Monday, July 28, 2008

Filling the memory bank

I wrote a blog piece that will be going live in the morning on July 29 for Tote Bags 'n' Blogs about writers using everything that they experience, witness, glimpse, taste, touch, feel in their books.

Some of those things we set about experiencing deliberately. For example, I specifically watched a professional sand castle building make a life-sized Nissan truck out of sand because he did the same work my hero was going to do.

I spent a day on a Lake Union houseboat asking every question I could think of and taking photos galore so I could write Seb and Neely's story.

I'm going to Cannes in October to do research for Demetrios's book.

But some of what I write about -- most, in fact -- comes out of filtering my characters' lives through my own experiences, my own memories, feelings, worries, relationships. You name it, if it's happened, it's fair game -- which may be why people tend to shy away from writers.

"You're not writing about me, are you?" they say.

No. I'm not. But you might have been with me when I experienced something. You might have seen the same things I did, felt the same way, been upset or delighted or worried just as I was. Such experiences are universal. It's the way readers and writers connect.

How do I know which experiences, feelings, relationships, worries, joys, and family stories will become a part of some book?

I don't.

It's the serendipitous bit of just being alive and living life to the fullest. It's the unexpectedness of experiences that often make them memorable. Yesterday, for example, my sister and I discovered that there were family connections across the river in Grant County, Wisconsin. And so we went exploring there.

We found two of the tiny communities we were looking for. We prowled through three cemeteries. We found the grave of Hannibal Thomas who has, in my estimation, the most genealogically helpful tombstone on record. It gives his birth parish in Cornwall. It gives the date of his birth, the date of his death, his exact age, and tells the date and place to which he emigrated. You can't ask for much more than that.

Not far away we ran across a one-room school with two see-saws, a slide, a tether ball and two outhouses. Right around the bend we happened on an Amish Sunday gathering and knew we'd seen their school.

The kids were as delighted to see us as we were to see them. We got waved at -- and waved back to -- a dozen or more little Amish boys resplendent in their black trousers, pristine white shirts and black vests as they played in the yard. We saw well over twenty buggies lined up in the lane and in the yard.

Will Hannibal make it into a book? Will the school house or the Amish boys or that line of buggies?

I don't know. But the memories are there. The details are emblazoned on my brain. I doubt they'll make it into Christo's book.

But down the road, time will tell.

We've got one more day and a half of "Sister Camp." So far it's been a blast.

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