Sunday, November 20, 2011

Writing craft: Getting ideas from advice columns

I've always been an advice column fan. Even back in high school, I loved reading Dear Abby over my morning coffee and Cheerios. And nowadays there are lots of advice columns, thanks to the Internet, to provide me with reading pleasure and yes, some artistic inspiration.

Admittedly there's a certain voyeuristic aspect to reading advice columns, with their real people and real problems. But the columns do provide valuable insight into people and how they do or don't deal with the things life throws at them. This is a real boon, especially if (like me) you've led a fairly sheltered existence and have a family and upbringing that's pretty darn functional.

A good source for online columns is this one, where you'll find several columns for your perusal. My favorite of them being Annie's Mailbox, which offers a good blend of problems mundane, serious, and batshit crazy. Another good column, Ask Amy, can be found here. And then there's the Since You Asked column, which is good fodder if you're interested in First World Problems.

The columns - including not just the questions but the replies and any reader comments - give a good window into peoples' emotions and actions. After reading these columns for any amount of time, as a writer you'll understand that it's perfectly plausible for characters to avoid conflict and not talk to each other about matters that could be solved with one simple conversation, because people in real life avoid conflict and don't speak about their problems.

It is possible to get burned out on advice columns, particularly when you notice that a resounding majority of the questions can be answered one of three ways:

  1. Mind your own business
  2. Grow a spine and deal with it
  3. Write back when you have an actual problem

But it's all worth it for the genuine problems, which provide real food for thought, and grist for the fiction mill. And it's REALLY worth it for the occasional doozys. Just off the top of my head, those have included:

  • A dad who wants to turn in his daughter to the FBI because she's now an atheist
  • A dad who's worried that his preschooler daughter will grow up to be promiscuous because she has lots of stuffed animals (no, I don't understand his logic either)
  • A woman whose neighbor has raised her kids to think that the ghost of their dead brother controls the weather
  • A woman who wants to bust up her son's relationship with his girlfriend because she makes him happy and encourages him in life (the woman wants her son to be prepared for life to be a disappointment)
  • A woman who thinks her sister-in-law deliberately got pregnant at the same time the woman did to share the spotlight
  • A woman whose boyfriend is demanding that she take a lie detector test to prove that she's faithful

And so on.

Online columns are a particular boon because readers will project the most amazing things into their responses, especially when the person who wrote in did not go into excruciating detail. Often the reader responses are more entertaining than the columnist's responses.

So read away! I know that some of the things I've read have been helpful for characterization in my books.

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