Guest Post: Susan Bickford

Please welcome today’s guest Susan Bickford–talking about a very important word.

The D Word

a short time to die - cover smallerDiversity is one of the Holy Grails in genre fiction. It can also be a contentious topic. Not only is the ultimate goal elusive and very personal, the landscape is constantly changing.

This winter, I basked in joy when A Short Time to Die was a Lefty (Left Coast Crime) nominee for Best Debut Novel. Quite a thrill.

All of the nominated books were terrific, so I set my expectations accordingly. Although I had a twinge of regret when I didn’t win, I was thrilled to see that African American author Kellye Garrett won with Hollywood Homicide. The voters at the conference—overwhelmingly white and somewhat older—enthusiastically embraced a story about a character by a writer who was not either of those.  Kellye went on to win an Agatha as well.

Last year, Joe Ide, a Japanese American writer, won a number of debut novel awards with IQ (which I loved), a book with an all African American cast of characters.

At the same time, there have been well-publicized controversies over how racial, ethnic, and gender issues have been portrayed in fiction. Apparently sensitivity readers are now a fixture in some aspects of the publishing world.

Meanwhile, I had a potential thorny problem: how to tackle diversity in my second book, Dread of Winter. I was in the midst of edits for my publisher and needed to address this head on.

Of course writers hate to be told they can’t create a voice in their work for characters not like them. Putting ourselves into the heads of people not like us is exactly what we do. I am never likely to commit a murder. How am I going to create a believable murder mystery or thriller without delving into the psyches of other people? Add to that, the world around us is increasingly diverse. Am I supposed to keep my book world filled with people just like me? Yuck.

On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that people of color, different ethnicities, and cultural allegiances don’t sometimes have a point. Looking back, we can find a number of cringe-worthy pieces in literature that we’d rather not acknowledge.

In my first book, A Short Time to Die, the world of Marly Shaw in Central New York was comprised almost exclusively of white people, much as the way that I remembered it from long ago. However, when the action shifted to California’s Santa Clara County, home to Silicon Valley, the challenge was more interesting. I definitely wanted to reflect the world around me in California.

I chose a second narrator, Vanessa Alba, a first generation Colombian American. Vanessa is a detective with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department. She is assigned the task of figuring out why human bones found in the Santa Cruz Mountains can be traced back to two individuals from Central New York. She teams up with Jack (Jackson) Wong, a detective from Santa Cruz County, and heads off to Central New York in the middle of January, where the temperature is dropping to forty below at night—not exactly the tourist season.

Although I speak Spanish, I made a point of interviewing several Latinx acquaintances to gain a better insight into Vanessa’s world. One of my neighbors, a blonde, blue-eyed university professor with a common Hispanic / Spanish last name, told me she could not find temporary housing for her family during their remodel, unless she used her husband’s last name when calling landlords. The things I never thought to notice.

I was comfortable with taking on Vanessa in part because she was a secondary character. I didn’t try to insert myself into her head the way I did with Marly, whom I consider to be the primary protagonist of the book.

My second book, Dread of Winter, will be out in 2019. This is another standalone story. Or rather, the setting of Central New York is the main character that returns to the stage and twists my characters into submission.

As I began this work, I revisited my old haunts and realized that the area “from Albany to Buffalo” (to quote “The Erie Canal” song I sang every week for at least thirteen years) is a lot more varied and diverse than I remembered it, and growing more so every day.

For example, the tiny burg of Peterboro, part of my school system at Cazenovia Central School, was a stop on the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War, and is home to the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum. There are African American families living in that area today that can trace their roots there. Suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a cousin of Gerrit Smith, an abolitionist and temperance leader living in Peterboro. Elizabeth met her future husband in Peterboro.

I also had a number classmates and friends who were members of the various nations comprising Iroquois Confederacy—the Haudenosaunee (People of the Long House). The guiding principles of the Iroquois Confederacy influenced the thinking of colonial leaders like Benjamin Franklin when it came to designing our own Constitution. Although reduced in size, the Iroquois had a significant impact on the creation of our country, my personal upbringing, and continue to enrich our lives today in New York State and beyond.

