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.