Fiction: Writing on the Fine Edge of Truth
It’s assumed it all comes from the writer’s imagination. It more often comes from the writer’s experiences. I don’t mean that writers have done everything they write about. What I mean is, that the internalization of all those experiences lie somewhere in the universality of our human experience and our shared spectrum of emotion. I haven’t scaled the face of a mountain, like some writers have. But I’ve experienced sheer terror from a great height. What happened to me in that moment is shared by anyone who has experienced the same emotion, whether on Mt. McKinley or atop a Ferris wheel.
Today I took a hike with Dave and Buddy at Oconee State Park. Walking in the woods is a great way to absorb things like scents, seasons, clouds, earth color, sounds. Looking at it isn’t enough. Experience it. Absorb it. Practice telling your experiences. Do your listeners get involved? “Wow! Oh my goodness! What was that like?” Or do they say, “You’re kidding, right? That could never happen.”
The idea for a book usually comes from a writer’s imagination; maybe some prompt, or a moment of “What if.” But the telling of the story comes from experiences. It might be an experience completely unrelated to what your character is doing. But the emotion of that moment will be a shared emotion: fear, hopelessness, embarrassment, joy, loving, detesting, guilt, freezing; waiting, betrayal, sickness. Universal! Your memory of how it felt, smelled, tasted, is what makes the story real for your readers.
Several years ago, before we built our house, we were visiting our lot. In the road, in front of our car, Dave and I both saw a panther. There was no mistaking what it was. Even though that was about 26 years ago, I will never forget that animal, how it looked and moved. In SPOKES Kelsey and Brendon are sheltered under a rock during a rainstorm—like many rocky ledges on our road – the appearance of a panther wrote itself naturally into that story. I wasn’t under a ledge, I wasn’t biking, and it wasn’t raining. Yet that breathtaking moment of awe at the animal’s size and grace, the unforgettable surprise of seeing something so rare, assumed to be extinct, were easy to share through my characters.
We walked over a little bridge in the woods today, though we didn’t see any water. Beneath the bridge I heard a joyful gurgle. It made me smile; the sound of a fresh spring escaping the sandy earth. Remembering how it sounds will make the difference to my reader between, “Oh, I know that sound,” or “That’s not real, right?” When I hear an interesting sound, I write the sound in my mind, designing the letter combos that best imitate that sound.
I picked up an interesting chunk of wood on our hike. It was the size of my hand, with an oval knot hole. It was worn gray and the grain was wiggly. It reminded me of a little owl with a big eye. If I were a woodworker I would have pocketed it as a treasure. I would have petted, sanded, and carved life into it. But that’s what an artist would do. The writer will remember how it looked and felt, and one day it will come alive in a story about a chunk of wood made beautiful by the love of an artist. Oh wait! That’s been done; it’s Pinocchio!
No matter what you write, you will write it better if you pay attention to your sensory experiences and your reactions to them. Study those reactions in others, too. Truth is where fiction story comes from. That’s what makes fiction “real.”