In a recent blog I wrote about my visit to author Jack London’s Napa, CA home, now a state park. I’ve been a JL fan since I was a kid, when I read White Fang in grade school as required reading. He quickly became one of my favorite storytellers with that book. I think it’s because he lived what he wrote, which made his stories all that much richer.
Sci-fi novels are experiencing a resurgence, along with romance novels. I can’t help but wonder: how much of these stories were lived by the authors? My guess? Few to none. We live in a world where fantasy is favored over real life, where digital relationships (texting, sexting, selfies, vlogging, etc.) and its inevitable voyeurism have replaced the human experience. The richness, depth, and complexity of our existence are slowly disappearing as machines distract us from our lives and connections.
Jack had been a sailor, a fish and game warden, an oyster pirate, a gold prospector, a war correspondent, a rancher, and a farmer (the first in America to utilize terraced farming that he learned of in Asia), just to name a few. He was a busy man, experiencing life in the deepest possible way – by living it, then writing about it. How many writers can claim that today? And does writing solely from imagination make one a good writer? Is it possible to become a superior storyteller without living any part of the story? I’ve blogged about how bad decisions make good stories (sometimes the best ones) so I guess I’m old school in the idea that at least some part of the story should come from personal experience.
Maybe that’s what happens as we shape the characters in our stories; we pepper in a bit of ourselves, friends, family members, coworkers. The unusual color of the protagonist’s eyes, the wry smile of your antagonist belonged to a previous lover, the righteous anger of a scorned relative showing up in a minor character. Your pool of character quirks and physical/mental traits can be endless. Dig from your life to build your stories; no one has experienced your life but you, so no one else enrich your readers the way you can.
Here’s a short list of some of the jobs/experiences I’ve had that flavor my writing:
- Waitress/bartender (upscale restaurants, nightclubs, etc.) – met many interesting characters
- Private investigator – some good cases where I found antagonists
- Tennis player/state champion
- Lecturer/public speaker
- Behavioral/psychiatric technician
- Doctor/clinician (including time on a cruise ship in the Caribbean)
- Drug/alcohol counselor
- Criminal justice system – lots of characters here!
- Homelessness (personal experience that I did write about)
- 4 cross country trips – where I met some great & some odd personalities, and experienced multiple landscapes
Wanna write? Get your ass off the couch. Seek out adventures. Make some bad decisions. Then make a similar list. They’ll make your stories feel more real, even if they aren’t.