I couldn’t back away from these challenges. I was determined to bring these flavors and more into my second book. Stay tuned for Dread of Winter in 2019.

What are your feelings about diversity in books as readers and / or as writers?

*****

Susan Alice Bickford low res - ColorSusan Alice Bickford was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in Central New York.

After she discovered computer graphics and animation her passion for technology pulled her to Silicon Valley, where she became an executive at a leading technology company.

She now works as an independent consultant, and continues to be fascinated by all things high tech. She splits her time between Silicon Valley and Vermont.

Website: SusanAliceBickford.com

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14 thoughts on “Guest Post: Susan Bickford”

  1. Welcome, Susan! It’s great to have you here. I’m looking forward to reading A SHORT TIME TO DIE. Like you I have roots in NY, mine are in Upstate – the Miller’s Mills/Utica area so the book will be a visit home for me too.

    South Florida, like California, is a culturally diverse and rich area. Getting it right is so important, and makes such a difference in the nuances of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Welcome, Susan! The book sounds great.

    I think diversity in fiction – as it is in life – is incredibly important. As you pointed out, if I were only allowed to write “people like me,” my stories would be filled with middle-aged white women with nearly college-aged kids. Boring! But the diversity has to be organic. Kellye’s and Joe’s stories are great because the diversity is natural. If an author is just throwing a diverse character in the story to check a box, it’s forced and I think it shows. And not in a good way.

    I don’t have diverse characters in my debut, but HEAVEN HAS NO RAGE and BROKEN TRUST (books 2 and 3 do). Like you, these are secondary characters, so it feels more…comfortable for me since I don’t have to be in their heads. I talked to the wonderful Frankie Bailey about writing these characters and she gave some great advice. “How do your main characters react to them? That’s going to color how your readers react. And remember, secondary or not, these are real people. Treat them like ones.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You’ve made excellent points, Susan. Thank you. A beta reader pointed out that I lacked diversity in an early version of my manuscript. When I made revisions to rectify that, the characters I introduced came alive and nearly took over. To my surprise, they’ve turned out to be popular with other beta readers. To make sure I got it right and wasn’t using stereotypes, I had an African-American friend read it, which really helped.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Susan,
    Thanks for sharing. I am a reader rather than a writer. I like to read about well developed characters that are “true to life,” and those real characters differ significantly based on the geography of the book. I would not find it plausible if the characters did not reflect their surroundings unless the point was that a person was out of her/his environment.

    I have read the books by Kellye Garrett and Joe Ide (and met him as well). Their characters are real in action, place, and personality. I would expect to see them in South Central and in Hollywood (really anywhere in So Cal) but probably not in a small town in Minnesota.

    As a reader, I have to believe that if I walked into the grocery store in upstate New York, downtown Atlanta, suburban Las Vegas, small town Tennessee, or Reykjavik, Iceland, I would find the people just like those who populate books set in that locale.

    Diversity is a reality in life and books should reflect life.

    Like

  5. Your points are spot on. Still, I find I need to challenge myself sometimes and make certain I am thinking through my decisions. Could such and such a character have more going on (broader than just diversity)? How much of that to show?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m proud to live in one of the most diverse cities in my area. While diversity brings its own set of challenges (language, culture, economic status) it also makes us stronger as a whole, more exciting and vibrant.

    I’m fortunate to have lived in world of diversity since I was nineteen and fell in love with a man whose race didn’t match mine, and I’m accutely aware of that in my books. Now, I’m stretching a bit to include LGBTQ members of our tiny globe who have routinely been ostracized, as well as those with “bad” faiths.

    Kudos to you for addressing this and helping to dispense with stereotypes by telling a good story!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Peg. I remember the thrill of discovering diversity when I moved to NYC. Walking down Broadway to Chinatown was amazing. Like you, I’m trying to keep moving the edge of the envelope in a way that feels organic and natural.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Late with the commenting, but thanks for guesting on Mysteristas and writing about a topic so close to my heart. I’m so happy to see that you’re doing the work and putting in the time and effort to reach out to beta/sensitivity readers.

    And congrats on the Lefty nomination!

    Liked by 1 person

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