Today’s guest is Cathy Lamb whose novels include What I Remember Most and soon to be released My Very Best Friend. Her other books are: If You Could See What I See, A Different Kind of Normal, The First Day Of The Rest Of My Life, Such A Pretty Face, Henry’s Sisters, The Last Time I Was Me, and Julia’s Chocolates. She is currently working on her tenth novel—she doesn’t think it will make her want to run away screaming to a rustic cabin in the backwoods of Montana, but she’s not sure. She has also written six short stories and about 225 articles for The Oregonian.
Cathy daydreams a lot, which is how she gets the ideas for her novels. At least, that’s her excuse. Then she stays up late, after everyone else has been in bed for hours, and stares at the moon and writes. Cathy is married and has three children. She lives in Oregon and has an odd cat.
I am writing about how writers should steal from their own lives for story lines because I think stealing, for this particular purpose, is quite helpful. Even entertaining. And, thank goodness, there’s no jail time involved. I mean, who wants to wear an orange jumpsuit? Not me.
Stealing From Your Own Life: Your Way To A Storyline
Writers, thou shall steal.
Yes, you shall.
Steal from your life. Steal from that devastating year and that most glorious weekend. Steal from your emotions, the utter despair and the sparkling joy, steal from someone you don’t like, steal from someone you adore.
Steal, like a literary thief in the night.
It’s all for your storylines and your characters.[pullquote]
Writers, thou shall steal. Yes, you shall. Steal from your life.[/pullquote]Right now, and I mean it, stop reading this article and think about the three worst things you’ve been through.
Really, stop reading. Stare into space and think this one out.
Stop crying. Ask yourself how you can use those soul-crushing times in your book. How can you use those emotions?
For example, my sweet father died about two months after my first book Julia’s Chocolates sold. He had prostate cancer. He came to my reading at a bookstore, he made everyone laugh, he was happy. Two months later, he was gone.
After he died, they asked again. I did not feel like writing, but I took that aching grief, that loss I felt, and I gave the whole mess to my character, Isabelle Bommarito, in “Henry’s Sisters.”
Isabelle ended up being one screwed-up lady. She was an international photo journalist who had seen too much. She had a chaotic, innocence-smashing childhood with a mother who went into stripping as a last resort. She had checked herself into a mental health clinic. Scene one shows her sitting on the deck of her condominium, in downtown Portland, naked, watching the rain pool on her crotch.
You’ve experienced grief? Give it to a character. Paralyzing fear? Same thing. Loneliness is ideal. Well, not ideal that we’ve experienced it, but we can use it now. Create a lonely character who fakes being happy or who is being eaten alive. Create a violent character based on emotions felt that one night when you really could have smashed that nauseating person.
What about that divorce? What about a broken relationship? Use it. You will sound so much more authentic if you are writing from real, gut-wrenching experiences. You know it, you’ve been there, now spill it onto your pages.
I have been married for twenty-two years. But one night, lying in bed by my husband, after we’d had a spat, I was steaming. He had the audacity to fall asleep. Royally ticked off, I started thinking about my new character, Jeanne Stewart, in “The Last Time I Was Me.”
Jeanne found out her boyfriend was cheating on her. (Let’s be clear, my husband was not cheating on me. That was not why I was fuming. If he had been he would have lost something vital between his legs.) Jeanne’s cheating boyfriend was allergic to peanuts. When the boyfriend cheated on her again, she found a creative way to use peanut oil. Terrible rash. Dramatics. He called an ambulance for himself (and his organ).
How did I get the peanut oil idea?
My husband is allergic to nuts.
Another rather sneaky, tip? Steal personality traits from people you don’t like.
This is an easy one for me. There is a woman I avoid as I would stampeding aardvarks. She is prissy, cold, shallow, entitled. Think of a Beverly Hills housewife and blend that with a snowy avalanche. I have used different parts of her personality in several of my characters. Do the same thing. It’s quite fun. It has been extra delightful to make money off of my dislike of this woman.[pullquote]Take the crazy in your life and run with it. Take that sheering pain, the belly aching laughter, that best friend who made you get into trouble so many times, a steel-magnolia-type mother not there to hold your hand anymore, and use it. Use that boss you hate and that cat you adored who you just knew was a person beneath the fur.[/pullquote]Do the same with people you love. What do you love about them? Be specific. Don’t simply use their kindness in your characters, that’s dull. Dive headfirst into who they are as people and what makes them lovable.
Maybe you love the way they know exactly what to say when all seems to have fallen apart. Maybe you love the way they give you something to think about, they challenge you. Maybe they are flat out wild, reckless, pointedly blunt, funny, brilliant, or picky.
Now throw that well-loved person around in your brain. Characters can’t be perfect. Maybe she sneaks cigars. Or is a slight hypochondriac. Or a super nerdy chess player.
You have a character we can relate to, that you know, but who is also her own person.
What about the incredible times in your life? Add peace to your books based on those days. Holding a beloved child. A moment at sunset on a lake. Reading on a rainy day in total quiet. Falling in love or lust.
Find those moments, build them into your books. Let your character think in those moments, reflect and analyze, grow as a person, change her mind or her goals or her perceptions. Give her that lake – at least in her mind.
Take the crazy in your life and run with it. Take that sheering pain, the belly aching laughter, that best friend who made you get into trouble so many times, a steel-magnolia-type mother not there to hold your hand anymore, and use it. Use that boss you hate and that cat you adored who you just knew was a person beneath the fur.
Use your wisdom, your faults, your inner serenity, your anxieties.
Writers, thou shall steal.
Steal from your life for your storylines.
Steal from your emotions.
Steal from your relationships with others.
Steal from the past and the present.
Twist it up, circle it around, crash it down, re–imagine, re–invent, exaggerate.
Use it all. Use your life.
What storylines, characters, emotions (or something else) have you stolen from your life?