Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Perception is Everything, or Only the Reader Knows (and Hopefully Tells The Writer)

by Paula Gail Benson

In Getting to Know You,” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, Mrs. Anna tells her class that students teach their teachers. Similarly, readers can give authors important insight about their stories.

Writers are cautioned to show rather than tell. Nevertheless, the way a writer creates his stories often reveals something of his personality, background, or beliefs—even if the writer diligently tries to keep himself out of the narrative.

Sometimes I’m surprised by what readers tell me—not only about a particular story, but also about my writing in general. At other times, their comments lead me toward a new story idea. It’s especially nice to know I’ve achieved a particular effect or result.

Last year, my mystery “Only the Sacrifice Knows” was published in the California online magazine Kings River Life. It involved a family entertaining a Thanksgiving guest who had dated one brother, then became engaged to his twin.

As the story unfolds, information is gradually disclosed about the family’s unique holiday tradition. The focus remains on how the guest, and the reader, will react when the secret ritual is fully explained. Kings River Life provides an opportunity for readers to comment. I was very grateful that Earl Staggs, a short story writer I admire, left the following remark: “I had several ideas as to how it would end. All of them wrong. I love it when that happens.” Me, too.

At my day job, I do a different type of writing. After reading “Ghost of a Chance,” my pirate story in A Tall Ship, A Star and Plunder (Dark Oak Press and Media, 2014), a co-worker expressed surprise that I could write so “sensually.” I didn’t think of it that way while writing it. I simply tried to convey the emotions of the main character—a first mate who had been stolen into the pirate trade as a boy, survived the treacherous lifestyle, yet still yearned for the family life he had lost.

Other folks have told me that my writing has a spooky quality. That surprised me until I thought about some story circumstances—the odd Thanksgiving tradition; the pirate’s encounter with a ghost ship; a New Year’s Eve spa visit where the client’s wish unexpectedly comes true; and a interplanetary mediator who realizes her own ancestors consumed the ancestors of one of her clients. I guess my writing does have a few creepy elements.

For my church drama ministry, I write and direct our shows. I’m used to helping the actors incorporate the ideas they have about their characters into their performance. Dialogue gives the basic information to move the story, but an actor’s imagination develops the complete person being portrayed.

One year, our play was about a mountain family who takes in travelers stranded by a Christmas Eve rockslide. The actress who portrayed the mother came to rehearsal wearing a bandana scarf and long peasant skirt. She told me she thought her character had been interested in the Peace Corps and doing for others, but returned to the mountain to help care for her family. None of that information was in the dialogue, and it wasn’t what I imagined when I wrote the character; however, the more I thought about it, I realized it perfectly explained the woman’s motivation. We used that backstory to help select costumes and props that showed the family’s lifestyle.

Perhaps the nicest feedback I’ve received came from “Confidence in the Family” in Buddhapuss Ink’s Mystery Times Ten (2013). I went to dinner with a friend who had just read the story. As we were finishing, she asked, “Don’t you think you have something more to tell about those characters?” She wanted to know when she could read their next story. What a wonderful gift for a writer! Now to get the words on the page . . .

©2014 Paula Gail Benson


A legislative attorney and former law librarian, Paula Gail Benson’s short stories have been published in Kings River Life (, the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable (, Mystery Times Ten 2013 (Buddhapuss Ink), and A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder (Dark Oak Press and Media, 2014). She regularly blogs with others at Her personal blog is Little Sources of Joy, at, and her website is
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