(From a talk I gave at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival, 2016)
Writers of fiction are often asked, “Where do your ideas come from?” The answer isn’t that simple. Sometimes, ideas just seem to pop into the writer’s head out of nowhere, perhaps inspired by a dream, a glimpse of a stranger, or an overheard conversation. But often, authors plunder their own lives or the lives of others that we read about, hear about, or witness, to trigger or augment our fictional stories. Everything, in other words, is fodder for fiction.
Today, I’m going to talk about memory or personal experience as a source for fiction. Fiction based on memory depends more on the meaning behind what happened than on an adaptation of the real story. To give the story depth and take it beyond the superficial, the writer must take the known, then explore the unknown of it—the “what if” of what could have happened if we let imagination shape reality. If a work of fiction is germinated in fact, it is only what the writer took away from the experience that matters: what it meant to him or her, and how he (or his fictional character) might have grown or been changed by what happened. The hard work is to uncover the underlying significance behind the circumstance that inspired our fantasy, then apply it within the context of the fictional story we want to tell.
As examples of what I’m talking about, I’ll cite the real-life sources of the following excerpts from a unpublished novel I’ve completed, Shifting Gears, which takes place in Miami Beach. The main characters are Zoe, Max and Hal, and each is at a turning point in his life. Briefly, the premise is:
Zoe drives a cab and due to circumstances too involved to describe here, winds up as the driver for Max, whose driver’s license has been taken away from him. Max is the elderly real-estate developer of a legendary Miami Beach hotel, the Louis Quinze, which is about to be demolished to make way for a glitzy monster condo. His son, Hal, is a Miami Beach commissioner who, unbeknownst to his father, has become politically involved in the destruction of the Louis Quinze and the development of the new condo.
I’ll use these excerpts to illustrate how I transitioned from memory or experience to create a scene that develops character, establishes setting or advances the plot. Each of these passages is in the story for a literary reason, and not inserted arbitrarily. Many times I didn’t even know that I was going to use a memory or experience until it just popped up as I was writing a scene, as if it were waiting to be there all along: these are examples of the subconscious at work. The more conscious examples are from times when I had a feeling I might be able to use a particular experience in my work, so I went and took notes, just in case.
The first three excerpts are examples of the subconscious at work, when some experience from the past surfaced as I was writing, and wiggled its way into the scene.
The following scene takes place in a popular gourmet food market, Epicure (which was recently closed). I used this setting to establish a sense of place, as well as lead to a complication in the story. A version of this actually happened to me, only I didn’t take it to its final conclusion in real life. I only imagined what could happen. What’s going on here is Zoe has taken Max to pick up some takeout for a ride they’re taking. Max has other ideas:
(Here they are, waiting their turn at the deli counter. The deli guy is calling numbers:)
“Eighty-three. Eighty-three.” A guy with a greasy comb-over and high-waisted Dockers waves his ticket. After careful deliberation, he orders the shrimp with pasta salad. He changes his mind in favor of the bean and corn salad, then questions the source of the poultry that gave their lives for the chicken salad. When he debates regular tuna salad versus the low-fat version and asks for a taste of each, Zoe can’t take it any more.
“Just pick something, doofus,” she mutters.
“What?” Comb-over halts in mid-taste, tiny plastic spoon clenched between tuna-clogged teeth. “You got a problem, lady?”
“You’re the one with the problem,” she says. “Make up your mind. You’re not picking out a ring at Tiffany’s. It’s food.”
“Don’t rush me. I’m not going to be rushed. You’re in a hurry, go to Burger King.” He drops the used spoon into the little bucket on the counter and turns to the deli guy. “I think I’d like to taste the lobster salad.”
Before Comb-over can get the spoon to his lips, Zoe grabs it and shoves it into her mouth. “It’s yummy,” she pronounces. “Now get a pound of it and move your sorry butt out of here.”
“Did you see that?” Comb-over yells at the waiting crowd. “She ate my taste.”
