Your (Apple) Core Story

There is a school of thought among romance authors that a writer must find her “core story,” and learn to tell the heck out of it. That’s the piece of the craft puzzle, so this theory claims, that opens creative doors; builds a big, devoted, readership; and leads to first-rate fiction. These authors will reliably tell version after version of their core story–small town lady crawls home (or off to Tuscany) to sort out her life after falling from grace in the big city, for example–and should they wander too far from that narrative, their readers will nudge them back onto the core story path.

I got to considering this notion of a core story this week… I threw in with the Mennonites in my thirties, for many reasons, and one of the first things that struck me about Mennonite culture was how it valorized persecution.

Mennonites read the Protestant Bible, but you can’t spend much time around us without hearing about The Martyr’s Mirror. This tome was the largest book printed in America prior to the Revolutionary War. Originally penned in 1660 and written in Dutch, it recounts a whole lot of official murder and misery inflicted on especially Amish and Mennonite believers. The stories and woodcuts are gruesome, and every Mennonite school child is exposed to them (or was until recently).

The book is more than 350 years old, but it is still venerated as an accurate recounting of the Anabaptist core story–not only its origins, but its current narrative. Not that we were victims of persecution, but that persecution is our fate, demanded by our faith.

That is, of course, not the sum of Mennonite theology–much of which I still embrace–but neither is it an aspect of the Anabaptist story that I want to move toward. I don’t think of myself as a core-story author, and seems to me a core story can be a very mixed blessing. On the one hand, that story can memorialize virtues and triumphs, on the other… Do we close doors by sticking to the old tales and expected endings?

I recall my mom attributing many of her own behaviors to “the potato famine,” from cooking way too much, to keeping an overstuffed junk drawer, to inviting anybody and everybody (including some people she should not have allowed into the house) to dinner. But my Irish ancestors were in comfortable circumstances during the potato famine, so why hark back to that tragic tale?

Does your family or employer have a core story? Do you like to read certain tropes and premises over and over? No giveaway this week–I’m donating to some charities active in Texas and Louisiana instead.

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15 comments on “Your (Apple) Core Story

  1. I never thought about it but every family has a *core story* that is their own. My own family is a *show biz* family, with all of us somehow in *show biz*, including my sister the Methodist minister. Dad was on Broadway (and was a FAMOUS choreographer/director’s vaudeville partner) and his aunt was a costume designer for opera companies. Mom was an opera singer, much to the horror of her own family, ministers and physicians.

    My spouse’s family is in health care; nurses, physicians, dental hygienists, dentists and the occasional lawyer. It started with a grandfather having a business making dentures and each generation achieved a bit more.

    I think it’s a bit like all the origin stories popular right now, folks get interested where their beloved characters came from. Though for the life of me, I can’t see why we need to see Cruella DeVille’s origin story! 🙂

    I LOVED your “The Courtship” which is feel is that series origin story. I I would love see more origins from that series–it’s my favorite of ALL your works–nd I LOVE all of them!

    Texas and Louisiana need help so what you’re doing this week is wonderful.

  2. Oh yes, everyone, individuals, families, and especially nations, has that core story. And like so many things, it is both good and bad. It helps us explain and understand who we are and binds us together, but it can also hold us back or even destroy us. What’s that saying about the unexamined life not being worth living? I think that’s true for each of us individually and for our society in general. We can see glimmers of that examination taking place now, and I hope and pray we are brave enough to do that work.

    I think your stories have to do with forgiveness and redemption. Your people are broken or hurt in some way and they eventually stagger through it all to find healing and wholeness, which is why I love them and reread them again and again. Thanks Grace for that. Looking forward to Sycamore!

  3. I don’t believe I have a core story so much as my parents did, though they affected me as well. They were Italian immigrants, brought here as children (my Dad was 2, my Mom around 10). Some of their early experiences in this new world were during the Great Depression and that definitely shaped their core story as well as their core beliefs. My Dad, especially, was clinically unable to throw away tools or machine parts, carefully labeling them “Broken: Don’t Use!” My Mom kept a larder that could have (and often did) feed an army, fearing a repeat of the days when they didn’t have enough to eat. I still store way too much food, and feed anyone who comes our way, even though I myself have never experienced unrelenting hunger. Strange how we are shaped even by experiences we have not lived through!

  4. Eleven generations since the first risk takers found their way to the US & all sides of my clan are calculated risk takers, hard workers, & willing to walk away from whatever herd group-think is fashionable at the time to preserve the family. While the first generation was Scots-Irish, almost every other generation added fresh immigrant blood from whatever group made it. Leading the clan is an operation in herding cats as we’re none of us followers by nature.

