HIBBING, Minn. — Throughout middle school and high school, and even into college, English and creative writing teachers offer two rules: KISS ("Keep It Simple, Stupid") and write what you know. When it comes to writing a book, script, poem or play, writing what you know can mean the difference between a flop and a huge success. When authors write their feelings and emotions get captured within the words and pages as the story unfolds and the characters are revealed.
For Raymond Strom, now an academic adviser for the City College of New York, bouncing from Midwestern town to town during the early and mid-'90s helped inspire his debut novel, "Northern Lights," now available from a major publishing firm.
Born in Hibbing in northern Minnesota's Iron Range, Strom says his younger years were anything but permanent.
"My family moved around a lot," he says. "I moved from Hibbing to North Dakota, to South Dakota, back to North Dakota, to Montana, to Wisconsin, and finally back to Minnesota. I lived in all of those states, and a couple of towns in those states, so 10 towns before high school."
Upon graduating high school in Cambridge, Minn., Strom began his professional career.
"I took my first creative writing class at (Minneapolis Community & Technical College), and that was way back in 2001," he says. "So I've slowly been doing academic writing in college classes and stuff. After I moved out to New York, I pretty much quit writing for a while."
Strom believed he had ended his writing career, and chose to focus on Romance languages rather than creative writing. But his friends had other plans for him.
"I was studying Romance languages — Spanish, French and Latin," Strom says. "And then, luckily, one of my friends talked me into writing a story for him to publish in his magazine that was later seen by my agent. That turned into this book."
After being picked up by his agent, Strom's story was finished and released as "Northern Lights" on Feb. 12.
"It was sort of an up-and-down," he says. "I thought I wasn't going to write anymore, but here it is. That was sort of a bonus."
Write what you know
Strom's novel follows Shane Stevenson as he searches for his mother who left him as a child. After tracking her to her last-known address in a small Minnesotan town, he finds she hasn't been there in quite some time and settles in to look for her. But he gets distracted by friends and some no-goods in town, ultimately learning about himself in the process of finding his mother.
"A lot of (the book) comes out of real memories that I have of Minnesota in the late '90s," Strom says. "The whole story is sort of a retelling of (my peers) and how they interact with others. I too was a long-haired, androgynous-looking kid in high school and everything sort of came together, so I wanted to write a story about these kids and how they interacted and how some of them made it through and some of them didn't."
With the rise of social media, reconnecting with old friends also helped to inspire events throughout the novel.
"(The book) is sort of a thing that I didn't realize until much later when Facebook came around and I started looking for my friends," he says. "Some were in jail and some didn't make it. It was sort of a shock. I had just assumed that we had gotten over it and lived through it, but apparently, that wasn't the case."
Combining true-to-life experiences with the culture of small towns in the late-1990s, Strom's novel shows readers what life is like as an outsider in a small town.