Tell me a story

When I was a child, I said to my mother, “Tell me a story.”

When I became an adult, my mother said to me, “Tell me a story.”

She didn’t mean, tell me The Three Little Pigs story. She meant, catch me up on your life. What’s new? What’s going on? Share with me. Entertain me.

When I was a child, I said to my mother, “Tell me a story.”

When I became an adult, my mother said to me, “Tell me a story.”

She didn’t mean, tell me The Three Little Pigs story. She meant, catch me up on your life. What’s new? What’s going on? Share with me. Entertain me.

People in my family know what “tell me a story” means. It doesn’t need a plot, it’s simply a relaying of events and their effect on the teller. However, you have to tell it right. When there are two or more tellers who know the same story, one teller might exclaim, “No, wait! You’re telling it wrong. Let me tell it.” You don’t tell the outcome first. You create suspense.

But now, as I’m mining my memory, I’m sure telling stories goes back to my grandmother. I had rheumatic fever when I was eight and was confined to bed at my grandparents’ house for many months. At night Nan would lie beside me in the double bed in the guest room until I fell asleep. “Tell me a story,“ I’d ask, and she gave me her childhood.

A story is a real thing in my family. Truth. Fact.

My blogs are real, my true stories.

Novels are made up…mostly.

After three years, I’ve just finished writing my current novel,  A Bird in the House. It’s a compilation of bits of truth and bits of fact, scrambled in with imaginary people doing imagined things.

When I find myself writing things that really happened into the novel, sometimes (although, not always) it makes me uncomfortable. Why is that? Why would some true-life events put into a novel feel so wrong? Maybe because it’s too easy? Cheating…stealing some real event or action and naming it fiction. More likely because it’s boring—I already know that story?

So where does a made-up story come from?

Sometimes small things trigger ideas. Last summer I was walking along the back road at the farm in Wisconsin (photo above), where I like to write in an old trailer by the pond for a couple weeks each summer. I saw perfectly round white things scattered along the sandy ruts. Bug eggs maybe, but they looked like bright white marbles, and I imagined Georgie carrying marbles in his pockets, so he could leave a trail if he ever got kidnapped.

It’s so much better—so much more fun—as I’m novel writing, to be surprised by what happens next. Stunned. Wow! I didn’t know Dee was going to say that! Where did that come from? Maybe some little squirrel buried an acorn in my brain and it grew into an oak tree. That’s when it’s the most entertaining.

So here’s what you and I already know: A story can be either a true telling of facts, pure fiction, or maybe a combination of fact and fiction.

As Gertrude Stein might say, “A story is a story is a story.”

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