Life is my story trigger. I can’t make it through a day without wanting to turn words, sounds, feelings, or sights into a story.
I write my ideas on paper or speak them into a recorder. If I have my camera, I take a photo. Other times I have to let them float away and hope they come back to me at a more convenient time.
I never know what the story trigger will be each day, and they never fail to come. I just wish I could capture them all.
Stories come to me when I’m reading. Today I read a chapter in the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,¹ and the brief mention of Evensong struck me as an interesting name for a character.
Bonhoeffer was deeply impressed by his first attendance of this church ritual, and his description gave me a list for my character’s traits: solemn, simplicity, grace, great seriousness, profound, guileless piety. Even the colors he mentions (blue and green sashes on the young girls in the procession) work well with this person I want to create.
And I ask myself those writerly questions that fuel a newly triggered story: Why was she named Evensong? What does a life of guileless piety look like? What comes into her life that attracts her to atheism, which frees her to “be herself”? How will her namesake be used to bring her out of the gutter? (The plot thickens.)
Or maybe she’s a church choir singer who’s been discovered by a mega-music producer and now has a chance to pull her family out of poverty, if she’d only change her hairstyle, call herself “Evie,” and toss away most of her principles.
What does Evensong want me to learn from her story and share with you? I don’t know yet, but I’m having fun just thinking about it.
Stories come to me when I’m listening. Before Christmas, a co-worker and I spoke of our plans. She told me of her family tradition that was unusual (at least to my ears) and delightful.
The tradition? Her family gathers together and spends the night by the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. When I asked her how this tradition began, she admitted that she didn’t know. She had never thought to ask that question of her parents. All she knew is that since she was a child, and now with her own family, sleeping by the tree has been a part of her Christmas.
She asked her father, later that week, and after all those years of taking that Christmas tradition for granted, she received the special gift of family history.
And the story is precious. A true story. It’s about Russians and Lithuanians, Germany and runaways, war and survival. A father, mother, and two brothers.
And a tree.
My co-worker’s father is one of those two brothers. In my story, I plan to change the siblings to a brother and a sister. Sister will have my co-worker’s middle name, which is Lithuanian. The details of the family’s experience will be from my imagination, but the heart of the story will revolve around the tree’s significance. I hope you’ll be touched by the story as much as I was.
Stories come to me when I can’t let go. I just finished First-Person America,² a book about the Great Depression. During this humbling time in history, the federal government hired writers to interview the average American. The interviews (80 of them, conducted between 1938 and 1942) were not published until decades later when they were found in a government warehouse. They give a strong and undisguised picture of people struggling to survive.
One chapter shares the lives of three young widows and how they dealt with their emotional and financial losses in different ways. They lived in Barre, Vermont, a city that had a street known as la strada delle vedove — the street of the widows. Many granite workers lost their lives to silicosis, an occupational lung disease, as did the husbands of these women. By the time I finished reading the interviews, I didn’t want to let go of these widows without knowing more.
So … what if these women meet at, say, a V-E Day party and find that they have something more in common than a husband who died too soon? Or maybe one widow is dying and the other two offer to care for her five children — who are Negroes.
Or … perhaps they’re sisters, and they’re being pressured by their families to remarry and have children, but they know they’ll never love another, and, besides, they’re being trained to be spies. Unbeknownst to the family, of course.
There’s so much more to know about these women.
Okay. Enough of the imagining and time for the writing. I’ll keep you posted as the stories take shape.
Happy New Year!
¹ From Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. A Righteous Gentile vs. The Third Reich, Eric Metaxas, 2010.
² First-Person America, Ann Banks, 1980.