Monday, September 24, 2012

How I Chose My Genres

I've always been fascinated by how authors choose their genre. For most of my life, I thought I couldn't possibly stick to one style of writing - how dull! Then I found my genre, and it just clicked. 

The journey into my style has been an interesting one. Despite my refusal to have two pen names, I finally gave in: Teralyn Rose Pilgrim (my real name) writes historical fiction, and Catherine Swift writes romances. 

Up until two years ago, these were my least favorite genres.

If someone told my childhood self (who only read fantasy and sci-fi) or my teenage self (who only read classics) or my college self (who only read literary fiction) that I would someday write historical fiction and romances, I would have been both disgusted and disappointed.

What changed?

My Journey into History

I hated historical fiction when I was a teenager because they all seemed to  have the same plot: men suck and women rule, so lets all have sex affairs.

I happen to like men, I think feminists need to tone things down a bit, and -- moral grounds notwithstanding -- you can only describe sex so many ways before it gets old. Not to mention that turning to a man to solve your issues with feminine empowerment just perpetuates the problem... I could go on, but I'll leave it at that.

I realize now my choice in books was unfortunate, but at the time, it seemed nothing in the genre was for me.

I wasn't a huge fan of history either. It was boring... mostly because school is not a good place to learn history. In college I signed up for History 101, and in the first class I thought to myself, "This must be what hell is like." I dropped the course.

It wasn't until my Art History class that I started to get interested. I love art, and I loved learning about the context behind each piece. Who was the artist? What spurred him/her to create this work? Why did it matter to people? The deeper I dug into a work of art, the more beautiful it became.

Then one day my art history professor mentioned in an offhand way something about ancient Roman priestesses who had to watch over a constantly burning fire: the Vestal Virgins. The story captivated me. That's when I decided to write Sacred Fire.

(It's weird I decided to write it because at the time, I also hated Romans. But that's a blog post for another time.)

Sacred Fire was meant to be my first and last historical fiction. I hadn't read a single hist-fic for years because I didn't like that genre, so I figured after this project I'd move on to something else. Then I heard more stories from history that I knew had to become novels, and the ideas kept racking up.

A year ago, everything changed. I read Pope Joan and realized how amazing historical fiction can be. I decided, "This is it. This is genre I want to write." The rest is... well, if you'll excuse the pun... history.

My Journey into Romance

As a teenager, I was an innocent virgin who had better things to do than think about boys. Romances had zero appeal (especially since books about sex bore me). Being the snob that I was, I preferred to spend my time delving into thoughts on the human condition and the corruption of society. Grapes of Wrath is fantastic, by the way.

My freshman year of college, I fell head over heels with a handsome undergrad and hardly dated anyone else before I was married as a sophomore. Life was perfect. 

I could have written a romance at the time, but what was there to say? I hadn't had my heart broken, my future looked bright, and I had reached my happily ever after with little struggle. I had nothing to tell the world that hadn't already been said.

At one point, I even told my husband I would never write a romantic story (which I think hurt his feelings).

Then I got older.

Apparently, being married isn't all rainbows and roses. I remember struggling through my relationship while watching my friends struggle with theirs and thinking, "Why is this so hard?!?" There had to be something wrong with me and the rest of the world to make a healthy love so rare. 

I tried to figure out what was wrong and discovered I had plenty of things to say... enough to keep me busy for a lifetime. Thus, Hunger was born.

Did you always know what genre you would write? Was your decision unexpected? Or are you still trying to choose a genre?


  1. I read fantasy as a child, in fact, my Dad used to read me classic sci-fi for bedtime stories. Then I drifted away to literary fiction and only about 5 years ago came back to fantasy. More recently I've got into horror fiction too. And I just love it. Reading it, writing it, I can't imagine writing anything else these days.

  2. Your story is so familiar!

    I was a total literary snob as a kid. I read classics and literary fiction through teenage and college years.

    I went to an MFA program where I learned to despise all genres that weren't literary.

    I didn't go on a single date until I was 19 and didn't lose my virginity until 24.

    Now I write romances. :)

    I realized that I wanted books where people could wind up happy. I wanted a touch of whimsy and fantasy. And I adore love stories. I like to hear the stories of how people met, how they fell in love, how their marriage is.

    And I know now that I can create the love stories that make me happy. My books don't have to follow romance novel cliches if I don't want them to.

  3. I was sort of all over the place when I was a younger writer. However, all my stories had some kind of speculative element to them. So it was no surprise to me when I settled into science fiction and fantasy. Ending up writing YA surprised me, but it shouldn't have-- I just had never realized that most of what I'd written was technically YA!

  4. I never know what genre the story is until I finish writing it. Despite the dead bodies, I think I veer into 'alternative romance' mostly (the alternative is an important distinction, because otherwise I'm sure people would be a bit disappointed). Some pieces still defy classification though! I would love to be considered literary - but I don't think that's a genre you can put yourself into, it's more of an honour based on the quality of the writing, and I need more practise!

  5. I don't have a specific genre that I try to stick to. I write what my ideas tell me too. They do all veer toward similar genres though.


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