I just finished writing my fourth novel. It was tough-going at first. I had the story laid out in my head but couldn’t seem to get a handle on how to proceed. I Want to Go Home is about a middle-class family living in James City County, Virginia, a family that eventually ends up homeless. I knew I wanted Abby, the teenager of the Jordan family, to be the protagonist, but I couldn’t decide whether to express the narrative from her teenage perspective or as a memoir, told by the adult Abby. As always, my critique group helped me decide the best approach, and soon the words began to flow.
Something funny happened, too. The group members became so invested in my characters that they kept trying to rescue my family. I was trying to create tension by introducing hardships to make the Jordans homeless—that was the premise, after all. But my fellow writers were so empathetic that they kept suggesting resources and strategies to prevent homelessness. At every meeting there was another idea as to how I could save the Jordans from their plight.
After a few weeks of these rescue efforts, I had to put my foot down (metaphorically, of course). “Listen,” I said. “I know you want to help this family. You can’t bear to have them lose their house and most of their possessions. It’s painful when the father dies, leaving insurmountable medical bills. It’s sad when they’re forced to live in a tiny, smelly motel room. It’s heart-breaking to follow the mother’s descent into alcoholism. It’s even harder to let Abby make bad decisions that lead to her and her little brothers living in their car, and traveling to Washington, D.C. only to find no shelters available. I appreciate how much you care about them, but you need to let them fail so the journey can begin.”
Once I promised them a happy ending, they relaxed and allowed the story to unfold. Yes, it’s a journey of pain and struggle—an engaging plot needs tension—but it ends in triumph with a lot of discovery, love, and growth along the way.
Cindy L. Freeman is the author of Diary in the Attic, Unrevealed (recently re-written; second edition to be released soon) and The Dark Room (Don’t let the title scare you; it has a happy ending).