The Reunion

Thursday, March 19, 2015

“Where did you get the idea for your story?”

We have all heard the injunction that one should “write what one knows,” and some readers believe that authors take this suggestion literally. As a result, they see each story as a reflection of events in the author’s life, or at least, of events about which the author has direct knowledge.

Some authors do this. Their books are considered to be memoirs, and they recount events which happened to the author, his friends, or his family.

In other cases, the author may begin with a real events and either modify them or embellish them. Perhaps the details are altered. Perhaps the story is set in a different location or in a different time period. Maybe the ending is changed completely. The story is based in reality, but it is refashioned through the author’s imagination. I think of one prominent writer from the America South who does this. Unfortunately his writing style changes as he moves from fact to fiction, so an attentive reader can identify which parts of his stories are factual and which are not.

Several years ago, a character in a popular television police drama began to write crime novels. His characters were based on people he knew co-workers, friends, the barista at his coffee shop. He changed the names’ of course, but sometimes minimally. In one episode, a crazed fan lost the distinction between fact and fiction and began murder the people on whom the characters were based.

When I completed my first novel, The Reunion, my wife thought at first that I had used a similar strategy. As she read the book, she tried to identify the person on whom each character was based. She and I, she decided, were the central characters, Allison and Michael. One of our daughters must be their child, she thought. The woman who was chasing Michael must be her high school nemesis. Since my wife was only halfway through the book I suggested that she take care in claiming to be Allison, since in a few pages, Allison would engage in some rather inappropriate behavior!

So where do I get my ideas?

Although my stories are fiction, some of the specific events in my books really have happened. In The Reunion, Michael attends his high school reunion, and his friends discuss their high school chemistry teacher. They recount an incident in which Michael and one of his friends turned on a Bunsen burner and shot a flame across the room, hitting their teacher as he bet over a desk talking with another students. The incident really did occur, although I embellished the account, a bit.

In my novel, The Handfasting, I recount one character’s attempt to avoid the America military draft in the early nineteen seventies by getting married. There was a point in time before which married men could not be conscripted into the Army. As the policy was about to change, some men proposed marriage in their efforts to avoid military service. My brother, jokingly perhaps, talked of doing just that.

In To Fall in Love Again, one important scene is set at the annual ball sponsored by an exclusive club. The ball, itself is real. So is the sponsoring society. Some of the customs that are described are at least said to be true. The specific events are pure fiction.

I may be able to tell you where I find the conflicts that drive my stories. For The Reunion, I was listening to a sermon. The preacher talked about a man who had done something that was evil, but had immediately repented. He wanted a chance to live that time over, to have a replay, if you will. My story is about a man who wanted to relive his time in high school.

We occasionally read of two people, lovers perhaps, who have been re-united after a separation of many years. The Handfasting deals with Katherine and Stephen, two people who were engaged to be married, but who were separated for a decade.

To Fall in Love Again is the story of a man and a woman in their mid-fifties who suddenly find themselves unmarried, a situation that seems to occur with increasing frequency. Many of us know people who have found themselves in this situation.

The story, though, the plot, where do I find it?

It has been suggested that there are, at most, thirty-six unique plot lines and that every story is simply a variation of one of these. As a result, Romeo and Juliet, the Hatfields and the McCoys, and Westside Story are simply variations on the theme of young lovers whose families are implacable enemies. Cinderella and The Great Gatsby each recounts a story of an impoverished person who falls in love someone in a higher social class.

So, one might ask, where do I get the specific variation that is my story? The specific events, the conversations, the locations, where do I find them?

Well, I don’t know. It is sort of like magic!

In the Second Chance Café, the author writes of a young woman who weaves beautiful scarves. They sell in upscale stores around the country and are often seen wrapped around the bodies of movie stars and celebrities. Each scarf is unique. How does she decide on the colors, the pattern, for a new scarf? She describes the process in this manner:

 “I don’t know how you do that,” her father said, looking at the collection (of yarn) she held and shaking his head.

Honestly, neither did she. To this day, she could not explain how the colors came together in her mind. How one flowed into another as she sat at her loom. How the different strands of story became a whole. “I just see it. I don’t know where it comes from. Any of it. It’s just there.”

