Family Fudge

by Katie Axelson | 33 comments

I'm in Chicago at the AWP Writing Conference, and so I'm inviting long-time reader and Practitioner Katie Axelson to talk to us about how to write about all that family drama we all experience. Katie writes at You can (and should)  find her on Twitter at @KatieAxelson.

“Family is like fudge: mostly sweet with a few nuts.” – Anonymous

The challenge is: how do you capture those nutty relations in writing?

Family Fight

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt

Crowd scenes are the hardest to write. Throw together a crowd with years of shared memories, emotions, and tensions and you might as well just give up now.


Family can be overwhelming (both in writing and in person). Start with your own experiences. If I was coming to your family’s Christmas party, birthday bash, reunion… whatever it is you do, what would be vital for me to know?

Writing about family should be done on a need-to-know basis. I don’t need to know Uncle Larry picks his nose… unless I’m expected to shake hands with him. I don’t need to know Grandma is deathly afraid of snakes… unless we’re camping.

Don’t overload your readers with family backstory but don’t leave them on the outside of an inside joke.

As a writer, you have an advantage that most family reunion attendees only wish they had: revision.

Start a draft with a scene from every imaginable prospective. Write everything that comes to mind for every character involved.

Save it.

Then take a machete to the same scene (but not the family members).

Does it relate to the story? Is it vital? Is it logical? Is it illogical? Is it too overwhelming? Is it blasé?

Ask an outsider (that’s all of your friends here at The Write Practice) to help answer some of those questions above.


Spend fifteen minutes telling a story from your own family. Revise it for an outsider, then share it with us. We won’t judge you too harshly if your family is mostly nuts. (Mine is).


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Katie Axelson is a writer, editor, and blogger who's seeking to live a story worth telling. You can find her blogging, tweeting, and facebook-ing.


  1. Shelley Lundquist

    Great post! Very helpful… I’m going to set aside some time later and give it a whirl. Excellent advice… helpingful in figuring out what matters. Thank you.

    • Katie Axelson

      Thanks, Shelley!
      Be sure to post it when you’re done. I look forward to it!


  2. Katie Axelson

    I had planned to spend my fifteen minutes confessing to the world that my family splits a half-a-piece of gum thirteen ways. You think I’m kidding. I’ve spent many a Christmas Eve service rolling around a pinky-nail amount of gum in my mouth during church.

    But then I showed up at the same hotel where, almost ten years ago, my dad spilled a luggage cart full of six suitcases, five carry-on bags, two purses, one laptop bag, and three shoes. We still aren’t really sure what happened to the fourth shoe in the major parking lot incident.

    Except while I was sitting on the couch in the hotel room responding to Shelley’s comment, my “office” was invaded by my aunt and sister begging me to play with them. Using their belly buttons as mouths.

    Some tornados, a blizzard, and flight cancellations have turned our third Girls’ Weekend into two separate parties. The three of us who traveled independently a. The all made is safely. The four who flew together are stuck in a hotel (complements of the airline) in some other random city because they missed their connection.

    Weather Gone Wild.

    That’s what we named this weekend. It’s the sequal to two years ago’s Girls Gone Wild weekend where all we ate for four days was pasta and pancakes. We avoided getting pink eye from butts on our pillows, and we ALWAYS wore our cameras around our necks.

    This year we are on the top floor of the hotel comparing lip stick colors as hail pelts our cars below and the front desk calls to tell us we’re in a tornado warning.

    No, my isn’t really life fudge. We’re ALL nuts. And we love every minute of it.

    Excuse me now. I must attend to the whining belly buttons requesting gum.

    • MarianneVest

      That’s funny especially the part where they used their belly buttons as mouths. I had to think about that one for a minute. Ha!

    • kati

      Love the last sentence….what a clever way to close a fun, kitchy story!

    • Yvette Carol

      Hey Katie, you know it’s in the inconsequential details like the ‘using their belly buttons as mouths’ that you really get the picture fill out in a meaningful way. Great!

  3. MarianneVest

    After my mother died, my three sisters, two nieces, my daughter and myself gathered at a hotel and drank wine and divided up Mama’s jewelry and scarves. She was a fashionista to put it mildly so there was a lot to get done. One of my sisters, whom we call the game nazi, made up the rules. We would go through the good appraised jewelry first and my nieces and daughter only got to pick if a turn was allotted to them by their mother. The costume jewelry, all laid out on the bed in rainbow order, was for after the good stuff. I let my daughter, Lily, pick first and she took a ring that no one else wanted. It was a huge gold starburst dome shaped thing with coral in the center. It’s very “seventies”. I didn’t let Lily pick again. I picked a ruby and a nice jade piece from a trip to China for her.

