Of all of the kinds of hopping out there (sock-hopping, bunny hopping, etc.) genre-hopping is a favorite here at Bookish. Even the most devoted fan of a given author or genre sometimes needs to mix it up. Nicole Galland, author of Stepdog, takes it one step further: Galland likes to write in different genres, a challenge that would make most writers nervous. Here, Galland chats with Bookish about her genre-hopping ways.
After publishing five well-received historical novels that tend toward the literary (for example, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello in I, Iago), I recently did a 180 and wrote Stepdog, my first romantic comedy. Narrated by an Irish musician and preoccupied with Americans’ love of dogs, it’s anything but highbrow.
I’m often asked why I changed genres, though the more interesting question, to me, was: how?
How does constructing a modern romantic comedy compare to working within a medieval literary tradition, such as the British legend of Godiva, or the 13th-century satire Roman de la Rose (which became my Revenge of the Rose)? How does writing a light-hearted tale about a dog differ from writing about, say, the Fourth Crusade, one the most appalling geopolitical turning points in western history?
There are enormous differences, of course. But they are outweighed by the similarities: Every story needs a compelling premise, engrossing characters, and hopefully an ineffable something that makes it greater than the sum of its parts. (Oh yes, and good writing. Good writing always helps.)
Historical fiction is a more specific craft in a technical sense, for three primary reasons: First, massive amounts of research are required; second, certain constrictions must be honored, to preserve the integrity of history, language, and the ethos of an era; third, it takes a larger leap of imagination to create relatable characters from a different era.
On the other hand, that imaginative leap allows certain struggles and conflicts to be writ large. Today we have a more developed sense of private/personal life than was true centuries ago, and this is frequently reflected in contemporary novels. In our relatively safe, domesticated western world, most (not all) of our conflicts are personal and near to hand. It’s a little harder to believably pull off larger-than-life when it’s set in 2015 than when it’s set in 1215. So that’s the extra craft required of a contemporary setting.
But the writing process itself is surprisingly similar. I still sit myself down with my notes and my characters, and write, and rewrite, and stare into space, and go for long ruminative walks, and fact-check, and rewrite, and try to make things funny, and sometimes share bits of what I’m doing with others, and rewrite some more.
In the end, writing about a cute imperiled puppy didn’t turn out to be that different from writing about the Fall of Constantinople in 1204. I realize that must sound absurd, but in each case, I require the same three things:
- That the reader be invested in the characters.
- That the reader wants to know what happens next.
- That I’ve used the best words I can, in the best way I can, to make that happen.
Those are universal needs. Shakespeare leapt more genre-chasms than I ever will, and he relied on these three elements in all he wrote.
So the prep was different, but the writing process itself was similar. The biggest difference I’ve experienced in this genre-shift happens when I am not writing. There is a certain literary heft to declaring, “I’m re-imagining Shakespeare” that isn’t there in saying, “I’m writing a funny novel about a dog.” The sense of heft felt nice, I admit. But a lot of people had a deer-in-the-headlights response to “Shakespeare.” That never happens with Stepdog: Nearly everyone likes funny books and nearly everyone likes dogs. One book solicits thoughtful grimaces, the other, grins of recognition. Depending on what mood I’m in, one (or the other) of those responses may feel more (or less) comfortable.
That shift in comfort is an opportunity to remember: My best writing springs from my investment in a story, not from my investment in how people perceive me as a writer. It doesn’t matter if someone thinks I’m “literary” and someone else thinks I’m “pop.” In either case, I am a writer. I write. All that really matters is doing the work, and doing it well.
Nicole Galland‘s five previous novels are The Fool’s Tale; Revenge of the Rose; Crossed; I, Iago, and Godiva. She writes a cheeky etiquette column for the Martha’s Vineyard Times. She is married to actor Billy Meleady and owns Leuco, a dog of splendid qualities.