Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Monday, April 1, 2013

Extended Families And Lone Wolves

"People are pretty forgiving when it comes to other people's families. The only family that ever horrifies you is your own." ~ Douglas Coupland

"Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops." ~ Cary Grant

"Blood relatives often have nothing to do with family, and similarly, family is about who you choose to make your life with." ~ Oliver Hudson

"The other night I ate at a real nice family restaurant. Every table had an argument going." ~ George Carlin

"Family quarrels are bitter things. They don't go according to any rules. They're not like aches or wounds. They're more like splits in the skin that won't heal because there's not enough material." ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

Yes, I know. It's April Fool's Day, and you might have thought, surely William will mark it with some splash of inappropriate humour, right? Well, no, not really. Today I'm going to pull an April Fool's joke by being serious. Though I can direct you over to our joint blog, where we did precisely that, marking the day with a Without A Word image blog. Head on over and take a look.

Today I thought I'd touch base on a few things writing wise. One of the blogs I follow is from JE Fritz. At Still Writing, she often blogs about word origins, and back in March, she was writing about the origins of the letter N. It seems that in its earliest roots, the letter was symbolized as nahas. Incidentally, that word also means snake. This surprised me, of course. You see, in Heaven & Hell, one of my characters has the surname Nahas. He's a Palestinian politician, who's an exceedingly rare thing for someone of that profession: an inherently decent and honourable man. Whose name means snake. Oh well. Too late to change it now, right?

Another blogger I follow, Tracy Krauss, posted back in March a writing exercise that I liked. Check out that link for her original look at this. I'll paraphrase the terms she's used...

1. Think of the story you have written or are writing, and define it with a single word.

I'll cheat here a bit by saying that I'll use two words, but they're bound together. For my protagonists, the events of Heaven & Hell are about justice. For the antagonists, the story is one of revenge.

2. Focus in on this by asking a question about that word. The question ought to be as specific as possible.

Where is the fine line between revenge and justice? Can a terrible wrong be made worse by giving in to vengeance?

3. What is the answer to that question? This is the message or idea the reader's going to take away from your book or story.

This has been a theme that's shown itself through the book time and again as I've written and revised. For my protagonists, justice is about stopping a greater evil, defusing a crisis, even if that requires violence. For my antagonists, violence is a tool to indulge their anger, their need for revenge. Justice is restorative. Vengeance is destructive.

I've been reading a novel by Carla Neggers lately. That Night On Thistle Lane is a romance with a dash of mystery to it, set in New England, in a small town called Knights Bridge. She's written about this place before, and characters from that book turn up here again, though in this book another couple finding their way together take the forefront of the novel. I was first introduced to Carla's work through Norma, and have read quite a bit of her novels since. One of the things that she often uses in her novels is the theme of family- mostly family by blood, but also the friendships that form close enough to count as family. As an author, it allows you to continue to use the same settings and characters in future books if you like (with this book, she has twin sisters who could always turn up in future books of her own). It's been typical of her earlier books, where family dynamics play a big role in the relationships Carla writes. It would seem to be a reflection of her own life, as from everything I've seen of her online, she seems to have a large, close family.

I contrast that sense of family bonds in her work with my own work, which I would use the term lone wolf for. In Heaven & Hell, my two spy protagonists, Tom Stryker and Meredith Devon, are both only children. Stryker's parents are deceased, and he has no other family. Devon's father is dead; relations between she and her mother are strained. Her mother doesn't particularly approve of her profession, but that's just the surface of things, which I'll no doubt explore in future books. It leads me back, so to speak, to the recent James Bond film Skyfall, with the observation of how orphans seem to make good spies. Bond lost his parents years ago, and the loss hardened him. The film fleshes out that background, giving us more insight into the man. Likewise, in my work, Stryker is an orphan, and for all intents and purposes, so is Devon. These are two people who have been stripped of family, alone in the world. They're lone wolves.