    We told funny stories to pick our spirits up, like about the time that Mama lost her engagement ring, and after calling the insurance company and then listening to my father sigh (about how it had been his grandmother’s) for more than a week, my youngest sister found it laying outside of the garage right on top of the garden hose. Then there was the story that Mama told us about when she was a child and she pushed a ring that was too small onto her finger. The adults tried to get it off and when it wouldn’t budge they announced “It will have to be cut off.” Of course the frightened, guilt-ridden little girl that Mama was at the time thought they meant her finger would have to be cut off. She said she didn’t complain but sat and cried silently while my grandfather went to get the wire cutters. She was more than a little relieved when only the ring had to be cut. We told more stories and drank more wine and put on jewelry and scarves and hats and laughed but it was sad very sad. It’s never been the same when we get together since she died. Mama was funny and she was in charge.

    The next day at breakfast, my niece, Sarah, said “I had a dream about Grandmama last night. We were all at the beach, and she rose up out of the waves. I waited to hear what prophetic utterance she would make. Grandmama said “I like your scarves girls.”

    I miss her.

    • Katie Axelson

      This is a beautiful tribute to what sounds like a delightful lady!

    • MarianneVest

      Thank you Katie. I think she was.

    • kati

      My favorite sentence is “Mama was funny and she was in charge.” Those 7 everyday words capture so much.

      It’s pretty special to have concrete pieces of someone’s life to extend into ours. Scarves have a billowy, romantic image. Thanks for sharing.

    • MarianneVest

      Thanks Kati

    • Yvette Carol

      Just lovely, evocative feel to this piece, sad and wistful too. I can feel you missing her… I liked the dream sequence, and the prophetic statement too…nice funny touch. That’s what families are, tragic and comic usually side by side huh!

    • MarianneVest

      Thank Yvette

    • Joe Bunting

      What a wonderful scene you’ve painted for us, wonderful portrayal of your mother. I love it when you throw in some spice like this sentence, “We told more stories and drank more wine and put on jewelry and scarves and hats and laughed but it was sad very sad.” And I like those last few lines so much, “I waited to hear what prophetic utterance she would make. Grandmama said “I like your scarves girls.”” That’s where the story ended for me, in that kind of cosmic joke, not the next line, which is nice and true. The line before is better though.

    • MarianneVest

      Thanks Joe. I think you’re right about the last line. I guess the reader already knows I miss her.

  4. kati

    My side of the family pursues an agenda just to keep silence from invading the room. My husband’s family can’t dig up an opinion even when forced to speak at gunpoint.

    I’d like to think of a light hearted example to share…but I can only think of our family death stories. My grandpa’s, where 22 adults were directly involved in his end of life care. And my dad’s, where just my mom, myself and my 3 siblings were involved.

    • Yvette Carol

      Ha Kati, that opening couple of sentences says volumes about families! Love that. One side can’t let silence happen while the other side can’t raise an opinion ‘even at gunpoint’. Brings up immediate images of your family get-togethers!! You poor thing….:-)

    • kati

      We have a blast together…as long as there are only 4-6 of us in the same room at the same time 🙂

    • Yvette Carol

      Ah you’ve raised a good point Kati. The situation (any situation) is what it is. It’s all in how we take it. Sounds like you have a light-hearted take on your family dynamics which makes all the difference. You go!

    • kati

      thanks! i’ll remember you said that the next time we’re all together 🙂

    • MarianneVest

      I thought I replied to this post yesterday. I like you last line “what’s rude behavior is one family is lauded as passion in another.” That about sums it up. The same could be said for other groups and cultures. My husbands family was very hard for me to be around at first because they all talk at the same time and they talk loudly and argue about nothing, but now I see that they think that’s fun. I love to be around them and listen but I still can’t even start to converse with them. I can’t talk that fast.

    • kati

      Boy that makes me smile. gotta love the variation, huh! even though sometimes it’s actually physically disorienting. it’s just like how i am at the in-laws’ dining room table for family dinners (four boys and five grandsons, no girls). i’d eat, but i can’t grab food that fast.

    • Yvette Carol

      We’ve got a family joke that goes, ‘when the food is up you’ve gotta be in to win’. As soon as the food is out, people start grabbing plates and lining up. Sit around talking or in some way, wait, then you can’t complain if by the time you get to the food there’s nothing left! And if you like meat, then RUN and take no prisoners. We’ve got so many men in our family that the meat’s always the first to go.

    • Laura W.

      My grandpa’s favorite saying is “Let your food stop your noise!” During dinner, it’s custom to talk about/compliment the food, with occasional digressions into the weather. As for after-dinner conversation — all bets are off…

    • Katie Axelson

      I like your last line, it’s so true! It’s also what makes writing family scenes so difficult.

