I don’t write fiction. I report it. This may make no sense. Reporting is something you do with facts, and fiction isn’t real. Right?
I didn’t used to write fiction. It all started with pictures. I found a box of old photographs of people (family photographs from albums, most likely) at an antique mall in Boone, NC. I bought a few because they were intriguing. It is as if they reminded me of something I didn’t know yet. I needed to write about it to understand it. This too makes no sense. Stick with me here.
I’ve heard of other writers creating detailed maps of their stories before they even start to write it. They like to know where they are going before they get there. I’ve heard of others who just write. They start and see where it goes. The first way seemed too difficult, while the second seemed unlikely. I couldn’t see how a story could be constructed and make sense without a plan, but I’d been doing the same with collages and paintings for years, so I decided to try with words.
I am just as surprised as you are by how these stories develop. Writing for me is like reading the slowest book ever. I discover as I go.
I don’t normally write fiction. Essays and Bible study are my thing. They are solid, verifiable. It is like putting together a paper for English class – something I’m very familiar with. Fiction? That is out there. I love reading it, but have never felt that it was something I could do.
What do I mean when I say I am a reporter instead of a writer? I ask the basic questions – who, what, where, why, when. And then it goes from there. When I get to a place where I’m not sure what is next, I ask the questions again. Often I know just one step at a time what happens. It is rare when I know the goal and have to write to catch up with it.
I’ve heard that you should always write things that you’d like to read. If you as the author aren’t interested in it, then your readers won’t be either. I like reading things that surprise me, thus I write things that are surprising even to me. This too makes no sense. I, the author, should know what is happening, what is going to happen, right? Yet it is often sentence by sentence that I discover where the story is going. I don’t make up stories so much as write them down, almost as if I’m taking dictation.
I start by looking at the picture. These days I find unusual pictures of people online, since I don’t have ready access to family photos from strangers. I look very closely because there are often details I’d miss in a brief look. So often our eyes look but don’t see. Details make the difference. There is so little to the image, I need all that I can get out of it.
I’m OK with deviating from the picture if the story calls for it. The picture is a seed, a starting point. It is not a frame that limits, but a doorway that suggests and invites. Once I get inside the story, I can see more.
Could I use photos of people I know? I doubt it. They already have their own stories that I know. I think I’d be limited. I also think they’d get angry at my fabrication of their lives. I often use ideas and events from reality to flesh out my stories, however. People I know might find themselves, for good or not, in my words. You have to write about what you know, even if you are writing fiction. Saying it as fiction helps express it, get it out, in a way that can’t be construed as insulting someone’s character, because their name isn’t mentioned.