Writing Right with Dmitri: Tossed Salad or Savoury Stew?
'Write what you know about,' they say. 'Use people and events from your own experience. Well, that would be pretty dull.'
Ever think like that?
First of all: if you think the people you meet every day are dull, you may not be paying enough attention. When I first moved to the town where I live now, I met a 93-year-old man at the local church. We hit it off, and chatted every week. He was a kindly person, very open-hearted. After awhile, I found out he was also a survivor of the Normandy Invasion. He had some hair-raising adventures when he was young. Everybody misses him now that he's passed on.
The young woman at the Walmart checkout was testy with a coworker. Her supervisor was rushing her, and there were too many customers at Christmas. Elektra and I commiserated with her, said it was a shame, and to take her time with our stuff. That's how we found out that this woman had walked almost twenty miles to work, because her car wasn't working, and she has two small children. I've talked to our city councilwoman, and we're going to start the wheels of local government turning on an inter-community bus route. There was a complex story hiding behind that woman's initial curt exchange.
When we pay attention to the people and events around us, we collect things. When we come to write fiction (or educational scenarios, or whatever we need a 'for instance' for), we grab a bit from here and there in our memory, and throw it together like a tossed salad, right?
Well, sort of. I always think of certain people as the radishes in the salad of life. They make all the milder ingredients taste better by comparison.
But using your experience to make fictional stories or examples isn't really like tossing a salad. You don't want that raw material. What you want is material that has been moulded a bit, rearranged, and changed until it tells the story it needs to tell. A really good use of your memory material is more like a savoury stew: flavours blended, vegetables well-cooked, with just the right amount of salt and spice. And yes, as Elektra never fails to remind me, stew is always better the second day – after it's sat in the fridge overnight and really had a chance to blend the ingredients. That's your memories at work.
If you've got Netflix, I recommend that you watch a film called El Camino Christmas before it's gone. Now, that is not a documentary, thank heaven. It's an outrageous, funny, and touching story. No Christmas glurge, I promise. And the language is pretty fierce. But where did the writers get those characters? The drunken Vietnam vet, the self-deluded alcoholic sheriff, the befuddled deputy? No, not out of a grab-bag of stock characters. Out of memory and observation. All the characters in this little tale come alive. How? By acquiring speech mechanisms, background stories, motivations, and personal strategies that were exhibited, at one time or another, by actual human beings. The writers experienced them, and remembered them, and added them to the story when the time came.
Here's a piece of advice. If you've written a short story, say, and you don't feel that the tale really 'popped', do this: Go back and reread the tale. Whenever you see a piece of action, or dialogue, or description that seems flat to you, stop. Think about that description, or exchange, or action. What relevant experience does that remind you of? Now, get up from the desk and go away. Fold some laundry, or walk the dog, or wash two dishes. While you do that, remember. Then come back and add some colour to your writing.
You're describing action. Your character is walking at night. Of course, there's danger lurking: it's fiction, why else would anybody be reading this? But cast your mind back to a time when you walked at night. Were you coming home from a late university class, or work, or a girlfriend's house? Me, I used to walk around the city of Bonn, Germany, at night. If I went anywhere with my friends, I had to walk across the John F Kennedy-Brücke to get to where I lived in Beuel, on the other side of the Rhine. I began to notice that at midnight, the wind over the Rhine would die down. I would stop for a few minutes and watch the barges tie up for the night, knowing that they would wake me at dawn with their horns as they started up again. That's a collection of sense memories – sight, sound, feeling, mood – that I would definitely use if my character was walking on a dark night. There are others, of course.
Put those memories to work for you, along with your accumulated experience of how humans think, talk, act, and interact. Dogs and cats, too, whatever you've got. Your writing will get richer, and your readers will appreciate.