Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Giving it punch

Have any experiences from your youth worked their way into your stories? How about other life experiences? Do you consciously select these in your writing or do they suddenly appear on the page?

by Dietrich

When I write about a time when I wasn’t alive, I still draw from personal experience, then I color it from a vivid imagination — whatever it takes to make the story believable. It may only be an aspect from actual experience — childhood, a job, some event, travels — then translated through the eyes of my imagined characters. 

Roald Dahl drew from his early years, the miserable times he had at school when he gazed in a sweet-shop’s window on his way home. These memories were the seeds of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I suppose writing about some life experience can be therapeutic, and I’ve heard one or two authors say it’s a great way to settle an old score without actually going to prison for whatever revenge they might cook up. 

A personal experience can be broadened and become a chapter, even trigger a whole book. What’s important is provoking emotion, getting under a particular character’s skin and telling it from their perspective.

What doesn’t flow from memory, may evolve from observation and careful research. I do a lot of digging, putting myself in the times and places I’m writing about, to the point where I can feel the quaking ground underfoot, or the taste of the horehound candy.

“You have to go where the book leads you . . . It’s a big and powerful machine.” — Stephen King  

I don’t intentionally write about myself, but there may be aspects of my own nature found in some of my characters. It’s funny, readers I’ve met have told me that I’m nothing like the characters in my books. Some even seemed disappointed.

I like to listen to stories about other people’s lives, and sometimes I borrow from them. Like the time someone close to me told me they went to a movie with a friend. When they were leaving there was a police chase that whipped past the theater. As the sirens got close, the chased vehicle tore around a corner, lost control in front of the theater, struck a mailbox, tore off its bumper, and kept going, with the police car in hot pursuit. The friend went and unscrewed the license plate from the crumpled bumper, thinking it would make a great souvenir. I laughed at that, then I got to thinking of what would happen if that guy looked up the owner of the plate and cooked up a little blackmail scheme. Next thing, i was writing it all down, turning it into a story.

Another time, I took my dog for a walk through the neighborhood, which often turned out to be more of a sniff than a walk. And as we slowly moved past lovely lawns and gardens, there was one house where the yellowed grass was a foot tall, the bushes mangy, and the curtains always drawn. In the coming autumn and winter, it was the only house without frost on the roof. Rather than call the cops or knock on the door and ask for samples, I went home and did some research and was amazed by how many grow-ops were suspected to be in the province — at the time it was the largest (and untaxed) industry in the province — and that launched a whole novel. 

So, write what you know can be seen in a broader sense. I don’t have to live it, but I have to make it believable.


Susan C Shea said...

I would not have thought to wonder why the house with the mangy appearance might have a warm roof! That's a great story, Dietrich!

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thanks, Susan.