Friday, August 6, 2010

Where Do Stories Come From?

You may wonder where an author gets her ideas for stories. I feel the best stories come from real life because such stories are more dense and compelling. We like reading stories where we can identify with the protagonist or hero or point of view (POV) narrator.

When I lived in the Arctic in tiny Iñupiat villages without plumbing or roads or any modern conveniences, I acquired a lot of first hand experiences I could use in my books I AM THE ICE WORM, DOG WOMAN, ALONE IN THE ICE WORLD, and FINDING JADE MOUNTAIN.

I fished commercially for salmon along the California coast aboard a 55' sailing schooner and those adventures led to BELLY UP. My sailboat became the sailboat in the story and my experiences with sharks, whales, freighters and trying to catch fish in terrible weather gave me the nuts and bolts I needed to give the story verisimilitude.

I taught eighth grade on a USMC base after 9/11 and former students who have read WARRIOR'S DAUGHTER say it's like "reliving eighth grade all over again." And no wonder! The book is the result of those two years in middle school and the students in that eighth grade homeroom are the students in the story.

And KNUCKLE DOWN comes from growing up on the Los Angeles homefront during World War II. My dad's liberty ship was torpedoed by a German submarine in the Indian Ocean and the facts about that incident are absolutely true. I even used some of my father's own words.

So, as you can see, my young adult novels are based on my own life experiences. I've heard that writers should write about what they "know," and I believe this is a good way to develop characters and plots. Even the adult stories I write are connected to my own reality or my perception of it.

I tell young people to start writing from where they are and who they are, and being an outsider often makes for better stories. Outsiders are observers to all that goes on around them, to the groups and cliques, insults and deceptions occurring right under their noses. Sure, it's their perception of what's happening and everyone interprets a day's events from his or her own perspective, but it's certainly valid as far as feelings go and as close to reality as anyone can get.

The most important element of story is truth, and truth comes from reaching into those deep and sometimes brutal agonies and ecstacies of growing up, dealing with friends, parents, siblings, teachers, and even pets. Readers tune in to that truth at a level they might not understand. All they know is they've been there and done that and can relate to the story's narrator.

As writers, we need to excavate human emotions even if it hurts to face guilts, fears, and hopes. We need to somehow get those feelings onto the page. I don't mean you have to tell everything exactly how it happened. My stories are fiction but I start with fact. As an author, you can take an experience and rewrite that bit of history. You can get revenge or reinvent yourself in different characters. You can change the endings of things. The truth I'm talking about is the story element that makes readers say, "Aha! She gets it."

When I fell flat on my face and broke my nose, I used that humiliating experience in story. I knew exactly how it felt to break a nose and how long it took to heal and what it was like to go around with two black eyes. Hence, I was able to reveal the truth of having a broken nose. I also know what it's like to feel left out or have a broken heart or lose a pet. I know the truth of feelings common to everyone and I put that truth in story.

Journaling helps separate backstory from story and my adult writing students have a big problem with doing this. I have trouble myself and have to cut out great amounts of writing because I sometimes get in my own way. I'll discuss journaling and how to use backstory in story in a future post. If you're interested enough to scroll to the bottom of the page, I've revealed some author's secrets you might find useful.

I hope you'll visit my blog often so we can talk more about writing. Thanks for stopping by.

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