Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Freedom to Write

By Karen McCullough

I’m writing this on July 4th, the day the U.S. celebrates as Independence Day, which started me meditating on freedom and what that means to an author. There are so many layers to the topic I barely know where to start, though, just as freedom itself can be a sticky issue involving questions of individual liberty versus responsibility to others.

I suppose on the broadest possible level, my brain can come up with anything at all to write about. And at an only slightly narrower level, legally I can write pretty much anything I want.  I’m fortunate to live in a country where I have broad leeway to do and say what I want with significant legal protections for my right to say things. I know there are places in the world where that isn’t true.

That said, there are still some constraints. Ugly legal consequences are likely to ensue if I decide to write something that slanders or libels others, plagiarizes someone else, or violates trademarks, etc. Those should be repugnant for an ethical author in any case.

The next level would be standards of good taste that one violates at one’s own risk. There are things I simply won’t write about it. I’m not going into detail because others won’t necessarily agree with my limits, and some people can write well about sensitive topics that I wouldn’t dare tackle. This is also a moving target. Fifty years ago four-letter words and anything hotter than a chaste kiss were verboten in romance novels. Now frank language is the norm and details of sex acts are pretty much expected unless the book is characterized as “sweet.”

And then there’s the practical level, the one that comes down to decisions about marketability, viability, and career-building. At its most basic it’s about the realities of the publishing industry today, and this is the one where I struggle. The way things stand today, whether you’re published by a company big or small or even self-publishing, you’re most likely road to success is to find a niche and fill it as best you can.

And that’s something I’ve never been able to do. My restless imagination chases ideas through a number of different genres and subgenres, returning with story ideas that rarely fit well into any single category or series. I’ve been published in mystery, romance, fantasy, romantic suspense, and paranormal. 

I have one mystery series that lost its publisher after the first one when Five Star/Cengage cut its mystery line. The second one had been written and accepted editorially at the time of the purge, and I’ve since self-published it. Harlequin picked it up (as it hard the first one) and will do a mass market paperback for the Worldwide Mystery Library. And I’m now in the process of writing the third in the series. So far sales aren’t blowing the roof off, but I’m just happy that I actually have some.

So I’ve exercised my right to write whatever I want, and the market has exercised its right to shrug and mostly ignore me. That’s the way it goes.

If you'd like to check out all the different books I've published over the years and their assorted genres, come visit my website at


  1. Karen, I find myself doing the same thing as you. I write what I feel and hope I can find a market for it. Not the best way to develop a story. Good luck with yours and, yes, it's a great topic for the 4th.

    1. Certainly not the best way to develop a career either, but I think it helps my brain stay glued into the next story and the one after that.

  2. Well said, Karen. It would be easy to take for granted our freedom to write what we want. As for finding a market for it, I admit I haven't really cracked that code. I try to write a story that I would enjoy reading and hope it finds like-minded readers. Very impressive lineup of books.

    1. Thanks, Sandy. I hope I never get to the point where I take the freedom to write what I want for granted.

  3. Hi Karen--
    Yes we are lucky we have the freedom to write what's on our minds. I wrote a post on this topic a couple of years ago. Trying to figure out the market for the finished book is another matter. With the marketplace changing constantly it is an aspect of publishing that could drive us nuts if we dwell on it rather than just continue writing.

  4. Hi Karen,

    I share your angst. I think there's a lot of us in the same boat. Congrats though on your sales to HWWM.

  5. Excellent post Karen, and so important to writers. We must have the freedom of thought, expression and speech. These are worth fighting for and they are always under threat. I endeavor to write what I feel, whatever story comes to me, regardless of any market. I am just finishing a novel set in post-Civil War New England. One evening recently, a retrospective on the films of Ken Burns reminded me of how this conflict nearly broke our country and how easily blind hatred can be turned to unreasoning actions. At all costs, we must defend the freedoms that enable us to create without fear. Thank you!