True lies

Spoke today at the Arizona Library Association (AzLA) conference, as part of a panel on True Lies: The Stories Behind Our Stories, done with the other members of one of my writers’ groups–Jennifer J. Stewart, Patricia McCord, and C.S. Adler. The focus was on how we each use real life in our stories.


I find the subject of writing from real life fascinating because, on the surface, it’s not something I do.

I write fantasy, science fiction, adventure. I write about unicorns and seal girls, hidden treasure and aliens who offer rides to the stars. Even my forthcoming mystery novel is only glancingly grounded in reality.

But when you write fantasy, even though what you’re writing about doesn’t look real, strange things happen.

I don’t mean aliens-landing-in-my-backyard strange—though I’m still holding out hope for that one.

I mean strange like the phone call I received from my cousin a few weeks ago. My story, “Tearing Down the Unicorns,” had just appeared in Cricket. “I’m really glad you wrote that story,” my cousin said. “Because my daughters are going through just what you wrote about.”

Since “Tearing Down the Unicorns” is about a girl who finds a unicorn in her backyard, I was a bit startled. As far as I knew, no unicorns had seen fit to show themselves in suburbia—though I’m still holding out hope there, too.

But that wasn’t what my cousin was talking about. She was talking about the fact that “Tearing Down the Unicorns” is also about the relationship between two sisters: an older one who used to believe in unicorns but has grown too old for them; and a younger one who never really believed in the first place, but did her best to fake it, because she wanted to be like her big sister.

It turns out my cousin’s older daughter believed—not in unicorns, but in fairies. And that her younger daughter, had tried to believe as well. Only the older girl was in middle school now, and setting belief aside—leaving the younger hurt and angry and alone.

I hadn’t known these things when I wrote “Tearing Down the Unicorns.” But somehow, I’d written about them—and about my cousins’ real lives—anyway.

This sort of things happens more often than you’d expect. Well, more often than I’d expect, anyway. It startles and humbles me every time.

Like the time I read my mystery novel, Tiernay West, Professional Adventurer, to my Girl Scout troop. “That’s us!” the girls said, when they heard the protagonist express her longing for high adventure and hidden treasure. “You’ve been eavesdropping!” they joked. “You’ve been sneaking into our rooms at night! Tiernay is just like us.”

Yet I’d written that book before I knew them—before I knew many kids at all.

Finding these sorts of real-life resonances isn’t always quite so comfortable. I once found the thoughts of a protagonist who didn’t feel she deserved to live echoed in a real-life suicide letter—written by someone who hadn’t read my book. “I’m only being sensible,” the character and the letter-writer both said repeatedly.

That was pretty creepy, seeing my exact words echoed like that. But usually, the resonances aren’t quite that grim.

At any rate, what I’ve come to realize as a writer is—the magic in my stories is all made up. But the characters who interact with that magic are mostly real, even though I don’t set out to model them after anyone.

What I do do, however, is to search for a point of connection with each character—sometimes consciously, sometimes not. I look for the emotional common ground. I look for the thing my character feels that I’ve felt sometime, too, at least a little bit.

Sometimes this is easy. Tiernay West was a distinct character from the start, and I understood her adventurer’s voice instinctively. It took a friend to point out—as I was debating whether I had to wear makeup to my own wedding—that Tiernay’s impatience with social conventions echoes my own. From that and a few other common starting points, I’d been able to spin out all the rest of her character.

In “Tearing Down the Unicorns,” finding the common ground was a little harder, but not much. I don’t have an older sister—only a younger one—but I did have a childhood unicorn obsession. Then one day, in late adolescence, I looked at the flowery unicorn posters on my walls, and abruptly thought, I’m too old for this. Every last poster came down that day—much as they did for my protagonist’s sister.

Since then, I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about my former unicorn-crazed self—respecting and feeling disgusted with her at once. And feeling a little guilty, too, because I had abandoned her.

So my protagonist’s uneasy relationship with her unicorn-obsessed sister echoed my uneasy relationship with my past self—and both, in turn, echoed my cousin’s daughter’s uneasy relationship with her sister.

As for the protagonist who felt she didn’t deserve to live—this is in a recently completed YA fantasy—I had to search harder for a connection. I had a hard time even liking my protagonist, Liza, let alone thinking like her. In fact I thought I might strangle Liza—even though she wasn’t real—if she told me one more time that she was foolish, that she was weak, that she just wasn’t good enough to deserve to exist.

But I finally realized—there was my point of entry. I knew what it was like to feel not-good-enough, at least a little. We all do. Taking that kernel of fear, magnifying it over and over again—finally I had a character I understood. And finally I could finish a book that had been sitting half-written in a file cabinet for more than a decade.

There’s one more thing I’ll say about writing fantasy from real life. The best thing about it is, I get to take the real parts, and to shape them into something better than the real world they came from.

So Liza doesn’t kill herself in the end, even though her real-life counterpart did. And the story’s particular brand of grim magic is one of the tools I use—one of the tools my protagonist uses—to shape that decision.

For that matter, none of my Girl Scouts have ever found hidden treasure—though we are all still hoping. But Tiernay West manages what they can’t, and has her adventure.

And my cousin’s daughter will probably never find a real-life fairy to talk back to her sister’s flagging beliefs. She’ll have to find ways to exist apart from her sister without any magic. But maybe watching a fantasy character that point with some magical unicorn help will help her get there on her own, at least a little.

And I think that’s at least part of why I write fantasy. Not because I don’t like the real world—though, okay, I don’t, always. But because watching someone set things right in some magical realm—and you can set some pretty big things right in fantasy, sometimes whole worlds—gives us hope that if we’re brave enough, or clever enough, or maybe just stubborn enough, we can set real life right, too.

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