Sunday, September 11, 2011

Following in the Footsteps of Giants

I live in St. Louis, only 90 minutes south of Mark Twain's hometown of Hannibal, MO. I've been going there for years and can't count the number of visits I've made - with parents, girlfriends, wives, children, and even by myself. All have been memorable and every time I go, there is something new to see or do. It's a great experience and a wonderful homage to one America's finest writers.

During the April Missouri Writer's Guild Conference I had the pleasure of meeting the director of the Mark Twain Boyhood home and one of the most enthusiastic Mark Twain fans I've ever met -- quite possibly the most enthusiastic in existence. She invited me for a tour and I took her up on her offer over Labor Day Weekend.

Even though I've visited countless times before, this was my first visit as a serious writer, so I was able to take in the sites with a new perspective. Cindy (my tour guide) took me through Twain's boyhood home, the town, and "Injun Joe's Cave." She related what we were looking at to his stories, most notably Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. That's when it dawned on me that I was walking in the footsteps of a giant. Here Mark Twain strolled the streets--he ate, worked, studied, played and maybe even loved in this small Missouri town. What's more, he took these experiences and turned them into wonderful stories.

As writers, we often take our own experiences and weave them into tales of fiction. By walking in Twain's footsteps I learned how he took a few events from his life, added some embellishments, and created two American classics. We don't have to write exactly what happened. Instead, we can start with just a few basics and let our imagination do the rest. It was truly inspirational.

I came to realize that Tom Sawyer is so popular because it is the story of a boy -- as told from that boy's perspective. Mark Twain nailed it because Tom Sawyer was looking at the world not through the eyes of an adult, but through the eyes of a boy. He transported us back through the past to our own childhood and did it so well because he used his own experiences as a boy, making the depiction a very genuine one and to which we all, since we were all children at one time, can easily relate. And that is the magic of good writer - to transport the reader from their own world into that of the writer.

This not only applies to settings and perspective, but to support characters as well. Injun Joe, Huck Finn, Becky Thatcher, even Jim were all based on real-life people. The magic is that the characters didn't necessarily have to depict their real-life inspirations accurately, but just enough so that the characters are seen as genuine, allowing the reader to better relate to them. They can be amalgamations of different people, or maybe just extrapolations of one or more of that person's more notable characteristics. Becky Thatcher just wasn't the girl who lived across the street, she became the "girl next door." Injun Joe wasn't the scary looking guy who lived in town, but a killer. Huck Finn didn't just come from a poor family, his dad was the town drunk. Too many times "flat" characters are just that - flat. To add de[th,

John Steinbeck (his hometown of Salinas and Monterrey California are also notable places to visit) has done this (characters in Cannery Row are based on some of his friends) and I've done this myself. In my short story, "Billy," the main female character was based on someone I know. I asked myself what would happen is you take one of her personality traits (seeing the world through a very narrow perspective) and extrapolate that to encompass the loss of a child. In "Seeing Sarah" I take another ex and put her on her deathbed. What would she do? How would the main character (me) react? A new short story of mine, "The Best Part of the Chicken," is based on an experience I had in SE MO following a major ice storm. In that story, I blended characters, neighborhoods, and experiences into one interaction. Of course, you have to be careful not to depict a person too accurately, lest they be recognized, a problem John Cheever used to have.

I learned a lot that weekend in Hannibal -- or at least received confirmation of what I already knew -- that good writing comes from us, the writer, and our past -- story, events, characters, even setting. If you ever want to overcome writer's block, think about something that happened in your past, or someone you knew (or both), and let your imagination do the rest.


- Take a person from your life and insert him or her into a unique situation.
- Take a person or event and ask a "what if?" question, or project that person/event into the future - or even past.
- Take a person in your life, isolate one or two characteristics, and build a new character based on those characteristics.
- Take a few people and settings and mix them all up into one event.
- Take a person you know and put them into an historical setting.
- Imagine your city in the future and set a past event in that future setting.
- Take a situation from your past and write about it, with you reacting differently.
- Take an event from your life and write about it from the other person's perspective.

Happy Writing!

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