    I think that’s what draws me to your books. No preaching, no pounding us into submission with messages, just love stories between two people who either come from strong families or find/make them for themselves. A bunch of free thinkers who work things out for themselves in the end, whether their choices are fashionable or not, then help the folks around them do the same. Good old-fashioned solid kindness & wishing better for the other feller than where they started out.

  5. My family has a core story— my Dad worked for a Boston newspaper for 50 years and my brother has enjoyed a 30+ year career at the same newspaper. My Mother and sister are nurses. And me? I have a teaching degree but ended up in the financial services industry. My siblings and I each have a strong sense of family, are fair and devoted to our animals. We support and respect each other.

    Your books have a core story. Each hero or heroine has a experienced disappointment, survived an unhappy childhood, war or marriage. They figure out the path and the person who is right for them. You’ve created so many fabulous leading characters, supporting characters and some fabulous villains. You are able to enlighten the reader as to what motivates the villain….you make them human.
    I read your books for the couples journey because I love a HEA. ❤️

  6. Both my parents attribute a lot of their behaviors to “growing up on the farm”
    So we grew our own vegetables, and canned and froze them
    My mom sewed or crocheted many of own clothes for many years too

    Now that I’m older, I want to do those things myself, but that is definitely a new desire for me
    when I was little, I just wanted store bought food or store bought clothing!

  7. The concept of a ‘core story’ is new to me, but it really rings a bell when I think of your stories. I think there is a definite overall underlying (is that contradictory?) atmosphere-mood-feeling??? to your stories. There is a certain point in your stories, and it is usually right away there in the first couple of pages, where the book strikes a ‘mood’ that always grabs me by the throat and pulls me in. And it always has to do with the hero and heroine and their worlds colliding. And how those worlds are going to form a new planet, galaxy and basically a new world is your story arc.

    Every author strives to set up the premise early on to make you want to read the rest of the book. Somehow I find that tone every time very early on and I’m all in. I’m invested in those characters and care for them right away.

    I’ve thought about the core story of our family and I think it’s not that flattering. My grandparents lived through tough times like everyone’s, and their parents were immigrants; Norway for my maternal grandmother’s side and German for my maternal grandfather’s side. Both of them stern, my grandmother especially believed children should be seen and not heard, I felt like my grandfather wanted to neither see nor hear children although I had a wonderful relationship with him because I had the ability to sit still and be quiet for a long long time. My grandmother’s philosophy was instilled into her children and then into my generation: Don’t rejoice over a happy occurence because something bad will happen if you do and it will turn to dust… Well, something bad is always going to happen, better to stay focused on seriousness and dourness so you are prepared for the inevitable. Getting them to smile or laugh was like pulling teeth. It took a lot of patience. And they were very frugal and hardworking which was a good example for us, although we often joked about the ‘frugal’ part of those attributes amongst us.

    The downside of the above, besides the obvious is that children feel neglected, unworthy, and unnoticed. And that makes them unable to realize their potential. The upside of this is I am better at dealing with difficult people. I think this applies to my sisters as well. But being told “you’ll never do…” or “what will you do if ____ happens?” just closes off so many possibilities and potential for children. I can tell you all of us have treated our own children utterly different from that philosophy and we have great kids to show for it.

    I loved Cam’s story so so much. My review is posted on Goodreads.

  8. I think it is not the personal core story that can trap an author, but rather that the better authors, the characters are so real that personal investment in the the time. I know you push back by not naming the children and have even stopped telling anything detailed about the future. Ah Grace, sorry for bugging you, because I would love a dynastic series.In fact, thank you for having the Moreland Clan show up in Asher’s story. Am I rambling?

    I salute your charitable efforts. I am inclined to send all of my $$ to the ACLU and The Southern Poverty Law Center.

    If you read this, please tell your publishers that I have not forgiven them for failing to create audiobooks for the Captive Hearts Trilogy. And I must say once again you have some of the best opening lines in the romance community.

  9. I’m always a sucker for the injured/shot/amnesiac hero rescued by the spunky heroine who tells him they are engaged/married. Merriment ensues.

  10. I’m a sucker for second chance romances where the couple is separated for some reason, then despite adversity, is reunited. Definitely not my core story at all – I’ve been happy with my guy for over forty years – but I can’t get enough of them!

    I love your giveaway this week, Grace – it’s the best one yet.

  11. I definitely have a core story reading obsession. I love the 1800s. No automobiles. No telephones. No electricity. Give me a hero on horseback every time. A heroine in skirts. As a kid, I turned my walk-in closet into my own log cabin on the prairie. I had my little wooden table and chairs, a pallet of blankets on the floor that included my Snoopy sleeping bag covered by the pink afghan my grandmother knitted for me, a blue and white painted wooden hutch my father built to hold my tea set, and some candles I hid from my parents and burned with the lights out. I would wear my long dresses and lived in my own little world of make believe for hours and hours. Today, I gobble up books from that world. I never thought of it as a core story, but there you are.

