Thursday, June 10, 2021

Writing What I’ve Learned from Experience by James W. Ziskin

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?

This week’s question is easy. The answer is YES. Of course my experiences from youth and later on seep into my writing. It’s inevitable. And not just for me. I assume all writers mine their past for story ideas, one-liners, characters, and pithy observances.

In my Ellie Stone series, I placed my heroine in a small upstate New York town that closely resembles the place where I grew up. In fact, the fictional New Holland, NY, sits in the exact graphical spot as does my hometown of Amsterdam, NY. Nearby geographical details are the same, but I chose to fictionalize the city in order to give me more creative freedom. I often say that I did it to head off corrections from the local citizenry. “No, Larrabee’s was on the other side of the street;” “The carpet mills left town ten years later;” “Reid Street ran north to south, not east to west!” I knew I could write what I wanted and hide behind the shield of fiction. And the folks in my hometown seem to have accepted that. From what they tell me, they enjoy piecing together clues to identities and locales in my books, almost as much as they like to solve the mysteries. That’s a very good thing. 

One of the most prominent locales in my books is Fiorello’s Home of the Hot Fudge, the ice cream/confectionary/newsstand across the street from Ellie’s apartment on Lincoln Avenue. (Spoiler: that’s the actual location of the shop I based Fiorello’s on.) And I worked in that place during my junior and senior high school days, jerking sodas and scooping ice cream. The place was called Fariello’s, and it was an institution in Amsterdam, having been founded in 1925 by Samuel Fariello and later passed down to his son, Robert, known affectionately as “Fadge.” Sound familiar? If you’ve read any of the Ellie Stone mysteries it should. Fadge, along with Ellie and a magical pug named Little Leon, are the only characters who appear in all seven books.

Yes, I plumbed my youth for one of the most beloved characters in my books, “Fadge Fiorello,” a hot-headed, funny, inveterate gambler, and generous bear of a man. He’s Ellie’s best pal and protector, too. As his real-life namesake, Fadge likes to treat his friends and workers to late-night pizza and beer at New Holland’s various taverns and diners. He also collects music and drives his cars into the ground, through willful neglect and abuse. But he has a great heart. Too bad the real Fadge left us far too soon more than thirty-five years ago. I still think of him often and hope that he would have appreciated my tributes to him in the Ellie Stone books.

But it’s not only the distant past that finds its way into my books. The old saw that a writer must experience life before writing about it rings true, for me at least. I envy the authors who manage to produce beautiful books at a young age, but that was not my path. I had to claw my way to it, acquiring the experiences and wisdom that come with age, before I felt anything I wrote was worthy of publication. I read and read. Wrote and wrote, learning the craft and honing my writing as I went. I’m still learning, of course. And it wasn’t just typing words that did it. I also picked up ideas and perspective along the way. I listened to people—eavesdropped might be a more accurate assessment—and learned to edit myself. I cut words, improved them, polished them. And, like so many writers before me, I appropriated lines I’d heard people say. My funniest lines are probably things I overheard from family and friends. I’m a sponge. Rather, I’m a sponger. But I believe all writers are, or should be.

So, yes, I’ve leaned on past experiences in my work. And I’ll continue to do so as long as I write.

1 comment:

Coni said...

how about a story line with gambling in New Holland? The owners of taverns?