Creating fiction based on real life events presents some challenges. So I was excited to discover an old essay on this topic, by one of America’s famed short story writers, Shirley Jackson (1916-1965). Jackson identifies issues worth thinking about when you are turning a real-life anecdote into a short story.
Where to get story ideas
Jackson was often asked: Where do you get your ideas? How do you ever manage to think them up?
She believed stories originate in a writer’s personal experience, the ‘everyday happenings and emotions’. But fiction writers rarely rely on a single inspiration. They draw on ‘many little gestures and remembered incidents and unforgettable faces’. Perhaps this multiple borrowing is why writers often give such unsatisfying answers when asked, Where did you get that idea?
Recognising and analysing
Jackson did not believe turning life events into fiction was a ‘mystic’ process. She stressed the importance for writers to use recognition and analysis.
Writers need to recognise, and capture, useful personal experiences. Once Jackson was trying to open the door of her old fridge, which stuck in wet weather. Her daughter asked why she didn’t use magic. Jackson could have kept yanking on the fridge door. Instead, she sat down and considered her daughter’s question. The result was a story about some children, a fridge, and magic. This example illustrates the importance of paying attention to ideas when they appear. Much may be revealed—if we are receptive.
(Jackson later sold the story and used the money to buy a new fridge.)
Drawing on trash ‘n treasure
Nothing is ever wasted; all experience is good for something . . .
Imagine your brain as a huge trash ‘n treasure shop. Squirrelled away in the shop is everything in your life that your mind remembers, everything it has caught and stored. Experiences, feelings, dreams, conversations. Others’ accounts. Material from books, poems, films, and other media. You can ferret through the treasures (valuable stuff) and trash (oddities that might work), getting inspiration and finding details to include in your piece. The challenge is in choosing elements that best fit your subject.
Story-like Is Not Story
Anecdotes are story-like, often with a clear point or lesson, and they do well on their own. But when we try turning one into a full-blown, nuanced story, we can strike problems.
Jackson referred to a real-life anecdote from one of her students. The student thought she had made the anecdote into a ‘perfect’ short story. Here it is, summarised:
The high point of a village church fair is the raffling off of a beautiful quilt made by one of the local ladies. The quilt ‘has been the talk of the town for weeks. . . .’ and all the village women admire it and hope to win it. The raffle is held. Who wins the quilt? A summer visitor, ‘a wealthy woman who has no use for the quilt and no desire for it.’ She sends her chauffeur up to the stage to get the quilt and bring it back to her car.
Jackson wrote that the account was not a fictional story at all, but only a ‘bald description’. Why does it fail? Jackson gave three reasons:
- It does not fulfil fiction’s purpose
We have all heard someone in a fiction class/workshop protest any suggested changes to their story, on the grounds that ‘It really happened like that.’ Jackson pointed out that the purpose of real-life anecdote differs from that of fiction. The real-life anecdote aims to tell the truth—This really happened, no matter how far-fetched. Fiction aims to engage readers—Imagine this. Stories do have an inner ‘truth’ or plausibility, but it differs from real-life truth. Not having to deal with real-life truth is liberating. Writers can take from the anecdote whatever seems useful. They may discard bits, add new material, or twist elements to develop something quite different.
- It does not get readers emotionally involved
Jackson wrote that readers become more emotionally invested when they know what characters feel. The anecdote, as it stands, does not provide a sense of the characters’ emotions, nor how their feelings change within the story.
- Its stakes are too low
Jackson thought the anecdote did not bring anything important to the fiction table. Its main point—that the woman who wins the raffle is the only one who does not want the quilt—is simply coincidence.
Jackson decided to detail how the student’s tale could be transformed into an effective story:
. . . [T]he same incident, carefully taken apart, examined as to emotional and balanced structure, and then as carefully reassembled in the most effective form, slanted and polished and weighed, may very well be a short story.
My next post covers Jackson’s specific changes.
