Strange But Familiar

When you wish to use touchstones from your own life in a novel, the most common come from relationships. In the early stages of a draft, you realize you want your best friend from high school, say, as a main character. If you keep a journal to capture haphazard thoughts—a highly recommended idea—you can jot down different episodes or shining moments or comments involving your friend. These can have emotional value for the book because the reason you remember them so clearly is you have deep feelings about them.

The notes are a fine start, but at some point you reach a common hurdle in novel writing. Feelings are random unless they are placed in a plot matrix. A plot must be original, and that means going beyond what really happened. That is, you have to inject artificiality into the proceedings. Two kids lighting up a doob behind the barn contains a modicum of danger, but if they start laughing hysterically, the reader will become bored. Oh, yeah, I did that too, back then.

Moving out of the comfort zone of memory lane may freeze your pen. No, your friend really wasn’t mad enough at their father to light the barn on fire, so how could I write about that? And I (I mean, the protagonist) am not the type of guy who glories at finding a can of gasoline. It’s a conundrum: how do you merge real with interesting?

One answer is to focus on details. Any effective scene is buttressed by micro-fine images and at-the-moment thoughts. You take an idea jotted down: Lee said I would never become a rebel because I played by the rules. What if that becomes what the friend says to the protagonist when they find the gasoline by the wheels of a tractor? Lee really did say that, so it shores up the improbability of a sudden impulse to splash gas around. If you go on to describe the piercing foul smell, maybe the odd way that wet hay sinks to the floor, you have intertwined the familiar into the made-up proceedings. 

Exercise: When you review your initial notes, be ready to abstract them from their original context. What was a thought might be spoken aloud in the novel and vice-versa. The crisp lines of the moon witnessed while stoned might be used in contrast to flickering flames. Better yet, once the germ of a story idea seizes you, write down the extension of your note right on the journal page. Keep blasting away with how it could work until the glow of inspiration is spent. When you look at it later, you may have paragraph or a page that will work just fine.

“Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life.”          —Simone Weil

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.