Wednesday, May 18, 2011

THERE’S GOLD IN THEM THAR TALES: Spinning Family Stories into Fiction

I am delighted to announce that my novel THAT BOY RED published by HarperCollins Canada, has now been released. Set in P.E.I. during the 1930s, it follows the adventures and misadventures of eleven-year-old Roderick “Red” MacRae and his large and lively family as they struggle through bad weather, plunging crop prices and more during a particularly turbulent year.

This episodic novel is my first foray into historical fiction and it was inspired by my father-in-law’s anecdotes about growing up on a P.E.I. farm during the Depression.

Family stories are like gold, but we don’t always recognize their value because they’re familiar. We often fail to appreciate the weight and charm of this rough ore, and the potential for refining and burnishing it into fiction.

Here’s how this novel started for me and one of the biggest challenges I encountered...

My father-in-law, John Gilmore, who is now deceased, lived in P.E.I. and my husband and I travelled there annually, treasuring our time on the Island and with John. Our mornings together were particularly special. In his small, brown kitchen, John would put on a pot of porridge, then he’d pull up the sides of the wooden table which he had built, so we could all sit comfortably around it. After we’d eaten, we’d linger at the table with our tea and coffee and just talk, talk and talk.

Often, this was when John would talk about his childhood – incidents both trivial and dramatic, some funny, some heart-breaking, and the general way of life back then. Being curious and sometimes frankly nosy – which I guess all writers have to be if we are to spin stories – I’d pepper him with questions. Perhaps I’d think to ask questions, as opposed to my husband, because the background wasn’t my given. In any case, pepper him I did, because I was fascinated by his anecdotes.

In part, maybe this was because my favourite books when I was growing up were the ANNE books by L.M. Montgomery, so anything about a bygone P.E.I. era carried charm.

But it wasn’t just that. John was a wonderful man, steady, deep, funny, and his anecdotes and his way of telling them reflected that. He also knew how to spin stories and jokes without getting bogged in irrelevant details; he knew how to pace it, and boy, did he know how to deliver a punch line. I wonder if people of that generation, who grew up without TV learned, almost by osmosis, the fine art of telling stories and jokes.

In any case, I loved his reminiscences about life on the farm, the bad turnip crop, the lost twenty dollar bill, the plane that landed in a neighbour’s field, and more.

One day, as I listened to him, I felt that familiar tingle inside me, the fire of story, and my mind began to trip overtime spinning fictional stories around John’s anecdotes. I felt that charge inside me that told me here was a book I wanted to write.

I thought it over carefully before discussing it with John, to be sure I did want to write this book. I never for a moment considered writing this as a biography; it's just not my forte, and anyway, sticking to bald facts can restrict the creation of a satisfying story arc. Incidents from people’s lives don’t necessarily make for good fiction or drama. I needed to feel free to make things up, to add humour and drama as needed in order to create story and meaning through fiction, because that’s what I do best. I firmly believe that I can tell a better truth through fiction than through bald facts.

It’s telling the truth through lies.

I had another reason for wanting to write this as fiction. For a story to resonate and sing, it needs characters with flaws. That’s easier to do in fiction than in biography. It’s unsettling, disrespectful even – or so I felt – digging for and then dishing the dirt on people you love. No, it had to be fiction.

So I asked John if I could use his anecdotes to craft into fiction, making things up as I needed, using fictional characters. He immediately agreed; he was pleased and even flattered that I was interested enough in his life to want to do that.

One of the biggest challenges when writing fiction inspired by stories, family or otherwise, is to create characters that are your own so you’re not harnessed to, or restrained by, the real people who may have inspired them.

I knew I had to create a main character that was inspired by, but was not, John. I had to find, unearth, chip out a character of my creation – someone I’d know inside out – so I’d feel free to weave stories through and in and around him without ever wondering at the back of my mind if John might do that. I had to be completely free to give my character flaws – all kinds of rashes, warts and tics – without being hampered by how that might reflect on John. I had to do this for all my characters, for the members of my main character’s family.

It was more of a challenge at first than I thought it would be. My ideas developed and evolved, and my research progressed so that my sense of that time period began to be coloured in with more precise detail and vision (more on that later). But as I tried to unearth, dig out and know my main character, I still found myself, at times, referring back to John’s persona, wondering what he might feel or do in a fictional incident, trying to understand him as a young lad.

I knew I hadn’t yet nailed that elusive main character, but that I had to find him in order to write this book – a character who could be himself.

So I chipped away at it. Finding the right name was crucial. I tried several before I settled on Roderick “Red” MacRae. I was aware that people might make the connection with that other red-headed P.E.I. character Anne Shirley, but my Red was not based on her. When I tried to change his name I couldn’t, because that name fit him – and by the way, no, his hair is not red!

Slowly, Red came into clearer and clearer focus. When I was finally able to name his flaws and his scratchy warts with certainty and conviction – and with the affection one feels for one’s characters – I knew that Red was real.

I’m not sure when that exact moment occurred – it was gradual and organic rather than one blinding aha! moment – it was a spiral of ongoing discovery to the heart of the character. But I knew I was there when I found myself wondering if some trivial incident I had in my head was something Red had told me about, or if I’d heard it from John.

That’s when Red became fully fleshed. That’s when he took the helm of his story.

And that is when the writing began to flow. I just love, love, love the stage when I know a character so well that all I have to do is follow him/her and write down what he/she does. This happened many times with Red; somehow he had a tendency to veer off in unexpected directions, to do things I hadn’t thought about consciously but which, after I’d written about them, were absolutely true and right, sometimes making me laugh out loud.

My next blog post will explore some of the other challenges of writing historical fiction.