In my last post, I ranted (who, me? rant?) about writers who put a message before the story, how messages in books will come across more powerfully if they aren’t put there intentionally. How I hated people asking what message I put in Tower of Strength. (I didn’t! Yes, there are messages and themes, but they developed on their own.)
Then I got an interview form for my upcoming Band of Sisters, which will be featured in Covenant’s Book Worms newsletter. One question made me take a step back and rethink the whole message thing—had I done exactly what I professed to hate?
The question was something like: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
That’s almost a backhanded way of asking what message you put into it, and I was scared, because I had an answer.
But then I realized that in a sense, it’s a different question altogether, because after a book is written, you can look back and see things differently than you did while writing it.
I realize that some people will still read Band of Sisters and assume I wrote it to “teach” readers what deployment is like. And then some readers might well think, “But she says she doesn’t write with a message in mind. Yeah, right.” I get that. But that’s not how the book came about, and it’s not why I wrote it.
Here’s how it happened: I wanted a fresh angle for an article aimed at a magazine that was focusing their July issue on the war and our soldiers. A good friend lived around the corner who I’d watched struggle with deployment over the previous year. I asked if I could interview her and some of her Army wife friends via e-mail about what deployment is like for the families at home.
These women poured out their hearts to me. I had pages and pages recounting their everyday lives, the struggles and heartbreak, the mind-numbing worry, the miracles, the misconceptions. I wept as I read and reread their interviews. How in the world could I do them justice in 800 words? I begged the editor for more room, and she gave me 1200. Still a paltry amount; I could barely brush the iceberg.
After the article ran, the words from these women wouldn’t leave me. Several weeks passed, and I knew I had to write more about the topic—if nothing else, to get it out of my system so I could focus on my next temple novel (that’s what I am—a historical novelist—right?). At first I considered pitching a longer piece to a different magazine. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized there might be a novel here. What if I threw several very different women into deployment and watched them struggle through it together?
No, no, no . . . I write historical novels about temples. Shake it off . . .
The idea wouldn’t be shaken off.
One evening, a scene popped into my head. I went home, wrote it, then brought it to my critique group, telling them that this was a lark, a scene I had to just write out, but I’d be returning to my temple stuff soon.
They told me in no uncertain terms to write the entire book.
So I did, and that scene is now about two thirds of way into it. My five main characters showed up very different from one another. With my hands on the keyboard, I watched them trying to keep their heads above water, turning to each other for help, asking the “veteran” of the group, Nora, for advice, since this was her third deployment.
So back to the big question: Did I go into the book with an agenda?
Some could argue that I did. To me, I simply felt compelled to portray a real picture of deployment. But I wasn’t trying to teach or preach. It was simply a subject that wouldn’t stop haunting me until I gave in and wrote about it. Now that the book is written and I can look at the whole, see what my characters went through and learned along the way, I have things I learned right along with them.
As a result, I can easily answer the original question: What do I want my readers to take away from this book?
I want women to give one another the benefit of the doubt. To step out of their comfort zones and be willing to support each other—to see that someone you might never have considered to be a kindred spirit could potentially be your best friend.
I want women to stop comparing themselves to one another, because inevitably, we compare ourselves on our worst days with someone else’s best. And it’d be great if readers closed the book thinking about the social masks we wear—and maybe be willing to drop a couple.
I hope the deployment parts got close to reflecting reality. I’ve had feedback from several women who have been through deployment saying I made them cry or that I “nailed it” even in the first three chapters that are on my website. Those comments bring me joy. (I’m such a sadist.)
And now that the entire book is done, I have to admit that I hope that after reading Band of Sisters, readers will understand, like I finally did, that having a spouse deployed is so much different than most of us assume. That maybe we can be more supportive and understanding of families in that situation.
Looking at that list, I suppose the big irony is that in the end, this book may have more messages than any of my others. But I didn’t plan it that way.
Which exactly is why I think that maybe, just maybe, it works.
Then again, readers will be the judge of that. I should find out if I succeeded in a couple of weeks after it gets into reader hands.