“Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” -Willa Cather
We’re told to write with passion or write from the heart, and while this is good advice, I take it further. I suggest you write from the Psyche.
When I say that, I mean writing from those places inside your memory that stay with you, that delight you, and even haunt you. The memory can be a joyful one, like a trip to the carnival at night when you were a child, with all the lights, the smell of candied apple and french fries in the air, the musical rides, the lure of the sideshow barker. Can you still feel that excitement churning in your stomach?
Or maybe it was a darker memory- a time when you were chased down the street by a stalker. Can you still hear those running footsteps behind you? Feel your heart thudding in your breast?
What memories haunt you?
The seeds for my latest suspense novel Night Corridor were planted in my childhood. On Sundays, I accompanied my grandmother to visit an aunt in the New Brunswick Provincal Hospital, later changed to Centracare, once called The Lunatic Asylum. She’d spent much of her life within those walls. They said she was ‘melancholy’.
That sprawling, prison-like building with bars on the windows, has long since been torn down, the sights, sounds and smells of the place infiltrated the senses of the 12 year old girl I was, and never left. Recently, a local paper did a story on Night Corridor. They included an old postcard photo of the mental institution taken in 1905, and it looked almost like a pleasant rest home with trees in front. A clever photographer had managed to capture a small piece of the building shot at an attractive angle, not at all how it really looked.
She was always so glad to see us. She wore makeup, and beads and read poetry to me. She seemed like a movie star, but of course I knew better. I didn’t really understand why she couldn’t come home.
Further research led me to a diary I read written by a woman named Mary Heustis Pengilly, in 1885.
But while Night Corridor was inspired by my aunt, and influenced by Mrs. Pengilly, it is not about them. Fiction can be drawn from life, but it is filtered through the writer’s imagination. Your characters are not you. They are people in their own right with their own hearts and minds. You breathe life into them by infusing them with your own emotions, based on your life experiences. In this way you are connected to them.
I don’t try to force those connections, but I do invite them, long before I begin the novel. Something that I can grasp in my writer’s imagination and make something of. A kind of alchemy, turning lead into gold. At least that’s the intention. I’m not aware that I’m working out childhood issues, but I’m sure they play a part. Once I begin to relive that memory, complete with sensory details – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, I invite the character into that world. It helps that I can remember with more vividness my childhood, then I can tell you what happened last Tuesday. This method may not work for every writer, but it works for me.
This is the building in my memory. And it is how Caroline Hill sees it in Night Corridor.
From Chapter 3:
“Pretty fall day,” the cab driver said over his shoulder, and Caroline jumped at the sound of his voice and turned around in the seat. She’d been looking out the back window, watching the prison-like structure of Bayshore Mental Institution, gray and sprawling against the cornflower blue of the sky, grow smaller and smaller. The man’s voice had startled her. But for Doctor Rosen, no man had spoken to her in a very long time.
The cab driver’s shoulders were wide in a maroon blazer of some soft material. His hair was a mass of gray curls and he wore dark sunglasses; she could see them in the rearview mirror.
She couldn’t see his eyes but knew he was looking at her, waiting for her response.
She must say something. It wasn’t like he’d asked her some difficult or personal question, only commented on the weather. Speak up, Dr. Rosen had told her. Hearing your own voice strong in your ears will give you confidence.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, it’s very lovely.”
She settled back in the blue-gray plush seat, enjoying its soft, luxurious feel. The car smelled of new leather, pleasant and mildly reminiscent of something that nudged the edge of her mind. Ah yes, William’s leather jacket. William’s leather jacket. So long ago.
Then I ask myself, What If? What if you were in a mental institution for years, and suddenly put out onto the street.
What would it be like to be Caroline Hill who’d been in Bayshore Mental Institution for nine years. And then to complicate matters, and further threaten her fragile emotional health, to find herself being stalked by a deadly predator.
But who will believe her? She’s a crazy woman, after all.
When writers talk about the magic or mystery in novel writing, this, in my opinion, is what they’re talking about – the subconscious working away and offering up gems for our use. Or what Stephen King calls in his splendid book On Writing, ‘the boys in the basement’. Though writing is a craft in as much as housebuilding is a craft, you have to work at it. You have to put seat in chair everyday. You need to develop the skills to turn your story into a publishable manuscript. But assuming you’re doing that, the subsconscious is the cleverest part of us. It knows things we can’t even guess at.
Have you noticed that the best ideas don’t always come when you’re consciously trying to come up with something, but when you’re out walking, soaking in the bath, or even while lying in bed at night. Which is why I always recommend to students that they keep a notebook and pen handy whenever possible.
When you make a connection with that memory from your childhood that is so vivid to you, so present that you can transport yourself back to that time and place in an instant, use it. It is fodder for the imagination. And it makes no difference what genre you’re working in – romance, suspense, horror, whatever your cup of tea, you can make something of that memory. It’s impossible to say exactly how it all works. Enough that it does. You can take that memory in different directions. Transplant it to a different time and place. Use those emotional memories as a spider uses its spinneret glands to weave a web.
So the next time you’re stuck for an idea, what about that memory you could never shake? Maybe it’s time to exorcise it by using it in your next novel. Give it to one of your characters.