Author Terri Wiltshire offers her tips for using family stories to create fiction, or, as she’s been fondly calling it: ‘Pilfering the Family Jewels.’
There’s an old Jewish saying that goes: “God created families because He liked stories”. Since the time humans could draw pictures on cave walls, we’ve been collecting and sharing stories of our “clan”. It’s how we connect to others. And we all do it. When we gather for holidays, weddings, and funerals- the stories pour out from each generation to comfort, to celebrate, to reminisce, or to laugh out loud at our outrageous human foibles. The place and time might change, but the struggles and joy of “family” are universal.
Listen and Collect
Writers are constantly told to write-what-you-know and the most fertile resources are the tales we grew up hearing over and over again: the whispered rumours of an ancestor with a criminal past, the hilarious pitfalls of raising six kids with one outhouse, the practical jokes associated with Uncle Dwayne’s paralysing fear of snakes, and the disastrous day that lightening struck your grandmother’s washing machine and killed the cat.
As a child, I looked forward to family gatherings and begged to stay up past my bedtime when I knew the stories would continue into the night. But I was in University before I realised the importance of our oral history and started keeping a file of names, phrases, and recollections. The stories were spread out over a hundred years and included those that had been passed down from my great-grandparents. Some were funny. Some were heartbreaking. I wasn’t sure how they were connected and I wasn’t sure how I would use them, but I knew I needed to keep them handy.
Novels based on family experiences don’t have to revolve around a large, life-changing event. Sometimes we worry so much about finding the BIG story, that we miss the tiny details that make it worth the journey. Good stories can emerge from the smallest snippet of memory. In my case, it was the shuffling gait of a gentle, reclusive great uncle who seemed to know so much about the world, but so little about how to fit into it. In writing “Carry Me Home” he became the catalyst. I took his sweetness, his awkwardness, his stubbornness to live his life his own way, and created a character and a set of circumstances (the BIG story) that allowed those traits to shine through.
Woven in, are tiny threads of family experience, which I’d heard along the way, including: riding the rails during the Great Depression, making sorghum syrup from sugar cane, and sharecropping. I also added a generous sprinkling of family recipes and cooking tips, along with family phrases, and habits.
The great thing about developing fiction from family stories, is that they are both universal and unique. The emotional aspect of human struggle is universal but the circumstances of that struggle, the dynamic of the relationships, is unique to each family.
If you feel My family isn’t that interesting, you might try interviewing a few of the older generation. You’ll be surprised what nuggets will be uncovered. It’s important to remember that family stories are not blueprints for a work of fiction. They can serve as that first seed of inspiration, or a rich source of seasoning, but sticking rigidly to a historical truth (in family terms) will create more problems and limit the scope of your story.
There is also a certain anxiety in using our kinfolk as a resource. We worry about offending or taking advantage of private experiences, so above all, it is important to treat your family “treasure” with respect. I never duplicate a real person or a real event, but there are enough trinkets from the family vault to keep them happy searching for the bits and pieces we’ve shared over the years. I make sure that whatever I choose, it is used with fondness and care, and not ridicule.
Be true to your heart, not your geography
True places are not found on maps (Herman Melville)
Just as I created fiction from the jumble of memories and recollections of my past and my ancestor’s past, I created a fictional town to set it in. I didn’t want readers to get distracted trying to recognise, or uncover discrepancies, of a specific town. It was the heart of the place that mattered most. I called the town Lander, which was my grandfather’s first name, and which means ‘of the land.’
Lander, Alabama is a composite of many small southern towns I lived in as a child with a central square borrowed from one place, a railway yard borrowed from another, and a cotton mill borrowed from yet another. Lander is all of those towns, but none of them in particular. Likewise, “Carry Me Home” is sprinkled with traces of my family, but they are there to support the fiction that emerged from a specific time and place.
There is a wealth of raw material that can be collected just by sitting around the kitchen table. Listen. Ask questions. Record. And create… but honour those who have trusted you with their slice of family history.
About the author
Terri Wiltshire was raised in the Deep South in America. For the last 25 years she lived and worked in the UK, where she ran a role-play company before relocating home to Alabama recently. “I’m surrounded by family and old high school and university friends so I’m pilfering away!”
A former journalist and NBC News presenter, Terri is also an actor and director. Carry Me Home is her first novel.