Shirley Jackson (1969). ‘Experience and Fiction.’ Come Along with Me. Ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman. London: Michael Joseph.
© Marsha Durham, WritingCompanion,2013
I start descending Perry’s Lookdown, a popular trail in the upper Blue Mountains. I veer off on a side track to reach the cliff edge and perch on a large grey rock, where I can admire the panoramic view. On the other side of the wide valley below me, sandstone cliffs are shrugging off morning shadows. Shafts of sunlight punctuate rising mist. Wattlebirds, daredevil acrobats, zip over my head before plunging over the cliff edge in front of me.
It’s the perfect place to reflect on Cheryl Strayed‘s recent memoir, the hugely popular (Oprah-selected) Wild: From lost to found.
Her account falls into the memoir category, How I Turned My Life Around. To get a grip on personal issues, she challenged herself to hike a slab of the Pacific Crest Trail. Some 1,000 miles. With no experience in long-distance walking. And doing it solo.
I liked her life story, and I particularly enjoyed its structure.
Memoirs tend to use a chronological structure. Strayed’s account does not. She chose to focus on two past periods in her life. Her lost period covers her troubled childhood, teen, and adult years. Her found period concerns issues and insights that emerge during her ‘pilgrimage’ hike, which she undertook 17 years ago. Alternating these two past periods creates a repeating structure where sections about me lost are followed by sections about me found.
The alternating structure has advantages. You can use it to achieve the following.
Keeps readers hooked
Telling a life story chronologically provides a familiar story arc, for readers and the writer. The story usually starts early, with the author introducing herself as a small child or baby. Some accounts start before birth to provide the family’s back story. The story typically ends in the present day.
The downside is that this approach may not keep readers hooked, wanting to read more. And if the early material is unrelentingly negative (I was abused) or positive (I was always happy), readers may assume the rest of the book will be more of the same.
Complexity appeals to many readers, holding their attention earlier, and perhaps maintaining it to the last page. The alternating structure is complex because it gives writers two poles to wind their story around. Strayed works the two poles, maintaining a good balance between lost and found. She shares as many interesting bits about her trail experience as she does about earlier issues affecting her life.
Provides a familiar structure
Although the chronological approach is more common, the alternating pattern is a familiar one. Many novels establish a tag team—two characters, time periods, locations—to develop the story.
Sets an interpretative frame
The alternating structure can support showing a more dynamic recent past, one still forming and capable of further change. Strayed is not walking the trail as a fulfilled, mindful person, a winner. She searches her soul, faces many problems, stares down some demons. Eventually, her physical and mental journeys meld, and she starts to put her more distant past into perspective. This open-ended approach is a pleasant change from the memoir where the author stays in the unassailable present, everything resolved and safely tucked away.
Provides opportunities for change
I have little patience reading about one-dimensional people—the totally mad mother, the ever-clever child. Lives are a mixture of good and bad, strong and weak.
The non-sequential approach may help push writers to this mixture because they are working with what’s important at each point, rather than what comes next in the timeline. And one of the important elements may be the changes that take place in people important to the writer.
Strayed’s book centres around two people, her mother and her ex-husband. Each time she writes about one or the other, she provides a slightly different take, a new grain of information. By the book’s end, both of them have been fleshed out as realistic, complex people. It works the other way as well. Each time Strayed returns to her trail experience, I found it impossible to guess what she would write about next.
All writing is shaped, and writers using a chronological approach may achieve the same goal. But the chronological format may encourage writers to throw in so much material that the theme of their life can be obscured. If Strayed’s book were a piece of music, her walking goal provides an underlying rhythm, supporting the melody that emerges from the alternating stories she chooses to tell.
If you are writing a memoir or a personal story, it could be useful to try this structure and see where it leads you.
I was going to dedicate a big swath of the day to working on my current writing project. The hours stretched before me, enticingly empty.
Then the possum got stuck in our chimney.
