Mining Your Life for Stories

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By Marta Perry

A number of years ago, I taught an evening adult class on journal writing. When the time came at our second session for participants to read their work, I felt a little apprehensive. What if nobody was willing to read? Would I be left with an hour of class time to fill?

I shouldn’t have worried. The class members were eager to share their writing, and I was frankly astonished at how open they were in sharing the sometimes tragic experiences they’d chosen to write about. It was as if the very act of writing had opened the floodgates and let the pent-up emotions pour out.

Now we, of course, are fiction writers, and while fiction based solely on personal experience can often come across as self-indulgent or preachy, my experience with the journaling class taught me not to be afraid of plumbing my own emotions and experiences in my books.

Consider, if you will, the various jobs you’d held over your lifetime. I spent one very hot summer working in a hospital kitchen, coming home wilted and exhausted every night. But that experience gave me the setting for numerous short stories and one novella. What have you done that might become the setting for a story? Your experience can give you the telling details that mere research would never provide.

What subjects do you know about? I’ve led what most would describe as a boring life-never escaped with my life from an accident, never sky-dived, never served in the military or tracked down a serial killer. On the other hand, I’ve spent years living near the Plain communities in rural Pennsylvania, an experience that suddenly became very valuable when the reading community discovered the Amish and a whole new sub-genre of romance fiction was born. The Amish romances and Amish-set romantic suspense novels I write have given my career a new and exciting twist that grew out of something I found in my own backyard.

What traumatic events have you experienced? It may be difficult to think of using those wrenching events in fiction, but I have found it a very healing experience. The journal I kept when my father was dying became the source of several emotional scenes that truly were written from my heart, and Lydia’s Hope, a story of sisters, was especially poignant because it was written during my own dear sister’s decline and passing. Susanna’s Dream, coming out in February from Berkley Books, is set during a flood, and I had no need to imagine the events. I simply took them from my own experiences and those of my friends during the floods that have ravaged the Susquehanna River valley in recent years.

Probably we all, as writers, draw on our own lives to tell our stories, whether we intend to or not. I’d suggest that a deliberate effort to do so can enrich both our stories and our lives.

Marta PerryA lifetime spent in rural Pennsylvania, where she still lives, and her own Pennsylvania Dutch roots led Marta Perry to write about the Plain People in her current novels. The author of more than fifty novels, Marta is active in her church and community. When she’s not writing, she and her husband enjoy traveling, gardening, and visiting their six grandchildren.

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