Write what you know, ever heard that advice before? It helps to locate and ignite an author’s passion. Ona Russell, the California Writers Club, Inland Empire Branch, February speaker, found a scrapbook of articles about her great-grandfather, a celebrated judge in Toledo, Ohio. Intrigued, Russell’s research unearthed family secrets and inconsistencies. Her own mother’s birth date was incorrect, the judge struggled with mental disorders, and a mysterious lady, Sarah Kaufman, legal assistant to the judge, appeared in many photos. Russell fell in love with these uncelebrated personalities from the past. Eventually, Sarah Kaufman became a sleuthing protagonist in Russell’s own historical mystery novels, a trilogy set in the 1920’s.
Part of her storytelling is true, based on the articles. Some of the storytelling is fact, based on research, but Russell worked hard to highlight the “slant,” the re-invented tensions and conflicts. Russell explained that excitement is created in the margins of the truth, in the details, in the spots where the story pauses and shifts gears. Generating a narrative from this blend of truth, fiction and fact is a tricky balance for writers, whether the works are memoir, science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction because all the world-building elements have to be credible to the reader. For Russell, this credibility is key. She said the way to engage the reader is by establishing credibility with an authentic setting, with historical details, with nuances and a pace that is true to the era. This means eliminating everything that does not move the story forward, research, back story, even a favorite character. A writer should look for things to emphasize, create complexity, and sacrifice anything that is not relevant to the story.
This except is from the Fresh Ink March 2016 issue. The title “Tell all the truth..” is from a poem by Emily Dickenson.
Victoria Zackheim teaches memoir and personal essay at UCLA, in the Writer’s Extension program. She has developed a straightforward approach to start writing a memoir.
(1) The first step is to outline a chronology of your life, year by year. This will get you into the memory of things.
(2) Once this is done, research any significant year. What else was happening in 1973 when your father died? Include anything that explains your state of mind or actions at the time, but no extraneous information.
(3) Next is the fun part. Refer to your outline to create a series of vignettes, short stories, poems, and personal essays. Keep going until you have a body of work— say 20-50 pieces.
(4) Sift through them. What is the theme? What have you learned? What is the message that you want to share?
Once you know where the memoir is going you can start to string the stories together.
Anne Perry and Victoria Zackheim were on tour in April 2014 promoting their latest books. They spent over three hours mentoring writers at the California Writers Club, Apple Valley branch. Their focus was on how to approach writing projects. Zackheim is an experienced editor and an author specializing in memoir and personal essays. Anne Perry is recognized as one of the world’s top 100 masters of crime and her series of detective novels are set in historical fiction.