Revealing my sources, by Terry Shames
Last week someone asked me why I wrote Samuel Craddock as an art collector. It’s a convoluted answer, but it boils down to this: People, places, and plots in my books are based on real life. I love modern art, but the more compelling reason had to do with a bit of family history that I used in a creative way.
I just read an author I had never read before and thoroughly enjoyed his crazy plot that revolved around nonstop mayhem, complete with characters who were borderline insane and whose dialogue was one snappy line after another. I kept thinking, “Where did his ideas come from?” If they come from his reality, I would love to visit him at home. In a way he’s a writer who writes the opposite of me. My characters, plots and dialogues often involve secrets, stealth, and innuendo (my family style). His characters blurt out anything that comes into their minds, and act out of pure impulse.
I wasn’t very old before I realized there were a lot of sly references in my family both in conversation and in looks (raised eyebrows, nods, widened eyes) that conveyed a language I as a kid wasn’t privy to. Even as an adult I sometimes found myself unable to decipher oblique hints among my relatives. I often thought it would be much easier if people would just come out and say what they meant. One friend told me I was blunt, and I think it’s my response to the world of hints that I could never quite get a handle on.
But it isn’t only intentional family secrets that give me ideas for my novels. Sometimes it’s about the way people remember events. My sister and I have had many shared experiences and when we discuss them, we remember them completely differently. Unless we remember them exactly the same! That’s the tricky part. Some stories in my family have taken on the status of myth. Since the “characters” or those stories are no longer living, it’s impossible to know what really happened. My mother and father were secretly married and my aunt told me the story of how my mother’s parents found out. When I asked my mother about it, she snorted and said, “That’s ridiculous. Your aunt has an active imagination. It didn’t happen that way at all.” Although it would be wonderful to climb into the way back machine and find out the reality, that’s impossible. But I can certainly mine it for fiction. When I weave these fragile memories into stories I get to have everybody behave the way they want to in the world I’ve created….no matter how much they depend on my family history for their existence.
When it comes to writing, all that secrecy and obscure history serve me well. It’s the world that continues to fascinate me as a writer. It leads my imagination to fill in gaps and make stories out of fragments. It spurs me think about what kind of person keeps a particular kind of secret, and what motivates people not only to keep a secret for themselves but for someone else. And what motivates people to break trust. And it spurs me to wonder who would be willing to kill to keep a secret from coming out. Secrets and secret histories—that’s the source of my imagination.