Writing for My Reader


A Fitting PlaceIn writing A Fitting Place, my goal has always been a book that would be considered literary fiction, a high quality novel with richly developed characters that would reflect key elements of the human condition.

As I get closer and closer to the final draft, however, I ask myself the very question Richard Sutton posed last week: how do I make sure it resonates with my audience?

I am at the leading edge of the baby boomers, writing a novel about “mid-life coming-of-age.”  Ideally, I am writing for three generations of readers, both male and female.  I am writing for my own generation, assuming that my protagonist, Lindsey Chandler, will echo the experiences many of us had in our 40’s.  I am writing for Generation X, in their 40’s now, hoping to provide encouragement to those in the throes of mid-life crises.  I am writing for the Millennial Generation, with an eye to offering a bit of insight into the challenges they will face as they age.

But how do I talk about the love affair between two women?  My generation made sexual freedom a key part of the social fabric, but that freedom was commonly seen to apply to male-female relationships, rather than to same-sex relationships.  

And when people did talk about such relationships, they did so using labels—gay, queer, butch, dyke, bi-sexual—that had powerful positive or negative connotations depending on where you stood.  Many of the women of my generation who had sexual encounters or love affairs with a woman did not talk about it, as the term “lesbian” had less to do with sexual orientation or preference and more to do with militant feminism. 

The Millennials seem to look at sexuality much differently.  Many abjure the labels that define sexuality, viewing it as fluid, akin to the spectrum of sexual types described by Alfred Kinsey (in 1948).  His classification ranged from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual, with “un-labeled” gradations in between, depending on an individual’s preference for one or both types of sexuality. 

sexual-fluidityIn a remarkable 2008 book, Sexual Fluidity, based on a decade of longitudinal research on women, Dr. Lisa Diamond proposed the increasingly accepted theory that sexual attraction, particularly for women, is based more on personal and emotional attraction than on gender, and is often unrelated to sexual or gender identity.

A key theme in my novel is, in fact, sexual fluidity as defined by Diamond.  While the second draft of my novel was done before I read her book, the final version is much influenced by the clarity of her thinking.

But thinking more clearly about sexual fluidity does not change the fact that I instinctively write using the language I learned in my youth.  For A Fitting Place to reach the audiences I want, I need to rely heavily on Richard Sutton’s “reader on my shoulder.” 

What are the topics you find hard to talk about or write because the language doesn’t meet your needs?


To learn more about Lisa Diamond, click on the book.


  1. As an “alpha reader” on your shoulder, I’ve been fascinated to watch as your novel has grown and developed along the lines – and vocabulary – of sexual fluidity, Mary.

    The topics I find hardest to talk about are all the politically correct points in our society. Is it Black or African American or something else? Recently I was involved in a discussion of why race would be mentioned at all. And what about physical or mental ability or disability? In telling a friend about another friend, does it matter that one uses a wheel chair? Would any of this be relevant or important if I was describing the person you were going to meet at the airport? Or for a blind date?

    I find all of this challenging from my perspective as a public relations counselor and also for me individually as a person who innately wants to do the right thing and be respectful of people.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Carol … You’ve put your finger on a key question, particularly in a world of “political correctness.” To what extent does a word or phrase that started out as descriptive become a “label” that is freighted with positive or negative connotations. And once that happens, our ability to communicate information and ideas is diminished. That’s what I’ve been struggling with … many of the words that our generation used to describe aspects of homosexuality were simply descriptive, but have become politicized in a way that makes them counterproductive in the kind of story I am trying to tell.

  2. Mary, as I told you on the phone Friday, I think you have very cleverly begun to launch your book with your discussions of women in relationships with other women, sexual fluidity, and much more. Before moving to the rather liberal Pacific NW, I was a very constrained voice on many topics — church, politics, race relations, sexual choices, etc. However, now in my 60s and living in a town where the favorite bumper sticker reads “Keep Portland Weird,” I don’t find many topics uncomfortable to discuss. Yet, I echo Carol’s comment about wanting to do the right thing and to do it with respect toward others.

