FLASHES OF INSPIRATION: STEALING FROM YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE

In The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, I discussed a few of the many places from which you can draw inspiration for your stories: from your own life, from history, from current events, and so on. Let’s take a closer look at some of these sources of inspiration, with a few actual examples, starting with bringing into your fiction events that occurred in your own life.

Most books have some kind of disclaimer in the front of them that tells you this is a work of fiction and any resemblance to real people, events (etc.) is purely coincidental. I suppose that’s true as often as it isn’t—you do actually write purely from your imagination sometimes, and even when you end up with a character who’s suspiciously like some celebrity or political figure you weren’t necessarily conscious of that while you were writing.

But then there are the times when there’s no coincidence at all. You actually meant to base this character on George W. Bush, that character on your Aunt Sally, and the fumbling dwarf on your little brother Ralph.

If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, it’s usually pretty easy to disguise these real people behind the various archetypes of the genre. If Bush is a dragon, Aunt Sally is a mermaid, and Ralph is a dwarf, they’ll end up feeling plenty different enough, but if you’re writing a little closer to home, those characters can get a little harder to hide.

I tend to stay away from concepting characters based entirely on real people—at least not real people I know. I want to write the best story I can, with the most lovingly realized characters, but I don’t want to alienate my friends and family in the process—or dive into the role of political pundit. Still, people I meet in real life often end up in my books, one way or another, and they often come along for the ride, with an event that I just couldn’t get out of my mind.

In my horror novel Completely Broken, our protagonist, Dave, works at a record store. So did I, when I first started writing this book. Some of the events in Dave’s experience working at the fictional Mango’s Records came right out of my own experience.

For instance: I worked for some time for a local record store chain in Chicago called Rose Records. Depending on your point of view they were lucky/unlucky or smart/dumb enough to have Ticketmaster outlets in each store. Though there was the occasional free ticket, selling tickets was a lot of work, came with a rather labyrinthine set of rules and regulations, and in a huge city like Chicago everything sells out pretty much immediately. The result was a constant stream of pissed off customers.

We did our best with what we had, but after what felt like the eighty-millionth time having someone rip me a new one because they didn’t like the rules I not only didn’t make up but didn’t like either, it was hard not to start resenting the ticket customer as much as we resented the ticket computer.

When the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago acquired beluga whales, for a few months in the early 90s it was the biggest thing in the Windy City. They sold tickets through Ticketmaster as a way to regulate the flow of people past the whale tanks, and I don’t remember a single customer who understood the process. The scene in Completely Broken where Dave helps his coworker and secret crush Trish sell tickets to the whale “show,” was drawn from at least a hundred conversations with a similar customer, with some of the dialog coming verbatim from those experiences, though not necessarily all from the same transaction.

Here’s a little of that scene from the book:

“Well,” Trish started mentally circling, “it’s not really a show.”

The woman actually scoffed. “Well,” she said, “what is it, then?”

“Umm,” Trish didn’t really know. “They do that so, y’know…”

“No,” the customer said, as if she were talking to a two-year-old, “I don’t. Why don’t you explain it to me.”

Trish was about to say something. Her lips parted. The beginnings of a breath caressed her perfect white teeth.

Dave interrupted, “It’s the way they control the number of people who go in at any one time, so it doesn’t get too crowded.”

The woman turned toward Dave and seemed to make a conscious effort of changing the tight beam of her attention to him. That was supposed to make Trish angry, jealous, resentful, or something. Trish smiled and let what she was about to say gently pass as a silent exhale. Even though the woman’s eyes were firmly fixed on his, it took tremendous will on Dave’s part not to watch Trish—the way she breathed, the part of her lips, and that little hint of a smile.

“Okay,” the woman said, her tone artificially brighter, “maybe you can help me.”

Dave forced himself to look at the woman. She was pretty enough: okay body, no tits, too much makeup. He could smell her perfume clearly from four feet, which meant she was wearing too much. Her skin was gray, though she tried to hide it with makeup. She smoked, and her eyes told anyone who cared that sometimes she cried for hours, at night, alone. She was one of an endless stream of secretaries or something. They were everywhere. Many of them from Iowa—like the Quad Cities—or Michigan. They moved to Chicago like people from Chicago move to Phoenix. All they found were harsh winters, that they really did miss their mothers, and men who treated them like what they were after all.

“Basically,” he told her, “you pick a time during the day that you want to go, in, like, fifteen minute increments, and we can check to see if there are any tickets available for that time.”

“Well,” she started—and Dave knew what was next: they all do the same thing, every last mother fucking one of them, “what time are the shows?”

It’s been twenty years, and I really am over it now, but in the day the venom that oozes from that scene was extremely personal to me. I try really hard not to be a hateful person, but spend a few years in a retail setting and it will happen to you. Working in retail is more like being a police officer than any other occupation. You get to see all the worst in people, but it’s slightly less dangerous.

