Putting yourself in your writing

A thinky post for today.

While I’m writing and editing (and posting here) chapters of Shifting Reality, I often think of how much of ourselves we as writers put in our stories.

Sometimes this is visible in themes that keep coming back in our fiction, sometimes it is visible in direct scenes. But even so, truth is sometimes crueler than fiction.

I once wrote a scene about a boy in a primary school setting. The story started with the teacher, thinking to teach kids descriptive writing, setting the students the task to describe one fellow student without mentioning the student’s name. The students then had to take turns reading out their descriptions, and the other classmates had to guess who was being described. So one student gets up, reads, the kids guess. The next gets up, and reads the most vile diatribe on a fellow student that could cross a primary school student’s mind (and they can be vicious to each other), and everyone laughs. They know who it is. The teacher ignores the episode and moves to the next student.

I posted this on an online forum, and several people were all over me for making didactic mistakes. The teacher would NEVER be allowed to do this, they wailed. And this is against all educational guidelines. This is sooo unrealistic. Except it happened. Slight difference: it happened in high school (where the nastiness is even worse). The result was not a fight, as happened in my story, but a complete silence and ignoring of the whole thing. The student being described was me.

Incidents like these colour someone’s life. How could you not write about them? Similarly, I grew up hearing my grandparents’ harrowing stories from World War II in Europe. Some of the things they described were so horrible, they had an effect on me even hearing the stories second-hand. Backed up with some reading about the subject, they make for excellent story material.

Everyone has moving, traumatic, scary experiences, no matter how trivial they may seem in comparison to stories from other people. You’d go “How awful” about the class experience I described, but that would be chicken feed when compared with my mother who, as toddler, lived through bombings and raids. But my direct experience is no less valid.

Looking through my fiction, I can see many stories of my life smiling through the gaps. The small, spread-out family, the taciturn extremely introverted older members of society who will just not talk about personal stuff, the need to be independent, the notion not to take anything for granted, especially creature comforts, living in remote (and very hot) areas, scuba diving, and too many other things, big and small, to mention.

Mining your life, and that of your family members and friends, for story inspiration can be fun or can bring you closer to the subject in question. It can make you understand things you never saw at the time they happened to you or can bring you closer to other people.

Indonesia was another element that ran through much of my family life. I remember feeling dismayed that none of my friends had family members who had lived in Indonesia. How, for one, could they live without the food and the giant family cook-ins we had? How could they not be looking for the best toko to buy all their stuff?

For this latest novel, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about Indonesian culture (or, I should say cultures), and I am grateful for all those stories I heard when I was little. Sadly those relatives have all passed away, but the spirit of the stories lives on.

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Where do you get your ideas?

This is a question writers are often asked, especially by general members of the public and by newbie writers.

It’s not always possible to identify where an idea came from. I’ve spoken about reading non-fiction as a basis for ideas, but if you have facts, you still need something to happen.

I have a file somewhere that contains lines like:

Story about a rogue planet
Story about two space ships catching up, despite one having been sent 100 years earlier than the other.

They’re just story notes for possible settings. I need a character, but more important even, I need something to happen in that setting, and ‘character X discovers a rogue planet’ isn’t going to cut the mustard.

I’ve found that lately I’ve turned to extreme sport as seed for my storylines.

The weird things people will do for entertainment fascinate me endlessly. BASE jumping? Extreme surfing? Extreme ironing? They’re all wonderful seeds for story plots. Because now I have a character who is going to do something other than discover the setting. And the character has an aim: to win or set a record.

But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes my activities simply violate too many laws of physics to keep me happy.

I could not make a person surf on magnetic fields, but I could make a kite do it with a bit of fudging.

But even so, it doesn’t always work.

I had an idea about skywriting on Saturn. I figured out that this was possible. I wanted to turn this into extreme advertising. where a company would pay to have its logo written on Saturn. Yup. But meh, there’s not much tension in that and I needed an extra plot element.

Sometimes I have to ditch the extreme sport altogether to make the story work, but even if that happens, the extreme sport provided the story seed.

Stay tuned for stories about ice diving, magnetic kite-flying, and coming up: extreme flute-playing.