There I was, at dinner with a co-worker. We were far from home in a tiny town, after a day of roaming the woods and puzzling over a project we had been assigned to analyze. I don’t know how it came up, but this person who shall not be named revealed a personal story about one of his relatives–one of those stories that makes a writer’s ears perk up. Whoa! I thought. What a great premise for a novel! But then: Hmm. Would using it be bad? It’s not like this event didn’t happen to other people in history…but…
That, my friends, is why knowing a writer can be dangerous. I can’t even tell you how many pieces of stories I have considered for my books, not even to mention personalities that later appeared, fictionalized of course, in Geography. Some people may labor under the impression that novels are 100% made up. Well, they are, but everything we writers read, see, hear, can’t help but weave itself someday into some piece of writing. It’s the same with non-writers, really. We all become a tapestry of the things we have seen, done and heard.
It’s a fine line, because you can’t just steal someone’s life story and brazenly write it up as fiction (although, some writers have. There’s a book very thinly disguised as a novel which is similar to the Amanda Knox murder story. I still am not sure how the writer got away with that. I wouldn’t have the nerve). I have used interesting sayings, such as Isaiah’s “It’s always a good day when you are on the right side of the grass.” A buddy in Alaska used to say that, and I stole it for my floathouse dwelling veteran.
Stories, though, those are different. If I use my co-worker’s story. I will have to doctor it up, change it, so that it’s not about some stranger I’ve never met, but someone I have dreamed up. I feel like my mind is always collecting things like these, bringing them back to my web to use later. (That is a disturbing image. Scratch that and replace it with someone haunting estate sales, picking up old photos.)
There really isn’t much that is completely new under the sun. Stories are repeats of older versions; characters bear resemblance to others written long ago. The trick is to make these stories seem new and exciting. I have an idea, percolating from the dinner. I’ll use it responsibly. In the meantime, if having dinner with a writer, watch your words, unless you want to end up, suitably disguised of course, in a story.