Image: Matthew Loffhagen
With a cluster of well-loved holidays just around the corner, it’s a great time to curl up by the fire and read a good holiday-themed book, or better yet, start writing one.
When it comes to holidays, the line between familiar and cliché is narrow, so authors wanting to produce a book that won’t end up as fuel for the Yuletide fire will want to keep the following things in mind as they plan and write.
Preempt the cliché
Before you type the words ‘Chapter 1,’ do this: take out a piece of paper and pen (or laptop, if you can stay focused). We’re going to play a little word-association game. Think of the holiday you want to feature in your book and write down everything that comes to mind when you think of that holiday.
Got a nice long list? Good. Those are all the words you’re not allowed to use in your book.
If that seems extreme, think about it this way: whatever comes to mind first has been written and written again. People love the warmth and familiarity of the holidays, but when it comes to books, they want one of two things: a new story or a new take on a familiar story; see Gregory Maguire’s charming reworking of The Little Match Girl, Matchless, as a solid example. If the back jacket of your Christmas novel bears the words ‘true meaning,’ that book is baked. You can still write about the true meaning of Christmas; you’ll just need to find a different way to say so.
Remember that song, The Christmas Shoes? The poor, touchingly compassionate child who brings the community together in the spirit of Christmas is a tale as old as the Dickens (literally) – but change a few details, add a twangy melody, and you have a huge hit. The story doesn’t feel old or played out, because it’s been presented in a new way. Anything that too closely resembles Dickens or NewSong without offering something new will undoubtedly end up feeling banal.
That doesn’t mean the old, familiar themes are off-limits. On the contrary, charity, compassion, giving, community, bridging social castes, and – dare I say it – love are timeless themes at the heart of many cherished holidays. Their presence or absence will be what roots your story in that holiday at all.
The purpose of the word association exercise is both to provide you with a list of possible clichés and to give you a list of things that may very well belong in your book, just not in those exact, tired words.
Anticipate the unexpected
Since you don’t want to deliver anything that feels stale, ask yourself what people would or would not anticipate in a holiday read. You can use your list from above as a starting point. For each item on the list, ask yourself, ‘What would people not expect to hear about this topic?’ Again, it’s a good idea to write your answers down, and don’t censor yourself in the beginning. Obviously, not every answer you come up with is going to be a winner. But by censoring as you go, you stifle the creative brainstorming process. It’s better to allow yourself to think of anything and everything, the ludicrous and the profane, and censor after.
The results of this exercise may not provide you with the entire plot or substance of your story, but they will help you situate yourself in a different creative paradigm, one that is free of platitudes.
Question your assumptions
Another risk in holiday writing is the tendency to assume that personal or even national traditions are universal. Think about a holiday from a culture or religion with which you are unfamiliar. How much do you know about it? What do you assume about it? Does this ring true for you: ‘Hanukkah is like Christmas, but with candles and a different color scheme’? Wrong; though these two holidays have been commercialized into resembling each other from the outside, the games, foods, drinks, gifts, stories, traditions, prayers, secularizations, and origin stories are as different as night and day. The only thing they truly have in common is that they fall in the same month.
Even within countries, cultures, and religious groups, the ways that people celebrate shared holidays can vary significantly. Holiday literature written with no thought to different practices is as wrong as Christmas in Japan with no KFC.
What does this mean for you and your holiday-themed book? Well, it depends. If you are writing about a holiday, group, time, or religion other than your own, the implication should be – but isn’t always – obvious. Do your research. Don’t try to wing it, don’t write off of your assumptions, don’t interview your cousin’s boyfriend who used to have an Ahmadiyya Muslim roommate and use that as the foundation for your story. Put the same care into your research that you would expect from someone researching your traditions and representing them to the reading public.
If you are writing about your own traditions, your own time, your own religion, you’ll still have some research to do. Unless all of your characters come from the same exact time and place and belief system (I’m talking to you, Our Town), their interactions with each other will need to be based off legitimate knowledge about how different people might think or feel about their own traditions and those of others.
The bigger task for you, however, will be mindfulness. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) avoid topics or traditions that are important to you, and you already know to avoid being pushy or preachy. Yet when writing about something as near and dear as a holiday, it’s easy for writers to forget that not everyone is coming from the same place. When you sit down to write – or walk and brainstorm, whatever your bent – first adopt an open, attentive mindset. This way of positioning yourself toward a hypothetical ‘other’ should be sufficient to shape your choices in an open, respectful way.
Capture the spirit of the holiday
Though you’ll want to direct your passion for a particular holiday into a form that will appeal to more people than just your immediate friends and family, you don’t want to denude the holiday of its spirit. Once you are mindful of various types of readers, revisit what that holiday means to you and why.
If the spirit of the holiday is family, your plotting may begin with the absence of a loving family, whether through the absence of family or the absence of love. If the spirit of the holiday is fun, you’d better test your sense of humor against a few willing readers. If it’s gratitude, spend a couple weeks keeping a gratitude journal to gain some perspective. If the spirit of the holiday is fear – a la the pre-candy version of Halloween – but you’re not quite ready to dip your pen into the ghost-and-goblin genre, consider how real-life horrors or fear-driven experiences might overlap with some of Halloween’s chilling themes – think Donnie Darko.
Strike a balance
Though the Christmas scene at the end of The Giver is heartwarming, you would hardly call it a Christmas story. On the flip side, though Last Christmas in Paris is, as its name betrays, a Christmas story, most of the story isn’t about Christmas per se. All of the key elements to a good story are still requisite: intriguing characters, believable relationships, engaging plot points, satisfying character growth, consistent tone, thrilling conflict and resolution. There’s just enough Christmas to make it a holiday story, without sacrificing the substance of the story in favor of the holiday. In short, the holiday is not a crutch.
To strike the right balance and serve up an amazing holiday read, avoid clichés and assumptions, let the spirit (not the trappings) of the holiday guide you, and plan on doing the same legwork as you would for any other story.
What are your favorite holiday books? What did the authors do well? Are you working on a holiday story yourself? I’d love to hear from you in the comments and, for more great advice related to this topic, check out How To Reference Pop Culture In Your Fiction and What Cultural Appropriation Is And How To Avoid It.