    • kati

      true. hard to “show, not tell” when the showing means something different to each reader!

  5. Yvette Carol

    New Year’s Eve was a quiet one here at home. A few days after that I popped down to Tairua, to catch up with Gina and her new man Andy, my brother Al and his wife Rozi down there while they were visiting with our parents. Our other sister Jag had a very bad flu and had to stay home. As it turned out she was the lucky one.

    When I arrived, the atmosphere seemed strained. Everyone sat stiffly. Al was the only one to come forward and greet me. When dad noticed I was there he gave me the usual hearty hug.

    I went out to join my eldest sister Gina on the deck. She shoveled muesli into her mouth, and looked out to sea mostly. Only home briefly from the United Kingdom, Gi had made the obligatory stop to stay with our parents for a night. If this ritual is not observed they reserve the right to complain and keep it in rotation as a family story of outrageous wrongdoing! “Ma’s been acting up. She’s never had to think of anyone but herself,” she said between mouthfuls. “We have to be straight with her and not let her go off on a tangent. It’s our responsibility as adults.”

    Inside Al sat opposite our parents. The golden boy and ma’s favourite, he sat patiently being plied with treats, the best of the cherries and the largest of the strawberries while his wife Rozi, sat at the dining table with her back to us. She absorbed herself in playing monopoly with the kids, deliberately deaf to the conversation.

    Andy moved about in socks in the kitchen, ghostlike. I nodded at him when he looked over. He smiled but said nothing.

    Breakfast finished, the others moved outside to the garden.

    Finally I was on my own with our mother. She raised lighthouse eyes and without preamble said, “It’s been very upsetting. Gina never lets me finish a sentence.” I made what I deemed to be a comforting noise. But she continued over the top of me. “And what on earth could have possessed Al and Rozi to bring that blasted Chihuahua with them? It’s been climbing on the beds! That rat-dog should have been left at home!” I clucked a little and looked about to see if anyone was coming back inside again. Ma gobbled down a piece of cake. “As for that Andy, I don’t know WHAT Gi sees in that man.”

    • MarianneVest

      She sounds like a great character to base a fictional character on. I like the part Andy moving in his socks ghost like. I can picture that for some reason just from the socks and the silence. Very interesting

    • kati

      The other part that I think gives a really clear visual is the in law playing monopoly with the kids. That was a great way to set that scene, Yvette, with a game everyone knows, followed by the phrase to describe it, “deliberately deaf to the conversation”. The combo provides a crisp, clear image. We’ve all seen it done or done it ourselves, so you gained reader momentum there, I think!

      I also like that you didn’t give any editorial summaries. Made me have to read it over a few times to get the gyst of what you were saying “between the lines.”

    • Yvette Carol

      Thanks Kati. I don’t know that it’s such a good thing to make the reader have to read it over a few times. However I usually give too much editorial summary and this time I was trying to control myself and hold back from revealing everything, if you know what I mean! I found this exercise interesting because there were so many people present in this scene and so I really had to seek out who to mention, and how….

    • kati

      i really liked it. i often skim over things that seem too confusing, but if the work has a captivating component, I actually like having to read a section over several times. makes it mysterious, like perhaps the writer has a secret that she’s only allowing a special few to see.

      “she was the lucky one” and “the atmosphere appeared strained” were the captivating lines for me.

      a couple technical thoughts that might help clarify people-traffic logistics: “my eldest sister Gina” might be best at the beginning, where her name first shows up (tags her as family). Also, starting the piece with “here at home” sets me up to be at your house. So perhaps a descriptor phrase that clarifies what “Tairua” is will help us know where we’re going next! (I’m assuming that’s your parent’s town?) otherwise, all the people helped create that sense of family reunion chaos that we large families all know so well 🙂

      hats off to you for holding back on this one! i have the same problem. trying to make my prose writing a little more like poetry is what helps rein me in.

    • Yvette Carol

      Thanks Marianne. I wanted to say ‘stockinged feet’ and then I realized that that was pretentious and a cliche. He was in socks and that’s it! As for dear old mama, yeah, I’ve had the same thought esp. in the last few years since the dementia has taken hold. In fact I’ve already slipped her into the mother of one of the baddies in my first book (doing rounds of publishers as we speak). Somehow it made me see him in a different, more compassionate light when I saw the mother he had at home…and that gave poignance which hadn’t been there before. I saw in that one exercise, how my mother’s incredibly cloying, endlessly frustrating ways are actually fodder in a positive way. Turned it around for me that’s for sure. Only thing is I’m scared to make her character more central while she’s still alive, she’s not that crazy…yet!

    • Katie Axelson

      Wow, tension is tight here! I love it! (Though I wouldn’t want to experience it).


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