This also reflects itself in our joint work in Same Time Tomorrow. There I write the point of view of our male protagonist, Gabriel Miller. He's an orphan too, his parents killed by a drunk driver when he was eighteen. In the book, his closest family is his grandmother Bridget; his friendships form the rest of his family. Our female protagonist, Chloe Masters, whose point of view is written by my partner in crime Norma, is also an only child, her father no longer part of the picture, her mother facing a crisis. Both of these characters have something of that lone wolf sensibility about them, the lack of extended family. It's a touch we extend to some of the supporting characters in the book; Dana Butler, Chloe's best friend, never speaks of family, so there's a friction where that's concerned. Olivia Shaw, Gabriel's close friend, is an only child and orphan whose parents were emotionally distant. And Rachel Mitchell, Olivia's fiancee, has been disowned by her family when she came out of the closet. What family ties these characters lack, they make up for by making family of the people they choose to consider as such.

I know where this comes from, of course. A good dose of who we are as people works its way into our writing. I think having characters who are isolated in terms of family dynamics is reflected in part from my own family history. No, I'm not an orphan, and I do get along with my parents. Sibling relationships are a different story, however, and that's why only children seem to be a recurring theme in my writing. I've come to think that family can be the people you're closest to and who you choose to think of as family, even if that relationship is based in friendship. It doesn't always mean those you were brought up with. Sometimes you can be hurt the worst by those you were brought up with. These past two years, I've had to learn that the hard way. Cathartic moment coming. Ready? Here we go.

I have from time to time referenced the strained relationship where my sisters are concerned, more often than not in comments in other blogs. Two and a half years ago, they did something awful to my parents, and never apologized. It was the last straw after years of keeping my mouth shut to keep the peace in the family, years of patiently putting up with their barbs and thorny personalities, years of the less than savoury men in their lives (we're talking complete sleaze, racists, alcoholics, just the real dregs of society). Where one used hard words like a blunt sledgehammer, the other was more likely to use her words like a dagger, stabbing deep. The effect of their words was the same: painful. It amounted to verbal abuse and bullying. And I internalized all of it, and when that last straw happened, all of the negativity and resentments I'd kept in check came pouring out. I ended up in a very dark place; I hit rock bottom, but that's what I needed to seek out help.

You can only be hurt so many times before you say enough. No more. My sisters have never done the slightest thing to make amends to my parents, and now so much time has gone by that it would just feel hollow. I can't trust them not to do something equally awful someday. They remain the same bitter, vindictive, toxic people they were. And the cost of letting them in is more than I can bear. So the end result is that I have no more sisters. They're strangers to me. 

I'm in a better place now. They'll never change, and I've dramatically lowered my expectations that they ever will. It's not going to happen. I do have some good sibling dynamics. My brothers and I get along quite well, and the same applies to my sisters-in-law. Still, all those years of walking on proverbial eggshells, biting my tongue, and hiding the effects of that verbal abuse took its toll, and it reflects itself in my writing lone wolf characters. It's wishful thinking, I'd say, writing characters without siblings. Strained families in my fiction are influenced by my own strained sibling dynamics. The good thing about writing.... it's cathartic.

Lots to get off my chest. Thanks for letting me vent. Now you're no doubt thinking, "he's like that???"


  1. Getting to the point of 'enough,no more' took me until my late forties. Now I am happily estranged from my brother...he can't hurt me however hard he tries (and he does) because I have wiped him from my life. I'm the black sheep/lone wolf in the family because of it... and it suits me just fine!
    Jane x

  2. It's a shame. I do know what that's like. And it certainly is harder when it comes from someone who is supposed to be your family. It takes a long time to let go and admit once and for all that they aren't going to change and to have to process all the hurtful things. It's even worse when you know the other person/people aren't sorry. Luckily you have other family and friends.

  3. You're like that???

    Seriously, the only way to survive people like your sisters is to cut them out of your life. If you must see them at family occasions, be polite but keep your distance. They won't change so it's up to you.

