Specialization: How Much Is Too Much?

By Bob McCrillis

In a wide-ranging conversation with two other writers for whom I have great admiration, I made the comment that “Most of my stories are set in the turmoil of the Sixties and Seventies. It was a period of great social upheaval, which affected each of us differently. We didn’t all go to Woodstock – regardless of what some would have you believe.”

Both of my friends argued that I was crimping my ability as a writer. Worse, I might be limiting the marketability of my books. The sweeping social changes of the present are having the same uneven effect on ordinary men and women. Writing about their struggles to adjust, triumphs, and failures are worthy of exploration.

“You don’t want to be thought of a guy who just writes about old stuff.” I was told.

Challenged to come up with the present-day equivalents of the civil rights movement, the Pill, the ascendancy of the youth culture, and anti-war protests – I was stuck. Nothing today is as significant as our conversion to worshiping youth and idealism rather that age and experience. The best I could come up with was the prevalence of hard-drug use. Even that could be seen as the logical consequence of tune in, turn on, and drop out.

“There! You could write a story about the conflicts in a family that loses someone to drugs. Or, an addict that’s trying to get clean. Those would be just as emotional as you Viet Nam stories.”

Later, after pondering for a few hours, I was able to identify more currents of social change that were worthy of exploration. I may live long enough, for example, to see what we now see as minorities become the majority of the population. I thought about a friend of mine who graduated from a segregated public high school in 1964 and how radical the change must seem to him. (Yes, the US Supreme Court overturned racial discrimination in public facilities in 1954 but implementation was extremely slow until the Civil Rights Act of 1964) Would Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner be made today? Why bother?

The ubiquitous internet is another explosive change to established verities. I think of going to work as going to a physical place – do my fifteen-year-old grandchildren? I don’t think so. Why would they travel to a downtown office building when they can do the same work from their back bedroom, or the coffee house down the street? Further, what is the effect of the elimination of the office on supervision, career paths, and the concept of division of labor?

To offer a trivial example, I remember taking keeping dimes in the glove compartment of my car for the pay phone. How does the inability to be out of touch affect our relationships?

There are many present-day opportunities to explore the conflict between people that results from changing values that so fascinates me. I started blocking out the story of an old-fashioned gentleman who ends up caring for his seventeen-year-old granddaughter set in the present day. Think about the comedic potential.

Emily, the young woman, bursts through the door. She’s carrying a bulging knapsack slung over one shoulder which further accentuates her breasts in the tight tank top she’s wearing. “I’m so pissed at Caitlin,” she fumes, “she sided with the rest of the jockettes about the formal.”

Her grandfather, a tall, spare, grey-haired man, corrects her, “Emily, you are irritated.”

“Oh, Gramp, I’m way past irritated. I’m hugely pissed. Caitlin was supposed to be my friend.”

“No, you are hugely irritated or perhaps infuriated. Pissed is a vulgar usage that you should be able to avoid.” He hesitates for a moment then gestures toward her tank top. “Is that what you wore to school?”

I was having a great time playing with the idea. Emily will have to deal with drugs and #metoo and figuring out if she should go to college as well as the silly stuff like language. Trying to come up with slang that would be with it, I realized that I hadn’t examined if it was worth the effort.

We’ve already talked about genre and its importance. Agents and publishers require an easily-described package that can instantly understood by a potential buyer. More of the same is the motto of the business of publishing. Dick Francis wrote something like forty successful novels, all pretty much the same story all over again. Since I bought and read every damn one of them, I can see the wisdom of more of the same.

If working in a particular genre is critically important for a writer who wants to sell his work. Doesn’t it follow that specialization in a particular time period important? Hell, there’s a whole genre, Regency Romances, set it a nine-year period between George III’s incapacity and the Crown Prince becoming George IV. Westerns are set in a slightly longer but still limited period, 1870 to 1890. Why shouldn’t I specialize in writing about people in the Sixties?

Answer: the stories might not sell. There’s no proven market for such stories.

My current plan is to attempt to straddle the past and the present. But I’m putting on my bell bottoms and wearing my aviators while I try to find my groove. Dig it?

I would love to hear what you have to say.

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2 thoughts on “Specialization: How Much Is Too Much?

  1. Would love to see you in bell bottoms and aviators writing in a coffee shop! Joking aside, I like the story idea you have, the clash of cultures. Very sixties.

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    1. C’mon. I look really good. Sometimes, though, I worry that I’m becoming like one of my favorite NY State Fair characters: Stetson, aviators, AC/DC tee shirt, black jeans with enough room in the drooping seat for another whole person, and a belt buckle the size of a dinner plate. You just know he looked in the mirror before he left home and said, “Yeah, baby.”

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