Voicings: Nora Gaskin

untilproven.frontcover“I like to let the characters have their say, even with a plot line that involves murder and mayhem.” So says Nora Gaskin, author of Until Proven and Time of Death. In these books Gaskin explores the story of two young North Carolina women killed in their homes forty years apart. Until Proven is a fictional account of the incidents and Time of Death is a true account of the actual trial, giving readers a rare opportunity to step into the writer’s shoes as she envisions, enlarges, and recreates those horrible happenings.

Gaskin also operates a publishing company, Lystra Literary Services, where she assists writers in independently bringing their books to market, marrying the best of traditional and self-publishing models. She uses her experience as an author and publisher to help writers ensure their works are developed to their full, professional potential.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Gaskin recently to learn about her books and get her thoughtful take on writing and publishing.

Drop by Lystra Literary Services to find out where you can get Gaskin’s books and learn more about their publishing and writing services.


Voicings is a series of interviews conducted by writer Tyler Johnson featuring writers, musicians, artists, and thinkers in their own words.

All In

OK. Here’s the thing. This is a picture of my son’s plate as he helped himself to dinner. I have noticed that children consistently put their plates only halfway on the table. This phenomena extends to other activities as well. For example, when working on a project, the object under development will often be balanced precariously on the edge of the workspace, with screws, spare parts, and other potentially valuable or messy things rolling around, scattering, and dripping to the floor.

Why is this?

At first I thought it was because they were short. That is what they have claimed, at any rate. But the oldest, and the villain who set the very trap in this photo, is now taller than I.

No, I think something more fundamental is at work here. Something… elemental.

I think the reason that people balance the things they love precariously on edges is because they are treading lightly. Too lightly. They instinctively hold back. They don’t want to fully commit. They are not all in.

And while I am now, at this stage of my life, a firm plater, confidently centering myself over my own stable dinner, there are aspects of my life that I still set up for failure. That I rig for fragility.

Why would any of us do this?

I see this especially in creative endeavors. Writing students tiptoeing into a scene. Dancers apologetically letting their minds steer their bodies like student drivers attempting that first halting merge into traffic.

It is the same for me performing music. If I am not fully committed to the performance, if I hold back, then the rhythm is shaky and unstable.

Only by going all in do we reach that stable center.

Memoir and Story

One of the common problems I see in writing workshops is the memoir writer who is struggling to tell his story. I don’t have a solution to this problem, but I recognize it, and I think that’s important.

Fiction writers in particular can often have some distance from their story. For example, the princess that is using her magical amulet to force her step-brother from the throne is a great story, but is not an issue most of us have to deal with on a daily basis.

By contrast, the memoir writer will often be confronted by other members of the workshop about his writing, and throw up his hands, saying, “but that’s what happened!”

The point is this: writing is a craft, and you’ve got to be able to use all of your characters to great effect. You’ve got to allow them to make terrible choices, step into peril, fail to see important details. All of the people in the memoir, including the narrator, are characters. And if you don’t treat them that way, it is going to be a much less satisfying experience for the reader.

Put another way, and bluntly, nobody really cares about you. I mean, unless you are president of a large country, why should I read about you? You’ve had struggles? I’ve had struggles. So what?

What people want is a story. They want to be taken on a journey. So the memoir writer sometimes has a bigger challenge than other writers. For starters, this may be one of their first serious attempts at writing. They haven’t yet perfected their craft. But now they have to try to develop their craft not with a princess, but with themselves, their mothers, their broken childhoods. It’s a lot harder to be objective about that.

I welcome advice from others who have successfully navigated this labyrinth. I don’t know the answer, but I think that recognizing the challenge is an important first step.

Dynamic Range

One of the key elements that gets overlooked by new writers is what I think of as dynamic range. This is a concept that is used to great effect in other art forms like photography and music.

You’ve got a limited frame in which to work. In photography that’s the border of the image. In music, it’s the length of the piece. And of course you want to deliver some excitement, some payoff. After all, that’s the whole point of the piece. The payoff. But to get there, you have to leave yourself somewhere to go.

If your whole image is bright and exciting, what’s going to draw the viewer’s eye to a particular spot in the photograph? If your entire musical performance is thumping away at eleven, well, there’s really no where to go from there.

Instead, you want to have plenty of calm spaces in your work. Areas where the pacing, color, and detail are relaxed, or different in tone, compared to the climax.

This can be purely manipulative, and is really not fair to the reader. But heck, they’ve bought a ticket, and chances are they are just as much a thrill junkie as anyone else. Don’t be afraid to take them on a ride.

For example, one of the most effective ways to get to a real tear jerk moment is to lull the reader with a sense of the mundane for quite some time. Get them used to the idea that things are plodding along in a particular direction. Then shift into your emotional content. Brevity can be a virtue here. The emotional content can cause the reader to see the scene in a different, more serious, light.

The opposite works as well. You can be serious, serious, serious, funny.

You should actually be able to graph the energy of your scene. This will make you conscious of the movement and energy in your work.