Social Issues in Your Stories: 3 Strategies for Doing it Right

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What inspires an author?

I—along with most writers—am often asked this question. Some are inspired by an image or a piece of art, while others feel stories emerge out of the places they’ve been. Writers’ stories can stem from their personal experiences, their work, or their interests. This was the case for me as I started the Lei Crime Series and wrote Blood Orchids, drawing upon my experiences as a high school counselor. Regardless of the source, great stories stem from themes about which the author is passionate.

One of the issues I’m passionate about are the environmental changes affecting my home state of Hawaii. Over the years, I’ve witnessed changes in this beautiful paradise, and how those changes have affected its people, ecosystems, and way of life.

Even growing up in Hawaii, I was barely familiar with our rare, endangered birds because they are confined to elevations above 7-8,000 feet due to introduced avian malaria which kills them at lower elevations. To shine a light on this issue, I developed a plot in Shattered Palms Lei Crime 6, around a murder in a cloud forest nature preserve on Maui (Waikamoi) as a way to share the situation with the birds in an entertaining way.

My readers noticed my passion for such issues, and one of my fans (who is now a writer in my Lei Crime Kindle World) suggested that I write a mystery involving a murder related to illegal fishing and reef conservation. I was energized about exploring this concern, and out of that inspiration came Bone Hook, Lei Crime 10.

Another example is found in Bitter Feast, Lei Crime 12. I not only explore the nationwide farm-to-table food movement, but educate my readers on the challenges farmers are facing in Hawaii, especially as relates to the high cost of land due to farmland being converted to industrial and residential projects.

Here are three tips  I suggest when addressing a social or environmental issue in your story:

  1. Write what you know–or get help. If a social issue is an underlying theme in your story, you want to make sure that a totally unfamiliar subject doesn’t cause you to lose focus. Write what you are familiar with and supplement with information from “experts,” otherwise, you may find yourself falling down the rabbit hole of research exploring a new topic rather than developing a storyline that moves. When I don’t know enough (for instance, about farming!) I solicit an “expert” in that area to help me–educate me about their field, let me pump them for information, and even read my final manuscript for accuracy about their issue. All three “environmental” Lei Crime books had local “experts” involved who helped me and read the books to make sure they were informationally accurate.
  2. Write about your passion. If an issue really moves you emotionally, it will be much easier to integrate that topic into your story. In addition to environmental issues, I’m a therapist in private mental health practice, and care about the wounds and needs of the mind and emotions. Because of this, it’s been comfortable and natural for me to develop characters with mental health problems and to weave their challenges and growth throughout my books.
  3. Balance advocacy with all sides of the issue. We writers never know what our readers value or are interested in. As you address social issues in your stories, you want to make sure that you take a ‘soft’ approach: you don’t want your readers to be offended or turned off by a browbeating. Weaving a theme throughout a story should be done in a way that informs and educates the reader, but doesn’t force him/her to endure a lecture. I am careful to use the investigation and dialogue between characters and situations to show all sides of an issue and avoid “preaching.” I hope my readers will become aware of environmental issues in Hawaii and elsewhere, and perhaps take it  upon themselves to learn more–so I try to intrigue with the story, and then provide links to reliable sources in the back matter so that the reader can choose to explore or get involved with a cause if he or she wants to.

Introducing social, environmental, or political issues into your stories can add a richness and depth that your readers enjoy and come to anticipate.  “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” Mary Poppins famously said, and using these tips and ideas can insure a smooth integration of entertainment, education, and advocacy in your work.

What causes/issues have YOU integrated into your books, and how did it go?

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