The crowd shuffles uneasily, studying their number stubs with renewed interest.
“Sir,” says the deli guy, an experienced hand at counter-induced altercations, “please place your order so we can move on.”
Comb-over glares at Zoe, turns to the deli meister and in a cold and level voice says, “Give me a taste of lobster salad.”
“Okay, that’s it,” Zoe says, wheeling around. “Come on, Max, we’re outta here.”
But Max is gone. And so is her purse.
This next excerpt is another example of the subconscious use of memory. Hal, the son, is coming to several realizations, one of which is he isn’t where he thought he’d be at this stage of life (55). This passage illustrates his feeling that if he doesn’t do something to change his life now, he never will. I used to watch the kiteboarders off Miami Beach and marvel at their agility, just like Hal does here, watching from the balcony of his condo:
He can see them from his balcony, tethered to brightly colored kites that arc against the sky like candy wrappers caught by the wind, lithe surfers balancing on boards that skip the waves at high speed, knees bobbling over frothing waves like skiers over bumps. Graceful as Baryshnikov, flexible as Gumby, focused as a kid thumbing a video game, the kiteboarders leap, spin, and cartwheel beneath the billowing U of their kites. Hal’s body flexes in phantom harmony with theirs, pantomiming the careless freedom he once had when all that mattered was the next move.
Once upon a time he was lithe and muscular, too, before his broad shoulders sank, before his carved legs became stringy, before he lost his nerve. When did that happen? When did the years settle over him like a fog, obscuring all those things he thought he was and would be, leaving him high up here on his balcony watching kiteboarders skim the whitecapped waves as lightly as a cat laps cream?
The next excerpt is based on an actual experience I had with my mother, many years ago, when we were leaving a Red Lobster restaurant in Charlottesville. It festered in my memory as just another bad experience until it popped up as I was writing this scene. Here, Tootsie, Max’s wife, is driving Max to the doctor’s in a heavy rainstorm, and somehow drives the front end of the car over the 8-foot wall of an elevated parking lot. The purpose of this passage is to develop Tootsie’s character, as well as create a turning point in the story. Here, the first tow truck driver gives up his efforts:
“You need the big tow truck,” he says. “It’s got a elevator bed that goes up and down. Maybe it can lift your car from the front. Only,” he adds, studying the height of the wall, “I dunno if it’ll go that high.”
A half hour later, she finds out. It doesn’t go that high. It rises to six inches below the front of the car, and that’s as far as it goes. The new tow truck driver sees this as a challenge. He considers borrowing a nearby cement block that is imbedded with a “no parking” sign to increase the range of the bed. Tootsie is numb by now. She doesn’t care what he does. She walks across the street and uses the bathroom in the gas station. Max, judging from the odor that has arisen within the confines of the car over the past hour and a half, is no longer concerned about his urination situation. He has, however, regained his energy enough to share his thoughts with her upon her return:
“I knew it. I knew it,” he says. “Look what happens when I let you drive. If I miss my appointment, I’ll have to wait another three weeks to get him to take a look at this thing.” He pets the malformation with a knobby forefinger. “What do you care? It’s just a nose to you, but to me, it’s my nose.” He slumps into a cross-armed knot behind the seat belt. “I shoulda driven. I’m a good driver. I passed that test. I can prove it.”
Tootsie sees the bed of the tow truck slowly elevate beneath the front of the car. The cement block is on top of it. It rises until it hits the chassis with a crunch. “I think we got it,” the tow truck driver yells.
“The test guy said I didn’t stop at the stop sign,” Max says. “I didn’t need to stop, I told him. I was going very slowly.” (this is an actual quote from my father)
The car shudders, creaks and moans as its front end lifts away from the ledge, tipping Tootsie and Max back in their seats. “Reverse, reverse,” the truck driver yells, and Tootsie throws the car into gear.
“I’ve been driving for 70 years. How many people can say that?” Max asks.
