come into her life by then. Our second date was the frame raising for the downstairs, and we spent our first married year together in that trailer.
Twenty years or so ago, she went through a serious health crisis, one that left her so drained that she had trouble concentrating. She asked our local librarian to find her something appropriate to read. The librarian came up with a stack of gentle books – titles by Margery Sharp, Miss Read, and Angela Thirkell. In reading them, Ruth found a genre that made her feel right at home.
That’s a pleasure we could all use and a gift you can give to your readers.
Quick author’s note. Most of the titles mentioned here have been reissued electronically, to introduce them to a new generation.
So which gentle writers have I missed? Who are your favorites?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!