    • Sherrey .. Thanks so much for your encouragement, both on the phone and here.

      Another issue that you (and Carol) raise is the desire to be respectful, but it’s hard when you are unfamiliar with the cultural context. I have some hair-raising but stories about speaking English in my first few months in New Zealand, when I naively assumed that English was English. It is not … and I was stunned to find that I was being disrespectful or vulgar without having a clue I was doing it. I think that is the dilemma I am struggling with here … the generational difference is much like the cross-cultural I experienced 25 years ago.

  3. I’m intrigued by the themes of your novel, Mary, and applaud the fact that you’ve found relevant research which delves further into your original premise. Sometimes when an idea is new, it can be rejected easily by many, but if we know it is important enough to our own soul/psyche, we will persevere in sharing it with others. That’s what you are doing. Bravo!
    As far as the mountains of resistance that I face in my own writing, I think the most difficult challenge for me is to present deeper levels of spiritual reality and emotional yearnings in my stories. My characters must never be trite, superficial, or predictable, but rather be a mysterious mixture of both concrete reality and metaphysical mystery. That’s what life is about and I strive for that authenticity.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Kas … how lovely to see you here, and it reminds me that I owe you a book review.

      I am struck by your phrase “emotional yearning.” That’s what my protagonist Lindsey has lived with for years …. a yearning for something that her intellect, her professional training, and her awesomely successful husband never came close to providing. Her journey, in a romance that pushes her outside her comfort zone, responds to that yearning, but leaves her drifting is so many other ways.

  4. Mary, you have triggered a fascinating discussion about addressing topics that may make our reader uncomfortable. I struggle to find the right balance in revealing my spiritual journey and strengthening of my faith in God in a way that does not sound preachy and helps the reader to connect with their own source of strength. I recently had a literary agent tell me that a successful memoir needs to be “bigger than you” and be able to strike a universal theme. The same would apply to fiction which usually relates to real-life events. The themes of A FITTING PLACE certainly will resonate with many readers. I appreciate Kas’ comments about striving for authenticity in whatever we write about.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Kathleen … I’m interested in your effort to find a “balance” in talking about your spiritual journey. Much of what I’ve read of your work reads as if you have found that balance … not always the same as what I might do, but sufficiently grounded that I am willing to take the journey with you. Perhaps this is a conversation we could have off-line.

  5. Your book sounds fascinating and I look forward to reading it. My PhD research looks at rural baby boomers in friends-with-benefits relationships and I see similar sexual fluidity and reflections about how to get what you want from life in my participants’ interviews.

  6. The notion that ‘political correctness’ guarantees social peace thanks to the avoidance of ‘labels’ is interesting to me seeing as I grew up in a ‘politically incorrect culture,’ i.e. the era of apartheid in South Africa. Nowadays, many years after our political transformation, the ‘group labels’ are still intact, though no longer because of petty segregation or cultural disrespect but rather because that’s just how it’s always been.

    My advise is to trust and respect your intention, and at the same time you should expect that a story about a love affair between two women is bound to incite strong reactions, which would not necessarily mean that those readers don’t resonate with the story. Just as writers bring their own emotional ‘stuff’ to their writing, so do readers respond to stories—we don’t have control over others, and neither should we try to by ‘toning our stories down.’ I think your story is going to be great primarily because of the integrity you bring to it.

  7. Mary Gottschalk says

    Belinda … your comment got to me thinking about my post in a different frame. I’m don’t think I’m looking for political correctness, and I do expect strong reactions from many readers. But in trying to make a difficult subject more understandable, more sympathetic in terms of human needs and emotions … I don’t want to make my task more difficult by using “labels” that have politically or socially or religiously charged meanings.

    My dilemma is that I grew up in a world with labels that had meanings that are different from what those words or labels mean now. To avoid unnecessarily antagonizing my readers, I have had to learn a new language. If I didn’t get it right, I’m sure my readers will tell me.