Thursday, December 13, 2012

Writing Fiction Is Like Making A Patchwork Quilt


“Write one true thing. Write the truest thing you know.” - Ernest Hemingway

I suspect every writer goes through this: a reader comes up to you or emails or posts on your blog to say, “I read ______ and I loved_____. You based him/her on so-and-so, didn't you?” Now, the chances are that we really didn't but the reader has this fabulous back-story in their mind and they really don't want to know it isn't so. I have rarely created a character that was modeled entirely on one person (there are a few exceptions and they are all in The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall) but I do combine things like one person's personality, another's looks, another's approach to life. I suspect many writers tend to do this. I remember reading an interview with the wonderful writer Mary Doria Russell in which she was talking about her character Emilio Sandoz in The Sparrow and Children of  God (one of my favorite characters in contemporary literature) and she said that his sense of humor was her husband's. I loved that because I loved Emilio's sense of humor.

Now that The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall is generating feedback a few people have tried to “guess” who the characters were supposed to be in real life. The truth is most of them are composites, a fact I tried to stress in the Introduction. One of the most remarked-upon characters in the book is Oliver Eberstark, the huge, reclusive but fascinating woodsman who owns Opelt's Wood. In the first story we meet him when he is chopping down a birch tree and Henry, the Chief of Police, recruits him to go into Opelt's Wood and track down Peeper who has gone on the lam. Oliver is the consummate woodsman and finding Peeper is easy but when he hauls him into the station and two of the ladies in the book are all flustered by his presence, he just turns around and goes back to the woods. A few stories later he is tracking down a wounded bear and saves Henry's life in the process but still he keeps to himself.

Finally, in the ninth story, we get to know Oliver and the devastating secret that has driven him into sadness and seclusion. What we know about Oliver is that he is huge man, muscular and barrel-chested with dark-hair, pale blue eyes and an impressive red beard. One of the characters remarks that he looks like Brett Keisel, the giant Pittsburgh Steelers Defensive End, #99, (a #99 plush doll sits on my desk keeping an eye on my writing.) Anyone who remembers my brother Jack will recognize Oliver's woodscraft and presence but, all that being said, Oliver is a unique character. He is one of my favorite creations.

I'm always a little surprised when readers ask if things that happen in my books happened to me. One reader said he was so shaken up by Tempest's “possession” – the one that sent her to a psychiatric ward – in Depraved Heart, that he said a prayer for me because he thought I must have experienced that. I didn't. A lot of readers have commented on Clair's first forays into exploring her sexuality (in The Old Mermaid's Tale.) They say that they so closely parallel their own that they must have been taken from life.

I suspect that's what being a writer of fiction is about much of the time, telling a story that is all your own invention but which is told so truly that many people can relate to it. That's what Hemingway would say, “Write one true thing. Write the truest thing you know.” I try.

Ever since that horrible shooting inCoudersport, PA, last week, I have been thinking about what possesses a person (and I chose the word “possess” on purpose) to go into a church to kill someone. I believe there is something demonic in that and I've been thinking about that a lot. But, here is the thing, it happens more often than one would think so that says to me there is something going on with that dynamic. It is awarenesses like that which convince me that there is no such thing as a totally unique situation or character. Writing fiction is like making a patchwork quilt. You take a bit of this and a bit of that and a bit of something else and, if you do your work well, something beautiful happens. It is what I strive for.

Thanks for reading.

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