Guest Author Stacey Agdern Talks about How Your Culture Affects Your Writing
I am so happy to turn the blog over to pal and fellow Tule author Stacey Agdern today. Stacey is an award-winning former bookseller who has reviewed romance novels in multiple formats and given talks about various aspects of the romance genre. She incorporates Jewish characters and traditions into her stories so that people who grew up like she did can see themselves take center stage on the page. She lives in New York, not far from her favorite hockey team’s practice facility.
“In fact, I’d argue that religion always affects the course of a story. Even in its absence, there is a consequence on the world and how the characters live in it.”
Jeffe Kennedy wrote this a few months ago, and it’s been sitting in my brain, percolating. Probably because I’m an author who writes stories populated by Jewish characters in a genre where there’s a Christian default. What do I mean? Well if you take a look at the quote again, the phrase even in it’s absence stands out. Why?
In the romance genre, religion is never overtly absent. All you have to do is think of the celebrations in the story, the rest days, the clergy members who show up, the wedding ceremonies and the vows spoken. Those tiny bits of text are actually religion, whether we acknowledge it or not. And when we don’t acknowledge them as religious, we are acknowledging instead that there is a Christian default.
So when you’re coming at a genre from the other side of the default, most of the time you’re playing with the tropes and trying to figure out what questions they’re really asking. And making space for your culture and your stories by answering those questions in appropriate ways.
Sometimes it’s an easier fit than others; plot tropes like second chances, friends to lovers, and enemies or rivals to lovers need less translation. Christmas tropes always need translation when they’re being applied to holidays that aren’t Christmas. And the only-one-bed trope has been translated to apply to many situations, needs, or requirements.
And some character tropes are easy to translate too; cinnamon rolls, occupations. But once you start looking at character tropes that involve power dynamics and structural questions, we start coming up against trouble.
What kind of trouble?
There are cultural and religious stereotypes attached to certain tropes, something that writers from different cultures need to be careful of and avoid when writing these tropes.
I, however, decided that I wasn’t going to be that smart.
I was going to write a Jewish billionaire hero.
The billionaire trope is a stalwart in romance, but mostly centered in conversations where the worst of romance is discussed. Billionaires, at their worst are controlling and unforgiving.
And a Jewish billionaire? Considered to be the A-1 easiest, lowest-hanging fruit off the tree, the chosen favorite fruit of conspiracy theorists everywhere. Controlling the world, not caring for others, the list goes on and on and on.
How exactly did I make THAT heroic?
I started with trope translation: What question does the billionaire trope ask?
Answer: Money. Power. Security to the partner. Control. Who has the power in society?
Then I asked how that applied safely to Jewish people.
My answer turned out to be that for Jews, the translation of the billionaire trope isn’t about power or control, but how it’s used. Which means the questions that a Jewish billionaire trope would be asking were: Who does the billionaire help? How does he use his power? Who does he care about? What is his history?
And then I went and answered them:
- How does he use his power? To help others. Anybody and as many people as he possibly can, mentorships, grant programs.
- Who does he care about? The fmc, his family, his friends, and way too many people
- What is his history? He comes from a family who is used to fighting against power with the power society has given them.
Did I manage this? I hope so.
In the end, it’s clear that the characters, tropes, and events that populate a story are each affected by religion in small or large ways. The question is understanding those ways, and how to deal with them.
Food for thought, Stacey, thanks so much for stopping by! You can find Stacey at the links below:
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram
Stacey’s newest book, The History of Us is out now!
Do they have a future together, or is their relationship ancient history?
Anna Cohen, perpetual assistant at the Manhattan Museum of Jewish History, lands a golden chance to curate her own exhibit when her boss sends her to Rockliffe Manor, New York. She’s to assist an influential Jewish family as they organize an exhibit of their own in time for the town’s Summer Days Festival. While she’s there, Anna just needs to convince them to part with some of their archival history for an upcoming exhibition—something they’ve always refused—and not get involved with her ex, the family’s heir. Again.
Jacob Horowitz-Margareten wants to help save the world. Despite having no time to spend organizing his family’s archives, he’s always had a soft spot for Anna. The chance to spend more time with her intrigues him, but he doesn’t trust her boss or the museum she works for with the tangible bits of his family’s rich history.
As they work together, Anna and Jacob need to decide what’s more important: their history or the story their hearts are telling them.
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Hi Stacey and Nan! I’m currently taking a religion course at UNCG that works to establish how history, culture, and religion interact, or maybe play off of each other. Incredibly interesting, but we first need to identify which element is which. It’s not a light, easy course! I hope your day is as spectacular as your writing!
That course sounds fascinating, William. Your point is well-made–how do we tell which element is which and which is most affecting? Thanks for stopping by!
Hi there, I check your new stuff daily. Your humoristic style is witty, keep it up!
I’m absolutely going to have to read this simply because your post itself is so interesting. I’m not sure I agree with it, but that’s not necessary. Thanks for sharing viewpoints I’d certainly never considered.