Using what we know to imagine what might have been

This post was first published by Women Writers, Women Books at http://booksbywomen.org

Weaving technical expertise into creative writing

Had you asked me five years ago if I would ever write a memoir, I might have answered “maybe.” If the query had been about writing a novel? Never! My brain, schooled and journeyed through decades of a profession relying on science, a skill set contrary to drafting paragraphs about something that never happened. As a college freshman – now almost forty years ago – I experimented with writing short stories for a term under the tutelage of University of Montana’s William Kittredge. Then, although I so badly wanted to succeed, I found the details too difficult to craft. Uncreated images not yet leaping from my imagination. I wasn’t ready.

However, after submitting my final memoir manuscript to my publisher 18 months ago, my brain softened. I better imagined a plot unfolding. Those things that could have been. Who those characters might be. And all those facts and bits of knowledge I’d hoarded for so many years within the neural cavities of my brain tempted me with spillover. It would be too easy to add details – factual points that could make me sound smart and fill my pages. We writers must be careful with our spillover, and instead focus on our story telling. And when we are able to do so, as we write fiction, we can effectively use those facts to inform and guide our characters to do what they do, and feel how they feel – rather than follow the temptation to create narrative treatises on the facts we know best.

Doing that takes discipline. I liken it to the decisions we eventually must make when writing memoir. The impulse is strong to add in every good story and event –it is difficult to be objective about the details of our lives. Each scene can feel equally important, we tell ourselves! Similar to how we must streamline our way through our memoir material, we need to do so with the facts and bits of knowledge seeping from our brains – to ration using what we know best. Hold back, prune bits away and infuse them into our characters and their feelings and their settings.

In my forthcoming novel, Beyond the Ripples, I immediately identified how my characters made their livings. I knew their risk factors and the diseases or conditions they might be more likely to develop. I could imagine how they might feel on their way to work and home afterward. I knew shipyard worker Chuck might die from a heart attack brought on by breathing problems related to his asbestosis. Breast cancer was the outcome for Sharon, a night shift nurse. Backaches and opioid issues for Frank, a material handler. The risk for me – someone who has spent most of a career researching and teaching others about worker safety and health – was that this knowledge would saturate my pages into mind-numbing diatribe.

I was lucky to recognize this liability in an early draft of my novel. I had begun reading a novel with an early chapter so fully crammed with details about trials and legal procedures that I felt I was reading a “Lawyers for Dummies” guide book. At first, I began skipping through details, but soon closed the cover, well before the final chapter.

Yet, it goes without saying, that our knowledge of subjects influences what we choose to write and how well we might do it. So then, how do we most effectively infuse our knowledge into fiction?

For me, in Beyond the Ripples, and to a lesser degree, in my memoir, I use my knowledge to build and enhance settings, feelings, moods and reactions. To me – a “non-classically” trained writer – it all goes back to “show don’t tell.” We need our readers to experience our story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings. I need my specific knowledge of the workplace to speak through my characters – not through my narration. Their hopes, dreams, worries and aches. The events that scared or changed or empowered them. What does it keep them from doing? How does it make Frank’s daughter feel or act when her dad comes home in pain each night? How does the night shift nurse’s compassion in caring for others affect how she handles her own end-of-life decisions?

We have great opportunity to use our life knowledge to enhance the richness of character, setting and plot. Inject it creatively to allow yourself to go to a place you might not have gone before and to imagine what might happen and how your characters will feel about it.

Dede Montgomery is a sixth-generation Oregonian who writes about past and present Oregon in her blog, Musings on Life in Oregon, and her 2017 memoir, My Music Man. Learn more about Dede’s first novel, Beyond the Ripples (May 2019 release).

Dede is also a certified industrial hygienist with more than 30 years of experience working in occupational safety and health. She leads outreach and education for a research institute at OHSU in Portland, Oregon.

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