    Thank you for your charitable donations. There are so many in need.

  12. I was raised Mennonite. While I am no longer an offical member of the church, I do believe in many of the things it teaches. One thing I do not agree with is, as you so perfectly summarized Grace, “its current narrative. Not that we were victims of persecution, but that persecution is our fate, demanded by our faith.”

    Martyrs Mirror was a large part of our catechism (although, I did get in trouble once for using the term catechism during Sunday school). Stories were often read and acted out – without the actual blood. The older I got, the more I questioned . . . Which I believe everyone should do at some point in their life. So much violence has been committed in the name of religion. I have a problem with that. I just hope we start to learn from history.

    Thank you for donating to charities in Texas and Louisiana, Grace! States this far south are not prepared for that kind of cold weather especially when it lasts that long. I live just north of Austin, Texas in a neighborhood that relies on well water. As of Monday evening, only 7 homes out of 82 have water. We were lucky that we had power most of the time and only had rolling brownouts. I have friends who were without power for almost an entire week.

    There were a lot of people helping each other out. There were more who were willing to help others, however the icy roads made were more hazardous than staying at home. Most of the area was covered in what a friend called a snow sandwich with ice as the bread. The biggest delay in repairs and a return to normalcy at this point is the lack of parts. Everything is sold out. The worst part for us personally is that my husband and I are not even in Texas right now, we left on the 12th for a 2 week ‘working vacation’. My in-laws ended up watching the cats and the house, and neighbors also checked in on the cats and house. In return, they were all given permission to raid the fridge and cupboards since I had stocked up for our son who was unable to leave Oklahoma City to house sit.

  13. The whole core story thing explains why I get so bored of authors – I really don’t want to read the same thing over and over again. I didn’t know this is intentional, either on the author’s part or on the reader’s part. No wonder you are the only romance writer I consistently read!

    Right now at work I have been experiencing this very thing without realizing what exactly was making me feel so contrary. There is a push to buy into a core story (and increased investment, loyalty, and work load) that isn’t untrue but also benefits the boss, of course, disproportionately. It is basically asking me to shift my equation of work / life balance to dedicate more energy to the business. I’ll have to think more about it with this paradigm because it seems like a helpful way to understand branding and what it means as an employee to be asked to buy into that, not just perform it.

    On a personal level I have been thinking about the role of personal narrative a lot. As someone who is mixed race, Jewish, disabled, a parent to 2 lgbtq kids, married to a refugee etc., there is no shortage of narratives that others are applying to me and my family constantly. They are limiting, exclusionary, and usually full of biases that I can’t support. And of course the various cultural narratives that are real influences that are contradictory and biased. So how do I create my own narrative that includes what I want and discards what I think is harmful? I hope to figure that out, right now I just want to be myself and would love to be seen as fully human by everyone else. One can dream.

  14. Family narratives are tricky. I think most families have plots, subplots, and large thematic arcs.

    I am not sure that your stories (and here I have to own I haven’t read them all) contain what I’d call a universal”core narrative,” but I would certainly say that there are some themes and even situations you come back to: the hero/heroine who is, in some way, misunderstood by their otherwise loving family and suffering in silence or isolation; women who are forced by circumstances to pretend to be less (at least socially speaking, but often in deeper ways) than what they are. Of course, this is the stuff of so many of the world’s great stories. It’s almost too general to be saying anything helpful. And of course, I think these are universal feelings/situations. Who among us hasn’t felt misunderstood by our loved ones, even those of us lucky enough to have happy, loving families? What woman hasn’t felt the need to pretend, in some situations, to be less [fill in the blank: intelligent, competent, angry] than she is?

    I’m not sure I feel able to come up with a family narrative. I will say the narrative that’s shaped my own personal worldview for my life was summed up best by those preeminent philosophers of the twentieth century, The Rolling Stones:

    “You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometimes you just might find / You get what you need.”

    I want to acknowledge my privilege here. I know this doesn’t apply to everyone’s life. So many people try and try and try and never get what they need. But time and again, in my own life, what I’ve wanted hasn’t turned out to be what I’ve needed. And sometimes, when I try hard, I find I have what I need.

  15. I think my family’s core story revolves around the Great Depression. There is a sense of all that we have going away at the drop of a hat.

    I might like certain tropes for a little while, but variety is more important to me. If the book’s story line can be guessed at, then eventually, they are no longer all that fun to read… so, I must respectfully disagree with the authors and publishers who think telling a “core story” over and over is wanted and needed. (At least by me… I prefer variety.)

    Thank you, Grace, for donating to charities helping Texas and Louisiana!!