From Adults to Teens and Everything In Between

From Adults to Teens and Everything In Between

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Best Writers Are Crafty Thieves

Preserving Family History Through Fiction

I love history. I didn’t always. In elementary and middle school, I quickly became bored with the repetitive stories outlining all the high points of American history. Yes, wonderful things were accomplished, but it all seemed so mundane and academic. What about the human emotion of it all? What did Paul Revere feel deep down during his “Midnight Ride”?

Through the years, I began to realize that the best historians were walking amongst us. My grandmother, for example, was born in 1911. Although she has since passed, the stories she had to tell of her years as a girl and woman during prohibition, then surviving the Great Depression, World War II and Vietnam are spectacular and far more engaging than a lot of what is printed in those dry tomes on the same subjects. Can you even begin to fathom how much changed in just her lifetime? She went from a log cabin with no phone to phones in your hip pocket! It is simply astounding, and her stories were just as extraordinary.

Much has already been written by others on how to capture family history or narrative. One of my personal favorites is StoryCorps, which encourages conversations to occur between the generations. You will truly be surprised when you put on your “listening ears” to learn just how fascinating your elders’ – yes, even your parents’ – stories can prove to be. (I know I was!)

But hey, hold up a minute. I’m a fiction writer. I make stuff up; right? Well, yes…and no. Actually, I do make up some story details…names, descriptions, plot lines. But I steal an awful lot, too! Yes, it’s true: the best fiction writers are no more than crafty thieves. And like the old saying goes, “imitation is the highest form of flattery.”

In my family, there is a great tale of my mother as a young bride, away from home for the very first time in her life, and trying to make her own way. My father was stationed in Germany, and mom had gone over to be with him. Wanting to impress him with her extensive culinary skills (she, in fact, had none), one afternoon she determined to make his favorite dish…baked beans. Seems simple enough, no? Take a few beans, add a little brown sugar, slather the entirety in ketchup. Well, folks, if you don’t cook, you wouldn’t realize that you actually have to soak the beans first – or else they end up as hard as tiny little dried marble pellets. This story was simply too irresistible not to reuse, and thus it went into my first novel.

Think of your family history in this way: taking a story from your family is like taking a ready to wear dress off the hanger. Sure, everyone’s got a dress a little bit like that, but as you take your needle of imagination and your thread of words to it, you embellish it into something that is not only spectacular to read – but also pays homage to those whom you cherish.

1 comment:

  1. So true! As an amateur genealogist, I've come across stories of ancestors that I've used in short stories. It's fun to imagine the emotions and details of their situations.


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