Secrets Your Lit Professor Wouldn’t Tell You

Breaking the hearts of English and Lit teachers everywhere, I have to admit a secret.


Book clubs often ask me this question, or a variation on this question: “We noticed the theme of XYZ in your book. Did you include ABC to support that theme?”


Usually, it’s an incredibly perceptive observation, and I always want to say, “Yes, of course! It was entirely planned out and not at all a happy accident that my subconscious somehow dreamed up!”

Really, the answer is usually no. Not on purpose. But I think it still counts.


My friend, the editor Jane Cavolina (formerly at Penguin, now freelance, helped me with Housewife), once told me that if a scene is in the novel, she thinks it’s there for a reason; and it’s up to us to figure out why and make it work.

I think it has to do with associative thinking, even if you don’t realize what you’re doing is associative thinking because you’re just typing out what’s popping into your head, not analyzing it. That comes later.


Some things I do include on purpose. In Housewife, I was researching Japan and came across an item about the untouchables, or burakumin. I thought, It’d be interesting to include an untouchable character, and then, before I knew it, that rascally character took on a much bigger role than I’d intended.


With Roses, I came up with the idea for a person with kidney dialysis who was a rose breeder. Why? ‘Cause my sister in law had three kidney transplants. No other reason. I didn’t know why it was important she should be on dialysis, except that this was an interesting obstacle for a character to overcome. One where her irascible nature could perhaps be forgiven.


Later, I realized perhaps I picked rose-growing to mirror the character’s life. In rose growing, there are different seasons.  There is dormancy and pruning, when the rose looks dead; seasons of growth; seasons of bloom. It’s that sense of faith in the natural progression of things that keeps her going.


I’m finding that happening now in my WIP, which is about a samurai woman, Tomoe Gozen, who might be in my family tree and a contemporary story about two biracial sisters. The difficulty in this story is the historical part is basically sticking to how things were. Tomoe was a concubine; I didn’t make her the legal wife.


But my contemporary fiction thread is mirroring the Tomoe story in subtle ways I hadn’t planned out beforehand. Of course, this is what I had HOPED would happen (and was wracked with anxiety that it wouldn’t) so I’m really happy. I can’t tell you much more about it.


Tomoe Gozen with Uchida Ieyoshi and Hatakeyama...
Tomoe Gozen with Uchida Ieyoshi and Hatakeyama no Shigetada. :Context: Tomoe Gozen was a rare female samurai. At Battle of Awazu in 1184, she is known for killing Uchida Ieyoshi and for escaping capture by Hatakeyama Shigetada -- Henri L. Joly. (1967). Legend in Japanese Art, p. 540. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Published by Margaret Dilloway

Middle grade and women's fiction novelist. FIVE THINGS ABOUT AVA ANDREWS, (Balzer + Bray 2020); SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES. MOMOTARO: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Disney Hyperion); TALE OF THE WARRIOR GEISHA and SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, out now from Putnam Books. HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE was a finalist for the John Gardner fiction award. THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS is the 2013 Literary Tastes Best Women's Fiction Pick for the American Library Association. Mother of three children, wife to one, slave to a cat, and caretaker of the best overgrown teddy bear on Earth, Gatsby the Goldendoodle.

One thought on “Secrets Your Lit Professor Wouldn’t Tell You

  1. The WIP sounds fascinating. Is the rose book out? You don’t have to answer that as I am on my way to look for it. For some reason I thought it wasn’t yet. Well, I’ll soon learn.
    Interesting observation re: your stories. When I write I have no idea where things come from. In my WIP I’m trying to figure out where to put these two old ladies who have shown up in the story. They fit but it’s taking work from me to get them in and make them work.
    Not always easy, this thing called fiction. BUT I do love it.

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