Completely Broken

There are characters in this book, too, that were drawn from people I’ve worked with at various record stores, but the nature of Completely Broken meant that there were some really bad people in there, and I’m happy to say that no one I worked with was actually part of some kind of demonic death cult—at least as far as I know. The characters of Trish and Gilroy are physically like two people I worked with, but behave in very different ways.

Then there was the Spanish Kids.

This is another record store scene that is drawn almost entirely from real life:

The Spanish kids had been coming in pretty much every day for the past two or three weeks. The store employees spotted them as foreigners right away. One of the clerks, Trish, pointed out the fact that they actually wore their backpacks on their backs, one strap around each shoulder. American kids, she seemed proud to observe, always slung them over one shoulder. Right shoulder if you’re right handed, left if you’re left handed. They bought Michael Jackson CDs, and as Jennifer noticed, only Europeans and South Americans were still into Michael Jackson. Also, they all spoke Spanish. Still, none of the store employees could be sure exactly where they came from.

That’s the basic set-up, and was exactly true, including the fact that in 1992, no one (in suburban Chicago, anyway) was still buying Michael Jackson CDs.

As the scene progresses, one of the foreign exchange students is caught shoplifting. This actually happened. I was, like Dave, in the back room pricing CDs when this little drama burst in on me. The conversation between Dave and the Spanish kid is actually drawn, verbatim, from my very clear memory of the incident:

“Please,” the Spanish kid managed around the beginnings of a sob. “It was a joke. Was just joking. Please.”

It was cool in the stockroom, but the Spanish kid was starting to sweat. Dave pretended not to notice him, slapping $5.99 sale stickers on a new CD single by Madonna.

“Sir,” the Spanish kid blurted, maybe thinking Dave didn’t hear him and wasn’t keenly aware of his weak, pitiful presence. “Please…help me.”

It was the last two words that made Dave turn to face him. He had to say something. All he could think of was, “Chill.”

“Please,” the foreign kid said again. “They’ll send me back to my country.”

Flash images from 20/20 and Dateline: NBC almost made Dave swoon. He had no idea where the kid actually came from. He spoke Spanish. Guatemala? El Salvador? He could be thrown into a rat-infested prison, raped, tortured, beaten, and finally, mercifully, killed. Dave could see the kid’s fat, hysterical mother claiming his body on the field of a war-ravaged, crumbling soccer stadium—the kid’s body in a plastic bag, his feet melted off while he was still alive by a greasy evil Federale with a blow torch. There were thousands of bodies there, lined up in rows.

“Where are you from?” Dave asked.

“Spain,” the kid sobbed. “Have you ever been there?”

“Spain?” Dave asked, not realizing he’d actually said it out loud. There were no “Missing” in Spain. It was, from what Dave had heard about it, a beautiful Western European country where people had internet access and all the Coca Cola they could drink. If he was sent back to Spain, it would be like being banished to Florida or something.

“Just chill,” Dave said, and went back to his work.

“Have you ever been there?” the kid pleaded, leaning forward so it looked like he was going to stand up.

Dave caught the movement in the corner of his eye and turned back to the kid, holding his right hand up.

“Sit down,” he said, “and chill.”

“Plea—” the kid started, but stopped abruptly when the door opened and Kevin came in.

Following behind him, holding the kid’s red backpack with the white soccer ball silk-screened on it, was a rather large uniformed Des Plaines cop. The Spanish kid’s eyes bulged when they settled on the cop’s black nine-millimeter, and he started to cry.

“Don’t shoot me!” he blurted and the cop laughed. Kevin was stone-faced, and Dave tried to mind his own business.

“Nobody’s gonna shoot ya, kid,” the cop assured him.

That happened, just like that, sometime in 1992 at Rose Records in Wheaton, Illinois. I swear.

But why do this? Just to get something off my chest about Ticketmaster customers, or thieving Spanish exchange students? Of course not.

The first scene was very carefully intended to  point out both Dave’s instinctive protective reaction to Trish in trouble, and as the scene progresses, his sexual desperation, which is beginning to lead him in dark places. The scene begins with Dave being gallantly protective of a woman, then turns darkly misogynistic. It’s part of the difficult road Dave is on, which gets lots more difficult for him as the book progresses.

The scene with the Spanish shoplifter is meant to showcase Dave’s general inability to act. He’s uncomfortable with the pleading exchange student, but is unable to do anything to help him.

Both scenes are further meant to highlight Dave’s rich internal life. He imagines details about the Ticketmaster customer, and the imagined Third World hellhole of the foreign student’s as-yet-unidentified homeland. These flights of fancy have very little truth to them, but it’s what Dave does instead of, say, asking Trish out on a date, or intervening on the scared teen’s behalf.

When you’re looking back on the events of your own life think about how you felt in that moment, and what your reaction to it said about you, then engage your imagination and twist that event in whatever way is necessary to serve your story. And if it doesn’t serve your story, if you just think it was funny, or you want to bitch about something, leave it out. Maybe that time the guy asked you if you masturbate to 2 Live Crew will make it into a different book.

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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