Sitting at the Keyboard, Telling Lies

I have a degree in music performance. I’m actually really good. I blame excellent genetics and an undeservedly high degree of manual dexterity for my success. It’s an interesting talent and skillset to have. Over the years it has added value to an odd set of situations and my writing has certainly benefited from the artistic training.

I also had a fantastic conversation with my father this evening about personal firearms.

If you’ll humor me for a minute, I’ll try and tie these two things together. The point that I’m going to try and make is that you can find inspiration and authenticity for fiction in all aspects of your life.

Chad Clifton is the protagonist in The Guardian Diaries. These are my urban fantasy series and Chad is a modern day mage who works as a bodyguard torn by loyalties to the mob and to the FBI. Chad’s handgun of choice is a Colt model U.S. 1911 and my Dad just taught me a ton about the gun and its specific attributes.

I have a 1911 in front of me right now. It’s older than I am, my father having traded a University of Alaska professor for it years before I was born. I’m finding that it is incredibly valuable for me to handle the gun while I’m rewriting several of the combat sequences in Cravings, the first book of the Guardians series.

I bring all of this up because it’s a very tangible example of my personal life and experiences impacting the quality of my writing product.

There is a lesson that I learned in music school that reminds me to capitalize on these kinds of real world, personal experiences for my fiction writing.

I once read an interview in a music magazine where country and bluegrass artist, Vince Gill, was asked how he tells such incredibly strong stories in the songs that he writes. Gill’s response, and I’m paraphrasing terribly, was, “I pick up a guitar and I start telling lies.”

I think that is an incredibly concise and insightful statement for fiction authors to hear. For me at least, there is no shortage of tales waiting to be told. I feel that those stories most truly come to life when they are infused with the essence of my own personal experiences.

I can’t do what Vince Gill does. I am terrible at writing songs. I’ve tried. It’s painful. It’s embarrassing. I feel like lyrics are too intimate and I can’t distance myself from the personal events that might inspire a tune.

The same does not hold true for a fictional story, though.

Perhaps it is because fantastical stories are so clearly non-autobiographical that there is a buffer between the injection of personal experience and the final product that is consumed by the reader. Perhaps it is because there is a volume of material sufficient enough to excuse references to my own thoughts and recollections. They become color commentary rather than the actual substance of the story.

I’m not sure.

Yet, while I can’t pick up a guitar and start telling lies, I can sit down at my keyboard and do just that.

I also think that the process is incredibly cathartic. Chad Clifton is a fictional character and as such, he is nothing more than a tool by which I can elicit a response from a reader. All of the characters that I write are just that, instruments with which I can compose a story.

I was born and raised in Alaska. The closest that I’ve ever been to organized crime is movie night watching episodes of The Sopranos. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never met a prostitute. I feel incredibly confident that I’ve never unknowingly encountered some fantastical creature from mythology.

My characters can do all of those things, though. Their encounters become more real for the reader if I can inject relatable experiences from my own life into the mix. I don’t know much about life as a criminal, but I do know a lot about politics and business. I’ve never been in a firefight, but I grew up hunting all sorts of game with my family. I didn’t lose my father in a fishing accident, but I did work commercial fishing boats in college.

Every author has a lifetime’s worth of personal pain and triumph to draw from. Harnessing those experiences can make a story ring true. Don’t think that your story needs a suspension of the reader’s disbelief. Instead, give them strong references to familiar experiences and create an encouragement of belief. That will keep your reader turning the page.

With time and distance, personal tragedy can become a protagonist’s source of internal struggle. Recollections of summer jobs with salty construction workers who use colorful four-letter words in lieu of punctuation can provide some eyebrow-lifting dialogue. High school blunders, given time for the embarrassment to wear off, can be a good source of comedy. Use them to give your reader those memorable, awkward moments when they burst out in snorting laughter while sitting on an airplane or in the living room while their spouse is browsing Facebook.

Change those experiences.

Camouflage them.

Ruthlessly bend them to your will.

But, don’t be afraid to explore and exploit them.

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