does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Turning Fact Into Fiction

Well before normal retirement age, we sold the house, stored our belongings, and took off on a trawler for three years. We traveled up and down the US East Coast, down the Caribbean chain, reaching Venezuela, and returning via Bermuda.

Recently, I reread the trip log of that adventure, which sometimes reminded me of “Be careful what you wish.” What started out with starry eyes ended with gutted finances. However, this trip of a lifetime also produced an amazing treasure trove of unique experiences. Some were used as inspiration for a collection of short stories.

Though some of those stories about life aboard a boat have been published, most now reside on a computer disk, largely ignored. The trip log mentioned earlier had also been ignored. When I picked it up last week, though, I remembered why our cruising experience had been worth recording both in fact and in fiction. Here is an entry from the trip log:

“Cold, rainy, windy. … Heavily wooded [banks]. Little sign of human habitation. Nice to have this all to ourselves. … sleepy, peaceful ride.”

Sounds idyllic, right? But, below the above entry I entered a curt:

“Terrible storm. 50-knot winds. Turned on our ear 3-4 times.”

That’s it, but that terse last line was the inspiration for ”Faint Outline of a Bridge,” a short story. Here is an excerpt:

Inchon slammed to starboard. Meg’s legs collapsed, sending her sprawling to the deck. Below, doors banged open and shut. As she shot past the galley companionway, Meg looked down, only to see dishes and pasta, soup cans and dried beans shooting out of the cabinets onto the deck.

Stunned, Meg waited for Inchon to right herself up. At least, she hoped Inchon would come back up. If the boat stayed on her side and water came rushing in, Meg was now too shaky to swim to safety.

At the wheel, Burt shouted, 'Come on, you sorry excuse for a trawler, get up.'

It didn’t happen. Inchon remained caught on her side. Meg couldn’t help it. Vomit dribbled out of her mouth.

‘Time to ditch, Meg! The boat's not coming back.’

She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and looked up. Burt had abandoned the wheel and now lurched toward the aft cabin door. There, he grabbed two life jackets from a locker and threw one at Meg. The other one dangled from his arm. As soon as he opened the door, the banshee wind came wailing in. Pummeled by waves, Inchon groaned and creaked.

Meg thought she heard water pouring in and couldn’t understand why she didn’t feel wet already.”

It has been said all writing is autobiographical. How much of the above story excerpt was fact and how much was fiction? All I can say is that, while living through our real-life near disaster on North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound, I was not recording the events for posterity. I was terrified, and the terror part of the short story is real. The blow-by-blow account of the incident is likely not. And that’s why I write fiction and not memoir, so I don’t feel constrained by reality. Actually, that’s what makes writing fiction fun.


Judy Croome said...

Judith, the line between autobiography and pure fiction is an interesting one. I'm on the side of the debate which believes that all fiction writing (including poetry) does reflect some part of the writer's inner world. If I had to extrapolate that thought, I'd say that the plotting part is imagination (particularly, one hopes, in novels such as murder thrillers!!) but the characterisations would rise up out of the writer's deep unconscious.

I get sea sick on the beach so I think you were VERY brave to take that trip - and what a treasure trove of experience for your writings! :)

Judith Mercado said...

Judy, I've had some readers tell me that they felt sea sick as they read my short story. I've just sent it out on submission. I hope the editor doesn't get so sea sick he/she won't accept my story. As for the trip, I'm glad to be on land. My husband would still like to be out there. But it did serve as a treasure trove for story ideas.

Mayowa said...

Yowza! I'm glad you made it out of that and what a great story.

You capture my meaning when I rant (unintelligibly) about writers not infusing enough of their experiences/emotions into their work.

You know the fear because you've felt it and it comes through in your story.

Sheila Deeth said...

That writing's certainly fun, well-infused with what you must have imagined could soon happen. Great treasure trove.

Nevine said...

"And that’s why I write fiction and not memoir, so I don’t feel constrained by reality. Actually, that’s what makes writing fiction fun."

Absolutely! I truly believe that everything we write, even fiction is by necessity inspired by non-fiction. This doesn't mean that everything I write happened to me, rather that I internalize certain moments of my existence and my vicarious existence through others, and those moments I use to create my own stories. When I first started blogging, I often got comments such as,"Oh, how terrible that this happened to you!" And I always had to explain that this is fiction... it did not happen to me... it just happened in my imagination which was triggered by something that happened that might not even bear this story any similarity. At any rate, your excerpt was a perfect example of that. You took a few lines from some notes you took about the weather on a trip and wrote a short story from that. I'm sure there are slivers of truth within that narrative... and those slivers might even be from other experiences on other days. That's the way the writing craft goes, I suppose... and that's what makes it so magical.

I enjoyed reading your excerpt immensely. You weave the atmosphere of your story around your reader... and this type of writing makes my reading experience a pleasure.


Judith Mercado said...

Mayowa: Yes, without infusing something one has felt it is hard to capture authenticity. It need not be the same experience but something of the sense memory has to be there to be able to recreate it in written form.

Sheila: Thanks for stopping by. It’s always good to get your feedback.

Nevine: You of course understand perfectly. The emotion in your own writing is so palpable that it is tempting to think that you experienced it and in exactly the same way. It is a sign of how gifted a writer you are that you can make us feel that we are reading is real.

A Cuban In London said...

I believe that all fiction stems from real-life events but not all real-life events beget fiction. Yours was a brilliant exercise in how to polish the rough edges of your personal experience and transform them into a very well-written tale. I actually felt sick whilst reading the excerpt. That probably shows how powerful your narration was. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Mohamed Mughal said...

I've always held that all fiction writing is a muted form of autobiography. I don't see how it can't be so.