Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Writing Fiction From Your Family's History

Taking a little break this morning from Coal Dust On My Feet. I received an email yesterday from a writer who asked, "How do I weave my past into my stories?"

Every writer has a past, a family (good, bad, or ugly.) You possess your own personal turmoil from years gone by. The rain falls on us all. Heartache, heartbreak, hardships ... go back and visit those dark places, if you dare, and if you do, you'll find honest writing that tugs at the emotions of your readers.

In writing Coal Dust On My Feet, I went back into my early years. As the eldest daughter of Darrel King, I was still too little to remember anything about the coal strike. But I do recall the emotion on Grandpa's face when he talked about it. For the majority of the story I drew from those memories. Specifically, my many visits to Widen as a young girl. A sense of place rooted and grounded me into the story. I remember Grandma and Grandpa's house. It's still there and remains in the family's possession today. (See picture below.)

It seemed so big to me back then with its wide front porch and creaking swing, as well as a smaller back porch off the kitchen where Grandma washed clothes on Mondays in a wringer washer. There was always a broom or two in the porch corner and a box for coal. A clothesline zigzagged up the hilly backyard. A cloth bag made from a tattered housedress, full of wooden clothespins, dangled from a clothes hanger. The bag scooted across the line as my mom hung out our bed sheets. One small working bathroom was added on later, and in my mother's opinion it was never clean enough.

I can still smell the coffee, bacon, and fried potatoes and eggs Grandma cooked for breakfast; the tinny smell of squirrel meat as Daddy and my aunt skinned a few from the morning's hunt, and the lingering scent of coal floating through town--especially on foggy mornings. The way the creek gurgled in the heat of the day. The feel of Widen's soft dirt roads on my bare feet, and the safety (or so we thought) of being surrounding by nothing but mountains. Nobody had money, everybody was in the same boat, and there really was a "Colored Holler." The town was segregated. It was the late 50s and early 60s. Nobody crossed those lines back then, sad to say.

Those memories shaped the story. The town was clearly in my head as I wrote about it. DeDe's house was Grandma's house. Even the deer head in the living room. The coal dust in the furniture. The lone light bulb over Thirl's bed. It's all from memory.

But it's when you write about the heartbreak in your life, when you draw from those deep and often tortured emotions ... that's what touches your readers. When you cry, they cry. Your readers will not feel the pain of loss unless you do. They will not care a bit about your characters unless you do. You, as a writer and a human being, have a wealth of information to pull from. If you're a storyteller, you can ask yourself ... what if? What if Uncle Percy robbed the store and got away with it? What if he hid the loot, got drunk, and told me as a kid where he stashed it? Think about different twists and turns in your own past, different endings to what really happened. Believe me, your plot will take off into directions you never knew your brain could conjure. It's an amazing ride.

And of course, be considerate. Don't write something about your mama that will upset her later. Or at least twist, turn, and bend it so she doesn't recognize the incident. Some of us hesitate to raise the stakes because of not wanting to hurt those we love. I can understand that. But just remember, you own everything that happened to you. Or so says Anne Lamott. And if your family knows you're a writer, they should expect that at some point, they may end up in a book somewhere.

Above everything, have fun writing. The process of putting words on paper is pure pleasure for me. It only becomes work after the book is published. So while you're in the moment, wrap yourself in words and emotion and especially the memories of your lifetime. There is where true originality comes from. No other writer has walked in your shoes. Remember that.

Blessings to you and yours.


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