Writing was replaced by a rescue attempt, involving ladder, long rope, and the partial dismantling of our slow combustion stove. Web accounts advised leaving a rope dangling in the chimney to enable the possum to escape. And to put up a note nearby to remind me, preferably before lighting a fire, that the rope was still up there.
I read some hilarious accounts of dealing with the varmints. My favourite involved the possum that shot out of the fireplace, knocked over things in the loungeroom, fought the owner’s Doberman—and won—then bolted out the door, leaving sooty paw prints all over a brand-new pure white carpet.
I resigned myself to not getting much writing done that day. But I was surprised to find that between rescue tasks, I still managed to get stuck into my project.
Picking up the threads of writing may be easy after a single interruption. But with multiple interruptions—the second, the third, the fortieth–it’s tempting to push artistic pursuits into the spare corners of the day, the space left after everything and everyone else is attended to. Writing should not be the reward for completing other stuff, but the main game for a period, whether that is an hour or a whole day.
To have a more productive writing period, it can help to set writing dates with yourself. How does that work?
- Set a start date|
Set a specific time to begin. I’ve been making a 10am deadline for me to be sitting at my desk, computer turned on, ready to go. It was hard at first, but I am now hooked on the virtuous feeling of starting to write when I promised myself I would. Having a specific start time also provides a reality check, giving a realistic sense of how much other stuff you can get done before your writing time.
- Set an end date
Our brain creates a huge writing distraction, sending SOS messages about all the non-writing tasks to do. You’re in the midst of writing a scene and suddenly remember you need to make a doctor’s appointment, ring a friend, check on your flight. Setting a definite finish time teaches your brain to put its reminding on hold.
- Honour the date
The specific period is for writing, nothing else. Honour this time by not multitasking or getting distracted with non-writing activities. Do you really need to answer the phone or check emails, tweets and Facebook messages? When doing Web research, if you keep getting sidetracked with IBMS (Interesting But Minor Stuff), set a separate time for Web work.
- Visualise specific outcomes
It is easier to handle interruptions if you have in mind a specific outcome for each writing period. Will you finish a first draft? Revise your chapter two? Identify what you can realistically accomplish in the time available.
- Make the date formal
Some writers find it helpful to put their writing dates in their diary. It keeps the period clear of other commitments and makes it easier to say no. You don’t need to say you’re writing, simply that you’re not available. Sorry, I’m not free on Thursday until after 3pm.
And the possum in my chimney? I thought it had escaped, climbing the rope to freedom. But possums are nocturnal creatures, and it must have been napping. That evening, I heard a scratching and banging. Glancing at the stove’s glass door, I saw a furry bundle drop down into the ashes. And there was the possum, on the other side of the glass, peering at me with its big black eyes.
Phase 2 of Operation Possum began. The doors leading off from the loungeroom were closed, the lights dimmed, the front door opened. Next, we created an ingenious ‘possum chute’,with a ladder and cardboard, to point the animal toward the door. I opened the stove door and kept very still.
The possum hopped out onto the floor, calm as anything. It then sauntered to the door and vanished into the night. The only thing left was its autograph—possum prints on my sign:
I like reading quotes about writing. Another writer’s view can work magic, providing a new perspective.
Nancy Kress describes the cornerstone for writing fiction as—
Fiction is about stuff that’s screwed up.
What does she mean?
When you’re drafting, it’s easy to feel you are drowning in details—the arc of the story, beats, characters, scenes. Kress’s quote reminds us that the basis of most stories is a problem, and writing choices flow from that.
A problem means something is awry and there are consequences in putting it right. The Slap, a novel by Christos Tsiolkas, begins with friends enjoying a barbecue. The screw-up event—an adult guest slapping a misbehaving three-year-old—changes the characters’ lives forever.
Genre fiction standardises the problem and how it is resolved:
- Crime fiction works because a complicated crime keeps the sleuth hunting for information to solve it.
- Romance lit relies on a misunderstanding between two main characters, which starts them on a rocky path. The screw-up, usually a misperception, is resolved and the two characters are united.
