Using Life's Experiences to Drive Your Story.
Hey! I heard you have this great idea for a story. Awesome! What? You’re scared to get it on paper. No? Oh, you’re not sure how to connect the ideas to write a story that people will care about. I get that. I totally get that. I really think there are a lot of people out there with great ideas. Great ideas for new products. Great ideas for new businesses. Great ideas for a new book. The problem is that many people don’t know how to get these great ideas off the ground. I know I didn’t. I’d started and stopped more books and stories than I can count. Seriously! I had the ideas but didn’t know how to transcend them into a story. How was I to make the ideas interesting for readers without sounding forced? The best advice I ever received (sometimes a cliche) was to write about your experiences and emotions. In other words, write what you know.
I was blessed to grow up on Long Island, New York. It wasn’t the natural beauty the Island offered that I remembered. It wasn’t the food, but let’s face it, food on Long Island is something special. It was the relationships I was blessed to have. My family was this large, robust group of people that was held together by my grandmother and grandfather. Sundays would find us at their house enjoying lunch or dinner consisting of handmade pasta and gravy that simmered for hours. With a family as large as mine, there was lots of competition for airtime. We would talk over each other. Joke around with each other. And, most importantly, enjoy each other. Sure, like any family, there were differences, but when it came to being together, we loved it. It wasn’t just family that I was blessed to have. I had an amazing group of friends, several in which I keep close with today. In the same way my family would gather together, our friends spent tons of time together. And, man, you had to be quick-witted too. It was a dog eat dog world for each of us and if your skin wasn’t thick, you struggled a bit and probably had to prove yourself differently. That was up to the individual. One thing was always true. We had each others’ backs.
A Ghost in the Attic (AGITA) and Feasters: An Apocalyptic Tale are dripping with conversations from my childhood. There’s a scene in AGITA where Samson O’Keefe is sitting at the lunch table with his new friends while he’s waiting for his ‘death sentence’ with the school bully, Moose. There was something special about growing up where I did. No matter how bad things were, my friends were always there to help me forget about my worries for a while. So, Samson, the new kid, and the other students are grouped together in the cafeteria. The banter is quick and relevant, changing paces with few awkward silences. The kids are grilling Samson about where he came from and things like that and then, WHAM. They address the elephant in the room - Samson’s recess date with Moose. That’s the thing about where I grew up. Sure people were discreet, but if one of the boys was holding onto something and the opportunity presented itself, they would talk about it in front of everyone. Not in a bad way, just to get it out there. In Feasters, cousins Emily and Kieran continuously have conversations that are two parts heart and one part shenanigans. Their dialogue is usually fast and witty, and most importantly, they are real and honest. When connecting your great ideas, attach them to real life experiences. Base the conversations and scenes on how you and your friends or family would act. It sounds obvious, but I sometimes get trapped into creating something that just sounds forced and fake.
Tragedy and Triumph
Without anyone sympathetically playing tiny violins for me, my life has had its challenges: my parents were involved in a very toxic relationship that my sister and I witnessed firsthand, my father was murdered, and because of this, my mother evaporated from our lives, and I’m a cancer survivor. There’s more, but I think for the sake of this blog post, we can stop there. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. There are events in our lives that mold us and define our very beings. As a writer, how do we use our life experiences like these to craft a story that people will care about? The truth is, for many of us, the story or scenes are already written. Sure, the character names are changed to protect the identities of friends and loved ones, but if you are going to write something with meaning, start with life’s experiences: Tragedy or Triumph. I do recognize that some stories are hard to rehash because of our personal scars, but the life lessons are incredibly valuable. You decide the level of personal information you are willing to bestow, and for the sake of the story, you can embellish the details. Just use those experiences to drive the machine.
In AGITA, Samson is a boy whose father died from cancer. His life is turned upside down, while waiting for his mother to accept and recover from such a tragedy. He says how, like a dinner plate, he was passed around to different family’s houses. There’s frustration in his voice, even though he’s healing, but states, “Didn’t she know I lost someone too.” He felt as if he “lost both parents.” When my father was murdered, my mother quite literally disappeared from our lives. She’d sleep for days on end leaving my sisters and me to fend for ourselves. I thank God we had each other. And, during these times of stupor, when she woke up long enough to nourish herself, there was a wrath about her that sent shivers down our spines. Since AGITA is a book for upper elementary kids and older, I left out the grueling details, but crafted that experience as one that others can understand. Trust me, I’ve been teaching for nearly 25 years. There are others that need to know they are not alone in their journeys. I used this experience to drive the train. In Feasters: An Apocalyptic Tale, I crafted a gut-wrenching scene where Kieran and Emily find Carissa’s younger brother. Case is a long turned Feaster (a zombie) and contained in a cage. Emily knows that she has to kill him, but she cannot get herself to do it. For some reason, she and Kieran can’t bring themselves to do the right thing. My feelings and emotions for this scene were brought forward when my mother passed away. As she lay in the hospital with advanced cancer, my sisters and I had to decide when she had enough. We made the emotionally brutal decision to put her in hospice. The raw emotion of making that decision and watching my mother slip away into finality was the force behind the Case scene. Using tragedy is a great way to build a story and connect ideas. Getting readers to care about your characters and their story leads to a more cohesive story.
We all have a story in us. Don’t think for a moment that you don’t have the talent to connect ideas and make readers want to read your book. Be real. Use what you know including experiences and emotions. If you were fully immersed in your own life experience, your readers will too.