Writing fiction can result in a strange intertwining of imagination and real life.
Many years ago a young woman from my home town died in a terrible fire. I did not know her well, but was acquainted with her since her family went to my church. The fire began in the night because of an electrical short and the entire house sustained terrible damage. It was an off-campus college residence and she was the only fatality. That incident has remained indelibly etched in my memory, perhaps because I was in high school, a time when the highs and lows of adolescence seem, well, much higher and much lower. I felt such empathy for her family and the years they would have without her.
One of the maxims of beginning fiction writers like me is to write what you know. Because I’ve lived in a small town all my life, all of the stories from my first book, The Education of a Teacher, came from that small town. The people were real, the stories were true. The dialogue and choices about the arrangement of the plot were creative. But always this book was mainly concerned with what actually happened in my teaching life.
Now I move into fiction as I write my second book.
Early in my teaching career, I taught a young woman who could not give a speech in front of an audience without sneezing, sometimes a hundred times. She connected any kind of situation where she was the center of attention with a terrible experience that had happened to her when she was in elementary school. A teacher had embarrassed her, unmercifully, in front of her peers. Because of the way her brain processed that event, she believed that if she spoke in front of an audience she would be mortified, humiliated, and unable to proceed. Perhaps because a sneeze was involved in the earlier incident, her body chose that reaction and it convinced teachers that she could not speak. So they would give her a different assignment and call it a day.
That episode represented an extreme instance of an idea called perceptual constancy. If something happens to us—especially an emotionally terrifying event—we believe, under somewhat similar circumstances, that the result will be the same the second time. The classic cliché is the example of a youngster who is afraid of dogs all her life because a dog bit her when she was young.
So, to repeat myself, writing fiction can result in a strange intertwining of imagination and real life. The main character in my new novel, Grace Kimball, carries a terrible burden. She survived such a fire in college and others did not. Grace carries a physical reminder of that fire, a small, white scar on one of her hands. Whenever she is feeling stressed or unsure of herself, she relives—in a dream—that terrible fire. Any situation where fire is involved causes Grace to have both a strong physical and emotional reaction.
So, what is a good fiction author to do when it is her responsibility to put her main character through the grinder of stress, emotional terror, physical discomfort, and downright horror? Hmmm… think I might need to have a fire in this book?