The Writer’s Comfort Zone

Robert Hays

Today’s guest post is by Robert Hays, author of four novels, including Blood on the Roses (Vanilla Heart, July 2011) and The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris (Vanilla Heart, January 2009). He has worked as a newspaper reporter, public relations writer, magazine editor, and university professor and administrator.

The Writer’s Comfort Zone

Most writers seem to do their best work when they stay within their own comfort zone. This may be through genre—once you’ve written a couple or romance novels, for example, or a murder mystery or two, you’re likely to begin a new work of that kind with a better idea of where you’re going with your story and have a good sense of its possibilities and  limitations. I don’t consider myself a genre writer, but after being a journalist for most of my adult life I’m definitely a realist. This means my comfort zone is in settings that will seem familiar to readers and characters that are like people I know. Further, my story line is likely to be based on actual experiences, either my own or those I’ve read about or heard about and can research for realistic detail.

I love Malcolm Campbell’s exotic fantasy novels, particularly since he uses my home region—central Illinois—as a setting. But I could never write what he writes. Or if I did no one would want to read it. I’m glad there are writers, like Malcolm, who are more creative than I.

Being a realist has its advantages. When I decide that I want to tell a story based on some past experience, I’m half way home. This was especially true in the case of my newest work, Blood on the Roses. During my last few years of teaching at the University of Illinois, I learned that students today—our best and brightest twenty-year-olds—have little knowledge of the history of racism in America. Perhaps they’ve heard about it in school, but they don’t really understand it or comprehend how bad it was. They have never experienced anything like it.

Understanding Our Past

I believe we need to know and understand our past. The bitter as well as the sweet, the ugly along with the beautiful. We need to know the wrongs if we are to make sure they don’t happen again.

Blood on the Roses is about racism and other prejudices. It is set in east Tennessee in 1955, which just happens to be the year before I was sent to the South by the U.S. Army and witnessed racial segregation as state policy for the first time. It also is the time of the Emmett Till murder in Mississippi and just months after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation. I remember very well the “Impeach Earl Warren” billboards along major highways in  the South. This all became fodder for my mill, and the reader will understand that this is an authentic story of life at that time.

I love the South. I love Southern people. I’ve been married to one for decades, as a matter of fact. Blood on the Roses is not an indictment of Southern people or the Southern way of life. It is an indictment of racism as it existed then, and as it must never be allowed to exist again. And it is solidly grounded on my realistic journalist’s view of the world as I saw it.

Visit Robert Hays’ blog site at or his personal web site at You may also like his review of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel “The Help.”

3 thoughts on “The Writer’s Comfort Zone

  1. Pingback: Book Bits #32 – Central London Hatchery, Justin Torres, the Simpsons, Book Festivals | Malcolm's Book Bits and Notions

  2. Smoky Zeidel

    Blood on the Roses is your finest book, Robert. I believe it captures some of what happened during the 1960s perfectly–without incriminating the South as a whole. And how wonderful there is room in this world for realist novelists, as well as writers like Malcolm, who can transport us to parallel worlds and back again!

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