Repression’s a pretty useful technique, as far as traumatic memories are concerned. It’d be hard to function if we carried all our baggage around on a daily basis. But those ugly moments do resurface, and it’s difficult to resist the desire to redeem them. Luckily, we writers have one of the most convenient and effective means of repurposing suffering through our power to create. In this week’s guest blog, author Jeffrey B. Burton offers advice on turning pain into gain, by transforming it into the emotional architecture supporting your story.
“Write what you know,” they say. Really? Has Michael Connelly ever captured a serial killer? Has Lee Child ever clobbered five guys in a bar fight? Did Harlan Coben’s college flame disappear for decades only to resurface with earth-shattering revelations?
However, you can develop a riff on that old writers’ adage and mine your real-life experiences—those painful memories—for unique perspectives, some great dialogue, and a rich cataract of emotions.
One example—junior high was the equivalent of gen pop in the Attica prison yard, but I had the system figured out. By loudly insulting a bully, you alert the teacher that trouble was brewing, so said teacher could rush in and separate combatants before any blood was spilled.
Alas, the system failed me in ninth grade when Mr. Hendricks, my algebra teacher, took his time meandering across the classroom to break up a verbal scuffle that morphed instantaneously into my new status as human punching bag. Hendricks stopped to answer a question or two along the way, perhaps clap a few erasers, and possibly plan a trip to Greece before yanking Dave Morton off me.
Two lessons were learned that day. First, getting punched in the face is something to be avoided and, second, I think that devious Hendricks bastard took his own sweet time on purpose. Sure, I may have bruised Morton’s knuckles and gotten blood on his T-shirt; sure, I walked around like an extra from Fight Club that week, but still… not one of my finer moments.
However, it serves as great writing fodder for the maelstrom of mixed sentiments—the overlapping pangs of fear, panic, and terror—involved in any type of physical conflict. I stirred a few of these feelings into The Chessman, where a character reflects back on his challenging adolescence. Of course, my fictional doppelganger equated himself in fisticuffs much better than factual Jeff.
Another example—an eye-catching cook where I washed dishes took a shine to sixteen-year-old me, and in my bumbling amateurish manner I was ginning up the courage to ask her out. I was in that young-dopey-flirty stage and my little heart went pitter-pat as I waltzed out to my car at the end of a late evening shift only to discover that—HOLY SHIT!—there was no car.
So it’s one a.m., and my soon-to-be girlfriend chauffeurs me around the mall’s enormous parking lot, slowly, as though I suffered from Alzheimer’s and had forgotten parking four hundred yards away from the restaurant. From there she drove me to the police station, where I was left with the task of calling my father, waking him, and letting him know that his days of griping about the mileage on his station wagon were over.
As for my budding paramour… Well, she never spoke to me again. I’m hazy to this day about what was actually mentioned in her car that night as she carted me about town, but evidently I muttered every four-letter word in the book, and then some.
Not one iota of fun at the time, but the episode did provide an interesting twist on the three-act structure: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy also loses the family car. Plus, I’ve placed lost love under the microscope in several of my short stories (High Score, The Mourning, The Reuniting).
A final example—my university-assigned roommate knew a 300-pound Samoan named Clete. Clete carried a lock-knife on his belt and may or may not have been attending college (I’m going to say not). One afternoon after class, I returned to my dorm room to find Clete selling full-length leather jackets to a parade of female students. His inventory of overcoats stacked high atop my bed.
“Where’d you get all these jackets?” I asked.
Clete looked like he wanted to rip my head off. “They fell off a truck.”
I pulled my university-assigned roommate aside for a moment and whispered, “You can’t sell these here. If the cops find out, we’re screwed.”
“You can’t tell anyone,” my university-assigned roommate replied, eyes wide, deadly serious. “Clete will kill us.”
My initial reaction was to check the Greyhound schedule for points south. Instead, I spent that month believing at any moment I would be arrested as part of the notorious Lake Street Leather Gang, or get my throat slashed when Clete inevitably got around to tying up loose ends. Decades later and I’ve yet to place Clete directly in any of my writing, as I’d sure hate to answer the door chime one evening only to find him on the front stoop, lock-knife at the ready. But I’ve certainly utilized that gut-wrenching sense of flight with characters in both The Chessman and The Lynchpin.
So the next time you’re stumped and in search of realistic emotions or character motivations or pithy dialogue, make crime pay by scouring through some of the less-than-pleasant situations you’ve found yourself embroiled in; you know, your memories from hell and other such scar tissue.
As for me, whenever I begin kicking about ideas for a villain, all I need do is sit back and ask… WWCD?
What would Clete do?
Jeffrey B. Burton’s mystery/thriller, The Chessman, came out to some excellent reviews, including a starred one in Publishers Weekly, and went on to sell to publishers in Germany, The Netherlands, Turkey, and the U.K. It comes out in mass media paperback in April of 2016. Jeff’s follow-up thriller, The Lynchpin, came out in 2015. Jeff was born in Long Beach, California, but grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. He received a BA in journalism at the University of Minnesota. Burton is an active member of International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America, the International Association of Crime Writers, and the Horror Writers Association.
Find more of his work at www.jeffreybburton.com.
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