So you want to write a story? About what? Any ideas? Pardon my impertinence, but get used to the question: “Where do you get your ideas?” Every novelist, story writer, playwright, songwriter, or screenwriter has to answer that question at some point.
I have three sources to suggest.
First let me suggest a premise: all good fiction is, at least in part, autobiographical. And by the way, that goes for historical novels, westerns, science fiction, and gritty police professionals. What may seem like flights of fancy usually have some source within our own experience, or our own dreams of glory and nightmares of disaster.
Well, perhaps this is a conversation for another time. Meanwhile, let’s just accept that your own life is a rich source of fictional stories. Flannery O’Connor is said to have said, “Any writer who survived childhood has enough material to last his whole career.” She may not really have said that, because I’ve never seen a primary source for the quotation, and it’s been quoted so differently by different secondary sources that it may be apocryphal. But that doesn’t make the statement any less true.
I would add that the rich mine of materials isn’t limited to memories of childhood. Life is full of turning points, changes, choices, and consequences, and they’re all waiting to be exploited.
Where do we find them?
The Junk Drawer of Your Memory.
Every home has at least one junk drawer. Opening memory’s junk drawer is like opening a jar of insects, some beautiful, some with stingers or teeth. Where did this key come from? Who do I know who drives a Porsche? Why did I save this snapshot of my ex-husband trying to politely carve the birthday cake I made from scratch, when we both knew he didn’t want to be reminded he was turning forty? One joker card from the MGM Grand? As I remember, the joke was on me. My first report card. All A’s except for citizenship. Ticket stubs from My Fair Lady. I still have a Gene McCarthy button? I still have my draft card?
Every one of these keepsakes has a story, and the drawer is bottomless.
Historical novelists may want to explore that trunk in the attic. Horror writers will find Steve King lurking in the basement, sorting his bone collection and tasting Amontillado.
Rites of Passage.
Rites of passage are life-changing events common to many within any culture. Some of them are experienced in childhood: toilet training, learning to ride a bicycle, losing teeth, first day of school, being disabused of the myth of Santa Claus. Some come in puberty and adolescence: the driver’s license, the first kiss, the first heartbreak, the first drink. Some are the business of young adulthood: moving out and moving on, military service, college, first job, marriage, parenthood, traffic tickets, debts, and finding a career. Then come later life and what comes later than later life: grandchildren, arthritis, a crummy gold watch, funerals, and the chance to write your memories down for future generations. Some rites of passage are reserved for boys becoming men: learning to shave. Some for girls becoming women: buying a bra. Some rites of passage happen mainly to rich people, some to poor people; some to religious people, others to skeptics. So we don’t all experience all the same rites, but chances are that within any culture, we know people who have gone through experiences like these.
How to make a story out of a rite of passage you’ve passed through? First, it’s important to describe the passage in such a way that all readers (who share your culture) will relate to the experience. Second, and more important, it’s the goal of the story to show how your own experience of this rite was special, your own to claim, and how it changed you and made you a different person from the one you were before you went through that creaking door, that stretch of whitewater rapids, that midterm exam.
In any culture, there are stories we all know. Not only do we know them well because we learned them as children, but we’ve heard them over and over in varied and different retellings.
In the American/WASP/Judeo-Christian culture, to pick only one segment of our multicultural society (but the one I know best), most of us know a few common religious myths, such as the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, and the Prodigal Son. A lot of us know the same Greek myths, like the Myth of Sisyphus, the Complex of Oedipus, the Midas Touch, or Pandora’s Box. Then there are the fairy tales we grew up on: Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, Little Red Riding Hood.
These stories get shamefully recycled, to great effect. East of Eden is a retelling of Cain and Abel. Pretty Woman is a combination of Pygmalion and Cinderella. The Ugly Duckling? It’s the basis of Dumbo, “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and dozens of other heartwarming stories.
And you’ll no doubt find your own personal versions of archetypical stories that you can exploit for fiction, taking these stories we all know and making them into stories you alone could write.
So this week’s challenge: Write a story using an artifact from the junk drawer of your memory. Make the plot a rite of passage that you experienced, and base it loosely on a classic, archetypical story.
Warning: don’t make the parallels too obvious, and remember that a good memory is a good thing, but it’s nowhere near as good or important as a good imagination.
I will be gone next week. This post will remain up till I return.
Preview of coming attraction
Here is an excerpt from my novel Behind the Redwood Door, which will be published in November.
In the early afternoon on the fifth of March, 1867, the Golden Harp sailed into a sheltered cove on the wild, rocky coast of far northern California. It was a clear, sunny day, the first pleasant weather these Irish sailors had seen in weeks. They had been at sea for five days, sailing from their last port through choppy waters and a cold, drizzly wind; but now, as the ship sailed into the bay, the air felt warm on their faces and the clear, green water was calm as a lake in summer. Tall stones rose out of the bay and stood like ancient, weathered statues, and curious otters and seals swam to the sides of the ship as if to welcome the sailors home.
One young man reached for a rifle, but the captain stopped him. “We’re going ashore, and we’re going in unannounced,” the captain told his brother. “Right, then, lads. Tie up to that big stone there and we’ll go have us a look around.”
The Irish sailors and the sailor’s wives and young ones all cheered. There were fifty-four of them, and every one of them was named Connolly. Captain Brian Boru Connolly and his five brothers, Patrick, Dennis, Kevin, and the twins, Bill and Bob. And their half-wit sister, Katie, who could haul a rope as hard as any of them. Three of the brothers had wives, and all three of the wives had little ones. And there were Connolly cousins, too, with wives and children, and the whole lot of them worshipped Brian Connolly and obeyed his command to the letter.
“Quiet down, you dogsbodies!” Brian shouted. “I said we’re going in quietly. Unannounced. Now every heathen savage in California is going to know we’re here.”
“I hope they’re friendly,” one of the women said.
“Oh, they’ll be friendly, all right,” Patrick said. He shouldered his rifle and pointed at the shore. “They’d bleeding well better be. Oh Jaysus, there they are.”
Brian pulled out his spyglass and looked over his brother’s shoulder at the crowd of brown-skinned pagans gathering on the stony shore. Their expressions revealed nothing. “Put down the gun, Paddy,” he said. “We don’t want to frighten the bastards.”
“Why not? They need to know we mean business, don’t they?”
“Pull your head out of your arse, lad. We want to be able to use these sods.” Brian turned to Dennis and Kevin, who were standing behind him. “Get four cases of whiskey out of the hold. We’re going ashore. With whisky. And guns,” he added.
The whole boatload of Connollys let out a cheer that echoed off the cliffs on either side of the cove. And still the benighted savages stood stone-faced and waited.