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Writers: Fact to Fiction? Not So Fast

Some light years ago, I was living with my best friend in a small apartment in Southern California, on my own for the first time. It was our first New Year’s Eve together as that eager, barely tolerable species: raffish apartment-dweller-type dudes, barely out of high school. We were going to celebrate that self-congratulatory state of being with a New Year’s party.

That evening we had a respectable turnout of our friends, acquaintances, and other welfare cheats of note, and had settled in to the numerous foolishnesses of New Year’s Eve. We had a wee dram, and a wee dram more. As it neared midnight, my housemate and I had an insight: to christen the New Year, we could both doff our clothes and walk around outside in the soft warm rain that was falling. Did I mention we’d had a drink or two?

Equally inspired, my girlfriend decided to join us. We goofed around a bit out front, and then we saw two figures approaching up the block. In the great spirit of improvisation, my housemate and I worked up a plan: we would walk up to the people, acting as though we were in our fully clothed at-ease, and wish them Happy New Year’s. The creative act, in action.

Remember, it was dark and misting outside. Thus you can understand that it wasn’t until we were but five feet away from our prey and about to spring our greeting when we realized it was OUR LANDLORD AND LANDLADY, who lived only a few blocks away, and who had decided to walk over and wish us happy New Year’s. The fact that they were straight-laced, reserved people, and Eastern Europeans yet, made our calculation all the less calculating.

Well. We had perfect presence of mind and body: Run! Without saying a word, we turned and bolted for the house. Somebody at the party caught a classic snapshot of my housemate in manic mother-naked retreat into the house, eyes bulging out of his head like boiled eggs. Perhaps we thought we’d be safe inside. I literally ran into my closet and hid, lacking the benefit of clothing. I did say that I was young, right?

Naked and Afraid
So, the party was in full bloom while we’re all running in, screaming that the landlord was outside. We actually locked the door on him. The truly funny thing was that his wife’s full focus of outrage targeted only my girlfriend. We could hear my landlady shouting, “Naked women in streets! Naked women in streets!” over and over. What really caught our attention was our landlord, though, who shouted even louder, “All right, damn it, that’s it. I calling the cops. Cops to be here in five minutes. Everybody in big trouble!” After his shouting of a few more epithets, some not in English, they left.

All hell broke out inside. The aftermath was equally as mad as the inciting incident, but I’ll skip that because that’s not why I tell the tale here. I tell it because I’ve thought about that escapade many times over the last forty years, thinking it should be a scene in a novel. But I never had the novel to put it in, which even a neophyte reader at WU would tell you is the completely wrong way to think of the underpinnings and movement of a novel. Instead of considering that charged moment perhaps as emotionally telling backstory that might later alter a character’s path, or the incident as a ratcheting up of a plot point that bares character desire (or subverts it), I was thinking instead of a flashy scene, a little circus trick of white doves under a top hat, a gushing artery without the body or blood present.

It took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t the damp bodies and the roaring outrage that was the heart of the story—because that wasn’t a story, just some fireworks. Rather than search for the soul of the tale, I was using a grubby National Enquirer headline hunt. I hadn’t given any focus to the flagstones of real story potential. However, repeatedly turning the yellowing pages of the event’s photo album in my mind did prove to be helpful, because the album also contained the secondary cast, the images of my landlord and landlady, who came into deeper relief as my past pulled further away.

The Dolls
I remembered two middle-aged people, both Eastern European, both small, both dark of feature and dark of clothing, both constrained, both seemingly humorless. Neither that exceptional. Except. Except when, long before New Year’s, the landlady asked my friend and me, when we’d come over to deliver the rent check, to come down into the basement of her old house and see her “collection.” Who knew what prompted her? Neither my friend nor me could issue much more than a “wow!” or “yes, that’s something!” when she showed us her collection, down in the large basement of the 1920s apartment building.

Dolls. Hundreds of them, arranged in little scenes. Dolls sitting at tables having tea, at tables having dinner, on overstuffed chairs, on little swing sets. Little plastic Barbies or Raggedy Anns? Nary a one. No, these were those old-fashioned, porcelain-faced “bisque” dolls, many three and four feet tall, with realistic looking eyes and some with human-hair wigs, carefully combed.

The basement and the dolls were lavishly, splendidly creepy, especially to a 19-year-old boy. Some hugged each other, some seemed to be lecturing their fellows, some, lying on a full-sized bed, seemed to be dead. You knew those dolls talked about you when you left the room. And we left the room hurriedly, giving a quick thanks to our landlady, and never venturing down there again.

It took me forty years to realize that it wasn’t our New Year’s birthday-suit boogaloo that was any story; it was the dolls. So, I finally wrote a story, not a novel, that had the dolls as the central motif, with a dark turn at story’s end. I shopped it around to some literary journals, let it lie, shopped it around a bit more, and recently had it accepted at the beautiful literary and arts journal, Catamaran, [1] where it will be published in the coming Winter issue. I don’t have much success with my fiction, so that’s a gift for me.

The Deeper Tissue of Yearning
So, forty years to find the story, two years to get it published. Just a couple of small lessons here, yet good ones: you can find moments in your life, you can plumb your history, and find fragments and episodes that might usefully color your fiction. But often it’s not those bright poppies of incident, not the driving over 100 mph without a seat belt—those things faithfully recorded and accurately recounted provide little more than wallpaper for a story. It’s more what our own David Corbett discussed at the writer’s conference I recently attended in LA. I can’t do justice to David’s concepts in just a few sentences, but in summary, he said you must find a character’s yearning.

David spoke eloquently of looking for and expressing what a character dreamed of being, and perhaps what has kept them from the dream. Are they escaping something, are they wounded, are they heading away, by temperament or circumstance, from their best selves? [David, please take over here while I look for some other author’s ideas to steal.]

My landlady, always so restrained for us, came alive when she was gesturing to her dolls. “This one! And look, those!” They had no kids that lived with them; maybe they were childless, or maybe any children were far away. But she did have the dolls. Thus, in me using my old landlord and landlady in the story, it wasn’t quite writing what I know, but writing what I know disturbed me, whether in a good way or a bad. What was in that basement was suggestive of larger landscapes.

Don’t dismiss those youthful things that haunt you, but look in them for the deeper yearning. And if they fit, put them in your fiction. (But damn, if you’ve got a basement full of those dolls, lose my phone number.)

You of WU, do you have crazed or charged incidents in your past that you’ve hankered to use in your fiction? If so, were you able to use them so it made for a compelling story, rather than something wrenched on because it was shiny? And, have you ever shown your landlady your best midnight look?
Note: For a while I’ve had some psychogenic lightning storms, some specifically regarding my fiction efforts, that have left me a bit wobbly. So I’m stepping out of the WU schedule for a bit (maybe just for cookies and milk), but I’ll be certainly be around in the comments boxes when a curmudgeon is called for. Happy Thanksgiving!

About Tom Bentley [2]

Tom Bentley [3] is a novelist, essayist, and business and travel writer. (He does not play banjo.) He's published hundreds of freelance pieces in newspapers, magazines, and online. He is the author of three novels, a collection of short stories, and a how-to book on finding and cultivating your writing voice. His singing is known to frighten the horses. See his lurid website confessions at tombentley.com [4].