- Fairy tales often start with a problem that reverses at the story’s end. Cinderella’s problem is a cruel stepmother, who gets her comeuppance. Hunger leads Jack to market, where the magic beans he gets lead to his becoming rich, never to be hungry again.
- Fantasy fiction often focuses on a mega screw-up, which sets the characters on a major quest to save a people, a world.
There are degrees of screw-up. The problem can be monumental, e.g., murder or international intrigue or crime. Or, it can be minor, closer to home—an obstructive person, a bad choice, a personality defect. In the hands of a skilled writer, even a minor problem as the basis of a story makes compelling reading.
Even if the screw-up is ignored by the characters, the important fact is that it disturbs the balance of life in some way. Readers perceive this and want resolution.
When I read for pleasure, I use the Page 100 Test. If I reach page 100 and am not engaged with the story, I bail out. Sometimes I stop reading because I don’t care about the characters or because the writer’s style doesn’t connect with me. But mainly I don’t continue when I cannot work out what is driving the story. Nothing and no one appears to be at risk; nothing is imbalanced.
When you are drafting, at some point it can help to ask yourself, ‘What’s screwed up in my story?’ Your answer can help you decide what to highlight, in terms of what happens, how and when, and what to delete as inconsequential.
Identifying the foundation problem can also help you assess elements to do with the ending. How will things pan out? Is the ending going to be positive or negative—what works best? Do all the loose threads need to be tied up? Or is there an advantage to leaving some story elements unresolved?
I’m doing something I hate, trying out new hiking boots. A local outdoors shop has let me bring home two pairs so I have more time to compare. With a $300+ price tag, I don’t want to make a mistake.
I slip on one pair and walk around inside the house, testing how they feel. Then I try the other pair. Choosing is hard because new boots feel strange. But with their better support, I can’t go back, even though my old boots are soooo comfy in comparison.
We can also become too comfortable as writers, getting into a rut by staying with what’s familiar and safe. We would think it a cruel punishment if we were sentenced to do the same thing, day after day, year after year. But we sometimes sentence ourselves in terms of what and how we write.
It is harder to break out of the rut if our writing has garnered acclaim of some sort—good comments, an award, publication. Such positive outcomes may seem like a big directional arrow, a sign from above, pointing us along the right write-track.
Is there any reason to ignore this and instead head down a side path? I think so. It does not consume too much time and energy to explore different, intriguing story ideas, or new approaches to story aspects, such as characters, settings, scenes, or points of view.
Staying on the familiar track is fine most of the time. But if you ever feel your writing is somehow losing the magic of the creative impulse, it’s worth trying something different and seeing where it leads.
How accurately can historical fiction writers conjure up the past?
Historical fiction works within a framework of the ‘real’—facts about events, people, social and economic conditions, and dominant views of the time. Smaller details related to the period—customs, dress, transportation, language usage—are also incorporated.
The most engaging writers take us into the past so well that we feel we are there and understand it. For example, Mary Renault’s novels about the ancient world and Hilary Mantel’s books set in the time of King Henry VIII.
But writing about the past presents many challenges. Although historical fiction writers amass details from the past, they are influenced by the ‘lens’ of their present culture, a lens reflecting current values, judgements and sensibilities. Presentism refers to history being interpreted according to current values and standards. What was acceptable back then is not so now. What was considered appropriate and inappropriate then may make little sense today.
Some writers ignore or refashion whatever no longer fits so comfortably with today’s audience. Others present a modernised past, with characters who wear period clothes but hold modern-day feelings and views.
The visual elements of a past world, fictionalised and depicted on TV, movies, and computer games, can be terribly wrong. Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, is set in 12th century England. In the TV version, some visual elements, incongruous for that time, wrench viewers out of this fictional past. I found it irritating to see characters with’ ultra-white ‘Hollywood’ teeth, and poor stonemasons who chipped away at their statues but never got dirty.
If we could somehow transport ourselves to a bygone era, even one not so removed from the present day, we would find ourselves in an alien and confusing world.
