Emotional Research: Mining Your Own Mental States for Your Stories
By WLT Intern Jonasu Wagstaff
Our theme for this month’s Writers’ League of Texas Third Thursday event was “Emotional Research: Mining Your Own Mental States for Your Stories.” We were privileged to have four distinguished authors on our panel: Katherine Catmull, Nan Cuba, Helen Ginger, and Suzy Spencer. Katherine Catmull’s novel Summer and Bird was named one of Booklist’s 2012 Top Ten First Novels for Youth and was both an IndieBound New Voices Pick and an Amazon Editors’ Pick for fall 2012. She is also an actor and playwright and is one of four spooky story-makers at the Cabinet of Curiosities website. Nan Cuba is the author of Body and Bread and founder of Gemini Ink (a nonprofit literary organization based in San Antonio). Nan Cuba won the PEN/Southwest Award in Fiction and the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction. She is currently a writer in residence at Our Lady of the Lake University. Helen Ginger is the author of Angel Sometimes and Dismembering the Past. She has also published tech books on various subjects. Suzy Spencer is the author of Wasted, a New York Times Bestseller, Breaking Point, and most recently Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality. Spencer has appeared on Good Morning America, ABC World News, Dateline NBC, CNN, MSNBC, Court TV, and the Katie Couric Show.
The panel was asked to describe the type of books they write. The majority of the panelists write fiction, yet Suzy Spencer described her work as “tabloid trash true crime.” The panelists discussed why they became writers. While Nan Cuba and Katherine Catmull initially had an interest in theater, all of our panelists always loved writing and language. The authors were then asked about their writing processes. Helen Ginger and Katherine Catmull have a similar style that includes writing and revising without an outline, while Nan Cuba started writing a collection of short stories that she eventually turned into her novel, Body and Bread. Suzy Spencer heavily researches for her books.
The authors were then asked how they get past putting their protagonists in bad situations. Katherine Catmull said she is happy to put characters in bad situations and that her theater background really helps her to do that. Nan Cuba said that her book loosely parallels her past experiences and that she is “pretty ruthless” with her characters. Through the use of familiar and unfamiliar settings, she is able to “embellish and expand” her memories as she writes. Suzy Spencer described her process of researching, distilling her data, and finding commonality with the people she writes about in her true crime books. At times, she admitted, “It gets to me.”
When asked about the impact this work has on their own emotions and lives, Helen Ginger confessed that she can get caught up in a character because she knows so much about her/him. Suzy Spencer compared her research to “living with” the people in her books, and was candid about the emotional toll it can take on her. She emphasized how important it was to have friends to talk to. Katherine Catmull said that even though writing exposes a lot of fears and anxieties, she mainly feels good when writing.
Helen Ginger discussed how authors often inject their own personal attributes into their characters because of the strong connection between them. Suzy Spencer explained how her work on a project can bring her to a point where she just has to laugh, and joked that her release is staying up late eating cookies while watching reruns of The Carol Burnett Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Nan Cuba said she believes that going to the places that are uncomfortable for her will ultimately make the reader enjoy the story more.
When asked for advice on writing emotional scenes, Helen Ginger recommended lots of research and then letting the story unfold “in your head.” Suzy Spencer emphasized the importance of finding something to connect you with the character. Katherine Catmull advised writers to envision how a scene feels and then describe that sensory detail. Nan Cuba warned the audience that avoiding melodrama is key and added that writers “should not let emotion that is not earned develop too quickly.”
The Writers’ League of Texas wishes to thank our wonderful panelists for their insights at September’s Third Thursday discussion. Stay tuned for our next Third Thursday event, “Ghost Writing: Unseen Authors Tell Their Tales” with Lari Bishop, Shennandoah Diaz, Stephanie Land, and Joni Rodgers. Read more here.
Jonasu Wagstaff is a senior at St. Edwards University getting a BAAS in English Literature. While studying at SEU, Jonasu works as a program intern for the Writers’ League of Texas. In her spare time, she enjoys her family, antiques, music, and painting.