Monday, 8 July 2013

Stories From Real Life

"How Much of the Story is True?"

People often ask me this question. I am told this is because my characters are very vivid – that they are so defined and individual that they simply must be real. I'm told that the situations in my short stories are so out of the ordinary that they are not something a writer could just invent. But this is not true of course.

There is always an element of truth in everything a writer produces. There has to be – we draw our inspiration from what we know in life. One or two of the short stories I have written over the years are very close to the truth – stories where I didn't have to change much from the event and characters that inspired it – but this is not the norm. In my case, a situation arrises – something someone says or does or something I see on the news for example – that sparks my imagination.

A French friend once told me,
"My brother's not that happy in his life. He's married a North African woman with a big family who all live nearby. In their culture they expect the whole extended family to share what they have. It sounds nice but they used to borrow his nice car and it would always come back damaged. It tortured him."
I thought about this brother – a rather obsessional man of habit – and how a man like him might try to resolve this situation. I imagined him arguing with his wife but realising how she would always see it according to her culture – he was being mean. I imagined what he might do to deal with this borrowing expectation – how a man of his nature might develop strategies and adopt strangely complex systems to make it harder for the family to borrow his things, but without demonstrating a lack of generosity. Before long I had weaved a detailed character in my head and a whole set of bizarre behaviours he might adopt. I imagined him with a valuable classic car he had painstakingly saved for as a younger man – his efforts over years to restore it. I imagined him marrying this beautiful exotic creature and then discovering the family culture thing. He would be desperate not to lose her but tortured by the possible damage to his cherished car. He thinks of selling it but can't bear to part with it. He could say it had been stolen perhaps? He begins by saying it's not insured for others to drive, of course, but these are North Africans. Eventually, in a state of mania, he resorts to taking a part (the rotor arm) out of the car so that it won't work. This means he can't drive it either, but it is a price worth paying, he feels.

I wrote down the story and developed it. It seemed like it had legs, as they say. I built up the characters of the man, his wife, her family, the man's work colleagues etc. I described their apartment and the car – it was a Porsche 365 Roadster. The story was set in the UK and the woman became Afro-caribbean. When a few years later the story was published in a book of short stories, I sent a copy to my French friend. Later I asked him how he liked the stories. I waited for him to remark on the character based upon his brother, which he did not. I asked him which of the stories he liked best and he said he loved the one about the guy with the Porsche. I told him this was unsurprising since it was based upon what he had told me about his brother. He was confused. Nothing in the story seemed to him to relate to his brother, he said. I mentioned the car and the cultural issues with his wife's family. He saw the link but insisted it was such a different story that his brother's life was unrecognisable in it.

The above example is typical. Generally it is unlikely that anyone is going to accuse me of making public their closely guarded secrets to my readers. My wife worries about this a lot, I have to say. But the characters and situations are too much changed. They absorb characteristics of other people I have known or heard about. The circumstances and backstory changes. The environment changes and so does the main story – all embellished with things I remember from my past, from films, from television programs and even from other books. Yes, I have a good memory!

You might find it interesting to know, that my French friend told his brother what the man in the story did to avoid having his precious possessions borrowed. His brother tried it out, with some success. I'm very happy to have acted as his therapist in this case.

By the way, for those who are wondering, the story in question is named For The Love of Marsha.  It  is one of the stories in the book, Special Treatment and Other Stories.

The blog about this book and the link to its listing on Amazon is here

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