Writers of historical fiction must juggle the challenge of blending fiction and history, creating verisimilitude while also attending to the requirements of characters, plot and pace. Sometimes creative licence means making changes to the history in order to strengthen these literary elements.
Kate Grenville’s historical fiction, The Secret River, set in 19th century Australia, has won literary awards and was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. Grenville believes writers have more freedom than historians when dealing with the past. They can create an ‘empathising and imaginative understanding’ of events. She chose to focus on connecting with her characters and events by asking herself what she would have done in a particular situation, and then asking, ‘What sort of person would that make me?’
I was surprised to find that one historian had criticised Grenville for changing real events and dates, presumably to better suit the story. The historian also questioned if historical fiction writers can ever empathise because people back then ‘did think differently’ from people today.
Another perspective on the past is available when we read old literature and find ourselves confused or amused by elements in the story. The following examples are taken from short stories written by Willa Cather and published in the early 1900s.
What in the world are you wearing?
Fans of historical romances tend to be up on the specifics of period dress. One fan complained about a romance book cover that depicted a couple in a country setting, because the man, a count, was not accurately dressed for an outdoor setting!
Some historical fiction in TV series and movies are fantastic in terms of historical accuracy. When the BBC produced Pride and Prejudice, meticulous research identified what each character should wear for every occasion, in keeping with their social standing, age, and situation.
From our modern perspective, the two examples below, from a Cather story, are amusing and curious, in terms of views about dress and who can approve or disapprove one’s clothing choices.
- Ardessa Devine, an older woman, functions as private secretary to the owner of a successful New York magazine and oversees the prestigious editorial section. Her subordinate, Becky, a ‘thin, tense-faced Hebrew girl of eighteen’, seeks permission to wear white shoes, like the other female employees at the magazine. Ardessa refuses, saying white shoes are fine for ‘little girls who work in factories or department stores’, but in the editorial department, only black or brown shoes will do.
- Ardessa also admonishes Becky for wearing an ‘open-work waist’, a style more suited to ‘little chorus girls’. ‘Open-work’ refers to openings/holes in the fabric. A news item from the same period relates how Venice’s Cardinal Patriarch threatened to expel from St Mark’s Cathedral any woman wearing an ‘open-work blouse’—what he called it a ‘transparent’ blouse. When he noticed a woman wearing such a blouse at a christening cemermony, he refused to continue until she covered herself with a scarf. (She did so but protested that the figures in St Mark’s classical statues and paintings were much more scantily clad.)
Rights & wrongs of the workplace
The workplace in Cather’s stories have aspects modern readers find strange or unfamiliar.
- Whenever her boss is away, Ardessa arrives late (10am) and then spends the day doing the ‘ladylike tasks’—‘reading and embroidering’.
Cather makes it clear that Ardessa’s views are outdated, contrasting her with the busy younger female employees, trained in the ‘exacting methods of modern business.’ But sewing while at work? It’s been years since I’ve seen that.
- At her desk, Ardessa discovers ‘lumps in her paste’ and reprimands the ‘office boy’. The paste jar conjures up a long- vanished world of journalism, when the galleys were pasted onto paper sheets.
The publication she works for is a huge success, being not only a weekly but national, ‘out on the news-stands the same day in New York and San Francisco.’ What a telling detail about the tyranny of distance in the past. What will be old-fashioned in the future? One example is our paper-based weeklies, which seem to be heading for oblivion, like the paste jar.
- In another story, bookkeeper Percy embezzles $1,000 so that he can marry. He plans to replace the money but finds supporting a wife more expensive than expected. Five years later, he tells his kind-hearted employer what he has done, adding that he hasbeen able to replace only $300. His boss says,‘There’s only one way to fix this up.’ With that statement, I assumed Percy would be sacked or perhaps end up in jail. Instead, Percy’s boss, who feels sorry for him, makes Percy a personal loan of $700. The deal is that $10 will be withheld from Percy’s $35 weekly pay until the debt is paid off. Would readers in the early 1900s have found this action as unusual as I did?