“Gun it!” yells the truck driver.
The car jerks, tossing them like crash test dummies. The front drops with a thud onto its wheels and the car rolls back several yards. Heart leaping, Tootsie stomps on the brake. The tow truck driver jumps down from his cab and gives her a thumbs-up.
The next three excerpts are examples of conscious memory retrieval, based on experiences that I figured might eventually be useful in my work, so I went to these places and took notes. The first example is based on my experience of going to the – I guess you could call it – garage sale at the Fountainebleau Hotel. The hotel was being gutted in preparation for its complete renovation, and all the contents (ironing boards, silverware, mattresses, hairdryers, TVs) were put on sale in its lobby and reception area.
The purpose of this passage is to develop character, create the setting–past and present–and advance the plot. Here, Zoe has taken Max to see the Louis Quinze for the last time before its implosion, and discovers there’s a big sale in progress:
“See that stairway?” He points across the lobby. “Lemme show you something.” Zoe has to hustle to keep up with him now as he churns in its direction, dodging blonde furniture, television sets and several determined customers who shove him right back when he pushes them aside.
They arrive at the foot of the grand, gilded double staircase to find it roped off and guarded by a bored security guard who is dabbing away with a glue pen at an elaborately decorated inch-long fake fingernail. “Can’t go up, honey,” she says when he tries to unhook the velvet rope. “It’s off limits.”
“Whaddaya mean, off limits?” Max protests. “We just want to go up and take a look.”
“No can do,” she says, examining her nail work. “Can’t allow anybody up the stairs. Insurance, you know.”
“Insurance? It’s a stairway.” He turns to Zoe. “She ruined the surprise. It’s famous. It’s the Stairway to Nowhere. You go up, you look around, you go down again. The mink ladies liked to make a grand entrance that way.” He grabs the velvet rope again. “Let me show you.”
“Hey!” the guard says. “Don’t touch that rope.”
Max unhooks the rope; the guard grabs it. It’s a velvet rope tug-of-war with Max on the losing end until…
“Shit!” The guard releases the rope and drops to her knees. “My nail!” she says, groping the carpet frantically. Max makes his move. He scrambles up the stairway, tripping dangerously over his baggy pants in his getaway. He reaches the top, Zoe close behind. Below them, the guard is sending for the troops on her two-way radio.
Max surveys the lobby from his altitude. Zoe imagines that he’s seeing–not the spring-sprung sofas; the $72 TVs; the upended coffee tables, legs in the air like dead cats—but elegant women in furs, beehive hairdos braided like challas, and deep-tanned, Dep-gelled men in white dinner jackets. She can almost see him as he was in the photo she’s seen in the Wolfe’s condo, taken at a table in the nightclub of the Louis Quinze the night it opened: a dapper, dark-haired dandy. Now, fifty years later, Max Wolfe, the Hotel King, spreads his arms, Pope-like, and embraces the room of his memory.
The next excerpt takes place on the Miami Beach boardwalk, where I would walk at least once a week. One day I took notes. This passage has a dual purpose: to establish setting, and to lead to another complication. Here, Zoe is driving Hal, taking him out for some air and a break from his parents, where he’s staying after his motorcycle accident. He’s on crutches and can’t drive himself. Here’s Hal and Zoe on the boardwalk:
It’s Saturday, a cool and sunny day, crisp as a new box of matzah. Hal feels alive for the first time in weeks, every sense tingling with the novelty of being in a place he had always taken for granted. Joggers, power walkers, and leisurely strollers pass him in sound bites: not just English in all its accented forms, but a tangle of languages– Spanish, French, Hebrew, Japanese, German, Yiddish, Swedish, something Eastern European with that guttural ch sound he finally mastered after years of Hebrew school. Their voices are woven into a sound track of crashing surf, boom box music, the snuffle of wind through dune grass. A wave of guilt washes over Hal when he hears the screech of building cranes and the bang of falling concrete as another old hotel is gutted to make way for the new, but his guilt subsides in the clean fresh air.
