I am not a packrat. Okay, let me try that again. I am not a packrat, except when it comes to books. I never have been, never will be. As I look back over the years, there are things I wish I'd kept for their sentimental value, but for the most part I'm not sorry that I regularly cull my possessions.
If you walked into my home, you'd see immediately that I'm a minimalist. The rooms in my house aren't cluttered. My walls aren't cluttered. The furniture in every room is evenly centered, aligned, arranged to everything else in that room, and kept as neat as possible at all times. Pictures are centered on the wall and straightened on a regular basis. I call that good housekeeping; my kids call it anal (although both our daughters are just like me now. Ha! I love it!).
A funny aside to this revealing info about me: My daughter Mindy's mother-in-law is the exact opposite of me. The 100-year-old Victorian home she and her husband have lived in for more than 40 years is chock-full of collectibles and ... stuff, from the basement to the upstairs bedrooms. There's a path that leads from the kitchen and goes through the dining room, into the living room, to the front door. Every other inch of floor space is filled up, and there's hardly an inch of wall space left to hang another picture or Gone With the Wind collectible plate. They were in town visiting Mindy & Corey when Jayden, now 5, was about 2. We all took a drive to Sutter Creek, a quaint little town in the foothills known for its antique shops. We entered the first little shop, which was wall-to-wall merchandise with little room for walking. Jayden took one look around and said, "Grandma? Is this your house?" I couldn't stop laughing.
I'm also a minimalist when it comes to talking. I know people who use 1,000 words to my one, and it boggles my mind that someone could talk that much. Boggles. My. Mind. I'm not the best conversationalist, but I am a good listener, I will say that. I'm not anti-social by any means. I just tend to be quiet.
So it's not surprising that I'm also a minimalist when it comes to my writing. I tend to write novels with just a handful of characters, and only a few plot lines. I'm always impressed with complex novels and wish I could pull off that kind of writing, but my story worlds tend to be small and anything but epic. Maybe that's because I so love to become emotionally intimate with my characters. I want to get inside their heads. Literally. I tend to write in first person, and especially love first person, present tense. In order to pull that off, there's a lot of internal dialogue on my pages. I find that reflective of me, internal dialogue going on inside my head all the time. I'm sure that's true of most writers.
The novel I'm reading now, And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer, is one of those epics I could never see myself writing. It's historical fiction and spans six decades, with a large enough cast of characters that a family tree or two would have been helpful in keeping everyone straight after the 2nd or 3rd generation. It's typically NOT the type of novel I read, because I much prefer contemporary to historical. But it was on my TBR list for the longest time (not sure how it got there). It took me months to locate it. Finally, my library was able to borrow it from another library so with that much effort I felt obligated to read the almost 1,200 page behemoth. I have about 100 pages to go, and I have loved every word. I plan to write a review about it before long.
What matters most to me in the novels I read, no matter the genre, is being able to truly connect with one or more of the characters. It's so much more important to me than the plot. That doesn't mean I must be able to empathize with a character's situation. I may never experience anything like what they're going through -- for instance, Katniss in The Hunger Games Trilogy. But I want to be able to draw near just the same. Like Debbie, I'm a fan of Stein on Writing (read her She Reads post on Everyday People). I remember reading the quote Debbie cites as I made my way through his book the first time: "I have seen talented writers hurt their chances of publication because they persist in writing about 'perfectly ordinary people' ... characters who are seemingly no different from the run of people we meet who do not seem in any way distinctive." I took exception with it. Because most novels I read and enjoy are stories about perfectly ordinary people ... who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, doing extraordinary things. I think of characters like Turtle in Joy Jordan Lake's Blue Hole Back Home, Ginny Young in Elizabeth Berg's What We Keep, Dara Brogan in Katy Popa's exceptional To Dance in the Desert. Ordinary people, caught in extraordinary circumstances. How else could I relate to them if that weren't so?
Reading preferences are so subjective that is seems rash to make such a sweeping statement as Stein's. I actually thought it arrogant, though that one statement doesn't alter my opinion of Stein on Writing. It's one of those books I read, re-read and refer back to as I write. But as my daughter Deanne would say, I chew the meat and spit out the bones, and there's a lot of good meat within its pages.
So what about you? If you're a writer, are you minimalist or epic when it comes to your story world? As a reader, which do you prefer? What matters most to you about the novels you read?