You Called Him What?
Percy disparages another man as the cheapest kind of a skate. Michael Quinion, in his great language website, World Wide Words, notes that skate began to appear in print in the US at the end of the 19th century. It referred to a mean or contemptible person. The word cheap attached itself later. Today if we called someone a skate, it would mean nothing at all.
- Andrew Taylor. Ripple Effect. Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum, 5-6 January, 2013), p. 11.
- Brian Crozier. History, Fiction and Extended Memory: A response to Inga Clendinnen. History Australia 5 (1). 2008.
- Willa Cather. The Troll Garden and Other Short Stories.
- Michael Quinion. World Wide Words. http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-che2.htm
In my last post, I wrote about how my brother’s unexpected death earlier this year in the USA put my writing on the back-burner. This post continues my thoughts on how our writing can suffer when things go wrong in our lives.
In late February, I returned home after a two-month writing retreat on Maatsuyker Island. A tiny island lying off the south coast of Tasmania, Maatsuyker is perfect for a writer because it offers few distractions. For two months, I fell out of modern life, with NO access to the internet, TV, radio, newspapers and magazines.
Even better, I had few commitments to compete with writing. Activities left behind when I came to Maatsuyker included shopping, socialising with friends, doing volunteer work, attending club meetings. Maatsuyker has no shops, and no one lives there permanently. All the food and other materials required for my two-month stint came with me on the helicopter.
The experience was perfect for my project: writing about solitude and nature. My starting point is the seminal book, Walden. Its author,Henry David Thoreau, provides an account of two years (1845-47) when he built and lived in a little cabin in the woods, near Concord, Massachusetts. Following Thoreau, I became a keen observer of nature on Maatsuyker—watching lizards and birds going about their business, rushing outdoors to witness stunning sunrises and sunsets, walking everywhere on the island, listening to the wind, seals and muttonbirds, getting up at night to watch satellites cross a star-filled sky.
Soon after returning home from the island, the death of my brother, Hal, required me to make two extended trips to my Kansas hometown. The first was for two months—the same length of time I had spent on Maatsuyker. The island had provided uninterrupted time for contemplation, stillness, writing. Kansas was jarring, complicated, exhausting, with me bearing the weight of sorting out messy financial details, possessions, and legal intricacies.
And there was the grieving, of things that were, and what could have been different. Technically, Hal died from a cardiac arrest, but the long-term issue was post-traumatic stress. He was awarded two Purple Hearts for wounds received while serving as a Marine in Vietnam. After spending months in a military hospital, he returned to civilian life, marrying and holding down a job.
But over the years, he withdrew more from family and friends, a change so gradual I missed its significance. Buying many guns and coins, refusing to bank his pay cheques, ignoring crucial house repairs—I viewed these as eccentricities, nothing to worry about. But when I arrived in Kansas this time and walked into his house, it was clear that his life had sadly deteriorated to a point far from normal. My second trip included carrying out one of his final wishes, to be buried at the Arlington National Cemetery.
These longer stays in Kansas provided some bright spots. I again enjoyed the spare beauty of Kansas. I also renewed ties with friends and relatives I had not seen for years.
But throughout this time, I could not write. When I returned to Australia in late August, I found the nights difficult. I would swim up to consciousness from bad dreams, and think at first that I was still in Kansas, mired in all that had to be done and decided. By the time morning came, I was already exhausted. During the day, I found myself undertaking the same cleaning and sorting that had occupied me in Kansas. Only recently have I realised that keeping focused on small, mundane activities helped me move, in baby steps, back to normal.
And part of this normal life is that I have started writing again.
A year ago last Wednesday, a big Sikorsky helicopter landed on Maatsuyker Island. I stepped out, ready for my big adventure. On this first anniversary, I was back at my desk, reading my notes and writing. Joyfully. Thankfully.