There’s a section I’ll skip, then:
Hal feels as if he’s been released from prison into a cartoon world sculpted from flesh. When’s the last time he saw so much flesh? Tattoo’ed, pierced, wrinkled, waxed, furry, burned, pasty, veined, scarred, pimply, taut, stretch-marked, navel-ringed, liposuctioned flesh.
And this last excerpt is a prelude to the climax of the book, and was derived from my experience of going to an actual implosion of a huge condo, knowing that somehow, I could use this in my book. Here, Zoe has hijacked a cab and rushed to the scene, trying to find Max who has stolen her car and gone there in hopes of stopping the destruction of his hotel. She’s too late:
The sound is the sound of the sky splitting open, a crack beyond thunder, an eardrum-shattering, bone-rattling percussion unmatched since Zoe sat next to the speaker at a Creedence Clearwater Revival concert in the ‘70s. A staccato series of booms follows like aural dominoes while concussive bursts of light explode from each floor. An avian tornado of pelicans, ibises and shrieking birds big and black as Van Gogh’s crows whirls into the sky. Then a pause, as if the building is taking a last breath. In slow motion, a floor at a time, it collapses.
The crowd applauds as the building disappears into a massive plume. Their cheers are punctuated by barking dogs, wailing kids and howls: Woohoo, Wow, Oh my God, Unbe-leeevable! Zoe is stunned into silence, then finds her voice, a hoarse croak of “Max!” choked through an inhalation of thick dust from the khaki-colored cloud that billows from the implosion site, then rolls towards them as the wind shifts in their direction. The crowd’s cheering turns to coughing with its advent, and they backpedal in hasty retreat.
“I’m outta here,” the cabbie yells. He screeches into reverse, away from the stampede of hacking people as they pull t-shirts and jackets over their heads or snatch napkins from their coolers to cover their noses and mouths. Zoe muscles her way through the panicked crowd to get to Max, who must be somewhere behind the dust cloud and beneath the rubble that just moments ago was the Louis Quinze. She stumbles over a blanket-covered stroller steered by a wild-eyed mother wielding a cellphone, scrambles to her feet only to be pummeled by a Hefty bag stuffed with a very large man whose darting eyes are the only thing she can see through the hole he has poked in the bag. And then she can see nothing but a blizzard of beige as the cloud descends and obscures everything in sight, even the fingers she spreads out in front of her face.
(I’ll skip a section here…)
The cloud begins to thin like a stretched-out cotton ball, and she can make out forms once again. Everything and everyone seems to have been dipped in flour, a baby-powder of fine dust that coats hair, clothing, cars, palm trees, picnic coolers, radios and cameras. The VIP tents and tablecloths are snarled or gone with the wind, but a few hearty partyers still wander the area carrying drinks and plates of albino food like ghosts at a mashed-potato buffet. Everyone else is hellbent on deserting the scene. The parking lot is a long line of schmutz-covered cars snaking their way to Collins. The sun, once completely obscured, glows through the haze like a light bulb through gauze, and a cool breeze sweeps away the cobwebs of cloud. Fire hoses spray water in great arcs to settle the dust. The air begins to clear, revealing helicopters hovering overhead. Palms and pines sway softly in the sudden silence as if nothing had happened at all. Some people are taking photos of each other against the background of the wreckage. Amazingly, there is no sign of destruction outside of the fence; inside, it looks like Hiroshima.
Each of these excerpts began with a memory or an experience, which was then refracted through the prism of imagination to create a fictional counterpart. Writers store all these bits and pieces in some compartment of our brains like tasty acorns we squirrel away for a time when we might need them.
So when a writer is asked, “Where do your ideas come from?”, the answer is: From my first memory to my last; from the things I’ve wondered about and the things I’ve found out about; from all the stuff that’s happened to me: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, every day of my life.