by Katy Munger, 2016 Piedmont Laureate
Whenever I see people frantically trying to stop change in the world (you know who you are, folks), I have to shake my head even if I can’t quite bring myself to laugh. What a futile fight they engage in! Because the one thing we know for sure about our world is that it changes. Always. And constantly. And that’s okay with me. I love change. It energizes me. It fascinates me. It keeps me from being bored. It keeps me engaged in life.
But for some writers, change can be a tricky proposition. Especially those of us who write series. When you write a series centered around recurring characters and locales, you enter into an unspoken covenant with your readers: you promise to deliver the familiar in every book. This is not as easy as it sounds. As human beings, most writers are in a constant state of flux. What we care about changes. What angers, motivates, and fascinates us changes. Who we are at our very core changes. And sitting down to write about the familiar when the new in you is shouting to be heard? That can be a tough task to take on and, in the end, can lead to one of the toughest balancing acts a writer can pull off: changing a series enough to enjoy the process, and staying fresh with your ideas, yet still giving your loyal readers what they have come to expect from you and want. I’m convinced that this duel between the old and the new is what causes many genre writers to end a series and begin a new one. It was certainly a factor in my own evolution as a writer.
When I first started out as a writer, I was a Southern transplant living in the teeming, foreign world of New York City. I was fascinated by how vibrant the city was and even more intrigued by its brash, relentlessly honest citizens. It was a whole new world, so far as I was concerned, and I had to write about it. The result was my Hubbert & Lil series, writing as Gallagher Gray, which is essentially my love song to the Big Apple. It was a genteel series that poked fun at the absurdity of people, celebrated the stubbornness of some, and reveled in the uniqueness of New York’s varied neighborhoods. These were all fascinating concepts to me at the time.
Fast forward a decade and I had started to long for the South, even though I was living and writing in a great apartment overlooking gardens on the Upper Westside. I missed the South and its people, not to mention its more gentle ways. I was willing to settle for a veneer of politeness, if not the real thing. I needed grass and trees and ocean waters without hypodermic needles and toilet paper floating in it. I needed a lot more personal space. My writing shifted with me. A hardboiled Southern belle named Casey Jones popped up in one of my Hubbert & Lil books and, before I knew it, I was writing a whole new series around her, one set in the South that featured a tough female P.I. whose sense of humor was strong enough to get her through any situation. My Casey Jones series was, I think, a reaction to all the preconceptions about the South I had encountered in New York City. I knew the South was far more complex than it was being given credit for – and that few writers had yet captured its modern essence, with all of its contradictions and still unsettled dreams. I wanted to be a part of painting the new South. I wanted to be a part of its change. So I ended up locating both my new series and my life back here in the Triangle. Once home, I celebrated all that I had loved and missed about North Carolina in my Casey Jones books: the people, the food, its love for the past, the incredible diversity of its locations. The Casey Jones series is a love song to my homeland.
But everyone ages, at least if we are lucky. I began to realize that my fabled good nature had its limits. That some things in life were just plain sad and that it was okay to feel that sadness. I began to notice how some people I loved had never quite found their footing in life and had fallen by the wayside. I became fascinated by the idea of redemption, karma and second chances. Enter yet another series: The Dead Detective, written as both Chaz McGee and Katy Munger. This series is definitely a more mature me, one that sees both the good and the bad in a far wider range of people. It is a more nuanced love story to my own ability to acknowledge the fact that, while life is never perfect, the human spirit is capable of breathtaking strength. That’s a lesson that, once learned, can get you through anything. My writing changed with these realizations. It deepened and grew more thoughtful. I worked harder at it and it shows.
Now I am at the juncture of another era of change. I am less driven. More content. And absolutely determined to put more of myself into the next book I write. Thus it is that I find myself circling three half-written books, staring each one in the eyes, trying to decide which one is calling to me the most. I have an inkling which one it will be – I have happily discovered that talking to other people as part of my Piedmont Laureate duties leaves me thirsty for working on my own books again and have lately been ripping up, rooting out, and generally re-arranging the plot to one of these projects. It’s starting to look mighty good to me, though it is my most ambitious book to date. I suspect I will one day soon dare to finish it. Because the changes in me are compelling changes in my writing and feeding a deep need for my new voice to be heard. What is this book about? You guessed it: change, of the most profound sort, and the power we all have within us to lead new lives if we embrace it.
If you are a writer, I urge you to join me in giving your muse permission to change with your life. Listen to her… seek her out…. give her time to coalesce in her incarnation… let her be heard as who she has become today. Because there’s no greater reward than marking the changes in your life with changes in your own writing: it’s permanent and lasting proof that you are resilient enough to celebrate the changes life inevitably brings you, rather than fearing and fighting them.