Friday, April 5, 2013

Thirteen, Now and Forever

By Saralee Rosenberg

Readers often ask novelists what inspired their story. And like getting a test answer right, many give writers the highest mark for this response: The plot was autobiographical and/or it originated from a real life incident. 

In other words, phooey on the made-up stuff. They want novels that are more akin to reality TV. Nothing to imagine or examine. Just the facts straight up like a weepy segment on Say Yes to the Dress. 

Fortunately, there are still plenty of purists. The readers that fall in love with stories that explore hopes and dreams.Conflicts and relationships. Fear and joy, love and hate and whatever else comes over on the emotional boatload.

Readers that still hug a book to their chests because the characters and their journeys deeply touched them.

I am buoyed by that image, yet I am mindful that resonance is not possible with authenticity. But what is authenticity?

In my debut novel, A LITTLE HELP FROM ABOVE, the setting was Manhasset, Long Island, a place where I had shopped and eaten but never lived. Well! That confession really pissed off local residents. WHAT? You’re not from here? But you described it to a T. You mentioned the Miracle Mile and Benihana. Maybe your husband is from here?

They simply did not want to accept that an outsider could deliver an authentic setting without having been a former taxpayer. More to the point they implied that they felt a little duped, to which I said, “Isn’t it a good thing that I was so convincing?”

Apparently not.

But I disagree. A writer must always be hell bent on getting their facts straight. Determined to dig deep for emotional truth. Steadfast in exploring their character’s zigzag path. And mostly, honorable when determining their fate.

One miscalculation. One false note. One wrong assumption and a writer’s credibility can be lost forever.

I am focused on this slippery slope because I have just finished writing my first novel for a younger reader. HOTLINE TO HEAVEN is about a thirteen-year old girl who has been trying to communicate with her dead mother but it has been Operation: No Answer.

Recently I had a chance to share an excerpt with a high school English class and was nervous. Would they believe the story or groan because I was trying too hard to sound cool? My hope, of course, was that they would be rooting for my main character and invested in her outcome.

My newest readers: High School Students

Great news! They totally connected with the story and gave me the thumbs up, which at 8AM was a ringing endorsement. But the close encounter reminded me that I should prepare for the big question. How could I write about a teenager if I am old enough to be her grandmother?

The answer is that there is not a woman alive who does not remember the intense reckoning at thirteen. The moodiness and insecurities, the desire for acceptance, the fear of humiliation, the need to fit in, the extreme effort to look good and mostly the joy of being liked.

In other words, I can still immerse myself in the head and heart of a young girl  because she never left.

This is why truth and integrity are the keys that touch a reader's heart, not familiarity with the best place to grab dinner. Although frankly I’m still a sucker for the grilled shrimp at Benihana.

Maybe I'll go back soon. For research purposes, of course.


  1. What a completely charming blog, Saralee! I loved every word.

    I also loved every word of HOTLINE TO HEAVEN. It has everything you described here and more. May girls everywhere get the chance to read it soon!


  2. Great post, Saralee! You are always such a smart and entertaining writer!

  3. Saralee, I had to add a disclaimer when I wrote about the town in which I do live--because I stuck a new shop in there, added few homes, a marina, and reinstated local flights--but, hey, it was fiction. You know, where the needs of the story trump. I'm sure most of the Long Island folk who read your book were actually thrilled to have their town immortalized. If not, they should have been!

    Remembering 13? Yikes. I'd rather not!

  4. Wonderful post, Saralee!! Your writing students are so incredibly lucky to have you!! (And your writer friends, too!)

  5. That's why it's called research! (And tax deductable) Familiarity helps of course, but the only thing that needs to be 100% true is the emotional journey. And you have that down! Nice post!

  6. Love this post, Saralee. Congratulations to you!