    We can't control their actions but we can remove ourselves from the fray.

    And you have us!

  4. Ah William you have a plethora of friends who would never let you walk alone. Lone wolves are mean creatures and you're a friendlier animal I'm sure--just what kind of animal is friendly anyway? Maybe you are more like a wise owl watching out for your family members and your friends. Hope to see Heaven and Hell out soon. Carla's book sounds interesting too.

  5. William, to come out stronger because of something that is so terrible is something to be proud of--maybe proud isn't exactly the word I needed there.

    My mother died when I wasn't quite 12. My father rased me and my brother (had siblings much older) After his death, the family really split up. I couldn't go into it here, but one will not speak to me, one is dead (lung cancer like mom), and the others will talk to me and even write to me, but we never get together any more.

    My husband and I are as close as two peas. We are the lone wolves (have been called black sheep by his side) Family can mess you up for sure. Good for you to realize you had to go and find a way to get over it.

    And writing does help.

    Chocolate hug for you, William!

  6. My partner here has quite a story of his own. I think it's what's made him such a good writer.

    And William, you and Carla do have something in common: your Dutch heritage.

  7. I think sometimes the best way to keep the family peace is to give the family lots of space. I hear where you're coming from, and it seems you're taking the healthiest approach! And, to poorly paraphrase Norma, you've still got your story... something you can always draw from as a writer.

  8. Family relationships can be confounding. Maybe that's why they work so well in literature. We all can relate in some way.

  9. As I keep saying to my children and myself, You only can do what you can.
    No matter what intentions stuff happens.

    cheers, parsnip

  10. Writing is cathartic. It's ok to be a lone wolf... I have a strained relationship with my parents, and because of that, I think, I tend to write characters who have similar relationships or deceased parents...

  11. Strength in numbers. I don't know of anyone whose familial relationships are all rosy.

    As for characters, it's their lone status that opens the way for adventure. Without that, the story would never begin.

    On that note... my adventure should be coming along about right.....NOW.

  12. Some family dynamics just don't work William, it's no one's fault and I think in your case you've done the only thing possible. As someone above mentioned the chances of you being a true lone wolf may be difficult, we all enjoy what you have to say too much..keep writing mon ami!

  13. @Jane and Chris: one of the things that I've come to realize is that people like this are living in a prison of their own making. I was too, but I broke out.

    @Krisztina: these two definitely aren't capable of feeling sorry.

    @Cheryl: distance certainly helps!

    @Lorelei: thank you very much!

    @Norma: It's a good heritage to have... though it doesn't explain my fondness for rock climbing. And thank you for your support through all of this.

  14. @LondonLulu: I've said to my therapist that if I were living in the same town as my sisters, I'd be a basketcase by now.

    @Karla: confounding is an understatement!

    @Parsnip: good advice!

    @M.R.: it certainly does influence the way we write...

    @Jessica: family can be a chore, I've found...

    @Grace: well, I do like wolves, so... and yes, it was the only choice possible for my emotional well being.

  15. I really like that three-prompt writing activity. I was answering in my head for my WIP. Very cool.

  16. I read this on my iPhone the day you posted it, and since I don't like to comment using my iPhone, I've been trying to get back to it ever since. My life continues to be spiraling out of control.

    You are spot on about families. The good, bad, and the ugly came out in our family during the stress of our parents' illnesses and following their deaths. It made the whole thing much harder to deal with.

    I do hope you can someday make a lasting peace with your sisters, because I do believe genetic families are important, along with the other kinds of families you may be able to create and nurture.

    Thanks for sharing, William. I always knew you were that kind of person-deep and sensitive.

  17. I forgot to hit the follow-up comments button. Sorry.

  18. @Kelly: these writing exercises can be very helpful, I think.

    @Christine: I think some wounds might well run too deep, and if the other party refuse to make amends, the best thing to do is to sever things permanently. I worry that given how things are now, the real ugliness and hostilities that are there are going to begin really showing themselves.


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