Two weeks ago I posted about drawing characters from real life. This week I'd like to talk about using settings and events from real life.
One of the best pieces of advice I read when I first began writing seriously was this:
Think visually- Write cinematically. You know your scene. Can you direct it as if it were a movie? Bring in the atmosphere, tension, sound, scent, timing, dialogue. Move it.
I know numerous authors who have drawn on personal events (big or small) for their stories, whether they are contemporary, historical, sci-fi, fantasy, or romance writers. Why?
My answer is this: What better way to write something that sounds, feels, tastes, smells, and seems real, than writing something akin to what we have lived ourselves?
For example, in my novel, The Orchard, I had the basic story and characters first. I spent hours pondering the setting. I didn't know where to put them. I fell asleep one night mulling over some possibilities, and woke the next morning knowing exactly where they were, somewhere I hadn't considered, but knew they couldn't possibly be anywhere else. The movie in my head fell into place like watching a film of a puzzle exploding apart on rewind. It. Was. Awesome.
The location? A small lake town in Montana, where we had spent a week vacation the previous summer. We had camped there, experienced several different weather changes, explored the area every day, hiking, touring, shopping, eating, kayaking, swimming, stopping at fruit stands, cramming as much as we could into a week with my family. And it was perfect. In writing events in the novel, I remembered the sense of being there, and included some of the things we actually did and saw. From a simple extra like the Brahma bull sitting lazily in a pasture as a small herd of deer bounded silently behind it, kicking in what looked like mockery over the fence, to a major event, like the hike along Swan River and stopping at a crescent-shaped beach to rest. That small beach is referred to in the next two books! It also helped that I grew up next to an orchard, and my husband spent several summers working in them. Bonus.
In writing Grace & Chocolate, some of the protagonists memories of being a child of an alcoholic were drawn from my mother's. Maybe because of my relationship with my mom, I was able to put myself there and translate that emotion onto the page, but when she read it, though difficult, she was amazed by how I'd captured it. My happy childhood was a far cry from hers. Sympathy is huge. The setting? A town on the Oregon coast where I've spent many weeks in different seasons (for the record, my mom grew up in Buffalo, NY).
In The Lake, the protagonist is a ballet dancer. I am not. But my youngest daughter took dance in a small, intense dance studio for four years. In that time I observed the older girls, knew of their hard work and dedication, and worries, injuries, and frustrations. I asked questions and researched, and knew that every decision my protag made, whether about dance or not, would be affected by her dance world. It's that much of their life.
In my current WIP, the protag has escaped an abusive relationship and is trying to recover by hiding away on an island. It's a story I've wanted to write for years and wasn't sure how to go about it. Not because I don't know the situation, that I'm unfamiliar with that kind of abuse. Unfortunately, I am. It's why I'm compelled to write it. Because there's hope there. But, I hesitated because I didn't want people to think I was writing me, or an old boyfriend. Rather, I am writing the feelings, the confusion, the pain, the fight THAT I KNOW, and applying it to a new story. It's complicated, but it's an amazing feeling, translating something difficult, that makes me who I am, and giving it in story to a group of characters who will do what they can with it.
I guess what I'm trying to show here is that when a writer draws on what is real, forming it to the fantasy in his head, he has an opportunity to expand that created world, to invite the reader to relate through senses and memories. David Farland (Runelords, Ravenspell) refers to it as RESONANCE. When captured, it can do amazing things to a story. That's the hope, anyway.