I’m a big fan of advice columns in newspapers and magazines. Reading them is like eavesdropping on neighbors you haven’t met yet. The woman who tolerated her husband’s pandemic beard, even though she thinks it looks terrible, but now can’t get him to shave. The cousin of the bride who wonders how many showers she should be expected to attend, gift in hand. The man whose girlfriend has the temerity to ask to be paid for working in his business.
Advice columns provide terrific glimpses of both minor and major tensions in real people’s lives. They offer a window on how people talk and think, what they prioritize, the stories they tell themselves. They brim with potential conflict, the heart of story.
Some of the more substantive columns, like the Hax Files and Ask Amy in the Washington Post (syndicated in other newspapers across the country), portray situations that could easily support a main plot or crop up in a subplot involving work, friendships, or romantic relationships. I’ve learned a lot from writers and the responses, from both columnists and readers, about the shape of grief, and that’s helped me both in real life and in creating my characters, particularly the recent widow who is the main character of Bitterroot Lake, my suspense debut earlier this year. Anything that helps us understand people better is news we can use on and off the page.
Some show us how people attempt to resolve or prevent conflict. A recent letter in the Hax Files came from a mother whose teenage son had come out to the parents, who were firmly supportive of their child but needed advice on telling a grandparent who had made homophobic comments in the past. The kind, compassionate responses helped me think about how to better portray family conflicts, both those that resolve and those that don’t. A minor character in my Spice Shop mysteries is trans, and it’s been useful to read about the experiences of trans people and their families in thinking about her. We as authors need to know what shaped each of our characters, whether that backstory appears on the page or not.
As in real life, letter writers often want confirmation that their behavior is appropriate, even when it isn’t. Such an interesting dynamic—the ways we try to justify and explain our behavior, and yet, the desire to get a pat on the head from someone else reveals that maybe we don’t completely believe the story we’re trying to tell ourselves. Is there a character in your WIP who’s trying to do just that? As writers we’re often reminded that “no one is a villain in their own minds,” and that’s as true of the restaurant customer who deliberately leaves a mess on the table to get back at an annoying server as it is of the serial killer who targets blondes because his peroxide mother abused or neglected him.
Other columns provide terrific examples of microtension. Take that beard story. The wife had been proud of her husband’s looks and resents the loss of that point of pride, which seems to have been more important to her than his comfort or his pleasure in the opportunity to let his hair down. (Disclosure: Mr. Right grew a pandemic beard. I thought it was adorable, but I appreciated him asking if I’d mind if he shaved. I didn’t, of course. It’s his face.) Slip that into a marital relationship between two characters and watch the squirm factor rise.
Some—I’m thinking here of Date Lab, the Washington Post’s write-ups about blind matches its columnists set up—offer fun situations that could liven up a plot. If your characters are going on a date and you’ve been married since Jimmy Carter was president, it can be eye-opening to see what daters of all ages and orientations are thinking and how they respond to unexpected situations. Set up with an ex? Uh-oh! Or worse, your former boss. It happens. What happens next might just give you the perfect idea for a character pairing or a dialogue exchange.
And you might even use the column format to tell a story. Short story writer Barb Goffman’s award-winning “Dear Emily Etiquette,” originally published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, unfolds through a woman’s letters to a columnist and the replies. It’s hilarious and inventive.
“It’s a good thing it takes all kinds,” my mother used to say. “Because there are all kinds.” Writers are always on the hunt for more kinds of people and their troubles, and newspaper advice columns are a great way to find them.
Leslie Budewitz is a three-time Agatha Award winner and the best-selling author of the Spice Shop mysteries, set in Seattle, and the Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, inspired by Bigfork, Montana, where she lives. As Alicia Beckman, she writes moody suspense, making her debut with Bitterroot Lake in April 2021. Leslie is a national board member of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime.
Find out more about Leslie and her books at her website, www.LeslieBudewitz.com, where she also blogs for writers.