 This is how it is with writing. The author doesn’t know where the specific events come from. Any of them. The author begins to write and they’re just there.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Telling and Writing

Have you ever heard of a professional storyteller? Not an author who writes stories, but storyteller, one who tells them?

The instructor for one the “Great Courses,” The Art of Storytelling., is such a person. In addition to telling stories, she teaches storytelling at the college level. I purchased her course, reasoning that there must be similarities between stories that are written and those that are oral, and that what I learned could help me to be a better author.

In an early lesson, the instructor introduces the “story telling triangle.” The triangle is composed of the storyteller, the story, and the audience, and the instructor suggests that each element in the triangle influences each of the others.

For example, the storyteller shapes the story by the words he chooses to use and by the specific elements of the story that he chooses to include or to emphasize.

The story, in turn, affects the teller. We don’t choose stories at random, but we tell stories that are important to us. My story may be drawn from my religious background, it may reflect a legend that is important in my culture, or it may be based on something that happened to me. Our stories help to shape the ways that we view our world.

Similar interactions occur between the story and the audience and the story teller and the audience. Each has an effect on the other.

A major difference between telling a story and writing a book (or a script for a motion picture or a short story) is that in a book, the audience (the reader) does not directly interact with the other parts of the triangle.

A storyteller can present her story in different ways to different audiences. She can modify her story as she tells it. She may gain a deeper understanding of her story from the reactions of those who hear it.

A reader, however, can affect neither the story, nor the author because author can neither nor observe nor listen to the reader as he writes. Once the story is written, it is fixed, the same for every reader who opens the book.

I review books for the Kindle Book Review, and as a result, I frequently read romance novels. Too often, the plots involve men who treat women shabbily in one way or another. I often have the urge to tell the author, “I don’t like him.” Of course, I can say this in my review, but my review won’t change the story. If I were listening to the story, though, my reaction might have some effect.

Can you recall a book with an unsatisfactory conclusion? I once wrote a blog post, maintaining that stories do not always need happy endings, but they should always have satisfactory ones. I recall one book, in particular, in which a young woman was in a coma. For most of the book, you root for her to recover. As you almost reach the last page, she is disconnected from life support, and takes a breath. A final breath. She dies.

Had the author been watching my reaction, she would have known my feeling about her conclusion!

This author actually considered revising the ending, and I told her that I thought she should, but readers seldom have his opportunity. Written works can be “auditioned” and revised before publication, of course. Authors may have “beta readers,” who read and react to their work. An editor may suggest revisions. Nevertheless, once publication has occurred, a book is seldom withdrawn for revision.

If authors want the immediate feedback that storytellers receive, they must imagine their audiences and visualize how readers might react to the plot line, to the word choices, and to the specific lines of dialogue that compose the story. Sometimes, authors imagine the reactions of specific people. I do this. As I write, I will mentally hear a line read aloud, and I will imagine what some person, one of my daughters, perhaps, would say or think upon reading that line. If I don’t like her reaction, I will modify it.

Beyond this, books are written with specific groups of readers in mind, and the author will imagine what members of those groups might think if they were to read his story. Books written for an audience of women, for example, will be different from books written primarily for men. We might well imagine that Nicholas Sparks and Ian Fleming had very different audiences in mind when Sparks wrote The Notebook and Fleming penned his series on James Bond.

The group whose response the author imagines as he writes determines, in a large part, the book’s genre. Those of us who write romance novels assume that most of our readers will be women. If I were to write Christian fiction, I would be concerned about the reactions of Christians. Science fiction authors anticipate different audiences than do those who write fantasy. An author of literary fiction expects to reach a different set of readers than does one who writes steampunk.

The potential readers who the author imagines do not form an exclusive group! Many men read Nicholas Sparks’s novels and women enjoy James Bond. I’ve read and enjoyed both. The group the genre is important, though. It dictates all sorts of things about the book, from the content to the language used – formal vs. informal, for example –to how the book is marketed the “look” of the cover, the description, the sites on which a book is promoted, to name a few.

As I write, I’ve come to see that, perhaps, writing stories and telling them may not be so different, after all. Writers do not work without audience feedback; they simply work with imagined feedback. And after all, imagining the world is what writers do.