There’s lots of good general advice out there for fiction writers, but I particularly like to hear authors talk about the creation of specific works. Our series How’d That Happen features AHMM authors discussing the composition of specific stories. These posts will always discuss stories appearing in the issue that is current when the post goes up. Here, Martin Limón on the alchemy that transmutes life experience into fiction.
A word which struck terror into my heart when I was a young soldier in the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea. In the middle of the night, a siren sounded or a cannon boomed or sometimes another G.I. banged on my door and notified me that I was required to report to my unit, “Immediately if not sooner.” And then the mad dash to throw on my uniform and run to the compound or to the firing battery orderly room; to make sure that my presence was noted and then stand by with the other G.I.s to receive orders. Sometimes those orders were shouted immediately and sometimes they were what we dreaded: a “move out” alert. And then we had to load wooden crates of high explosive artillery rounds into the backs of our two-and-a-half ton trucks and hook up the 105 mm howitzers to the rear stanchions and mount 60 caliber machine guns atop the front cabs. And then when the engines were fired up and the smell of burnt diesel swirled in the cold morning air, we formed a convoy and barreled out the front gate heading across Freedom Bridge north of the Imjin River toward the wilds of the Demilitarized Zone; for hours if we were lucky, for days if we weren’t.
Experience. This is the stuff fiction is made of.
The writers I admire most wrote their greatest stories based on their personal experiences: Herman Melville as a young man venturing off to the watery parts of the world, Jack London recounting stories of survival in the Yukon, Ernest Hemingway telling of driving an ambulance during the Great War.
For many of us time has to go by, the experience has to ferment, we have to get distance from a story before we can begin to write about it. Other writers are luckier. They can climb a mountain or swim a sea or participate briefly in a new career and great stories result. Personally, I can’t do that. I have to wait. I have to get distance from the experience, sometimes the distance of years, even decades. Only then from somewhere inside a tiny voice whispers that now—only now—maybe I’m beginning to understand what I lived through and maybe now is the time to write about it.
In addition, a story often doesn’t begin to take shape until the experience is coupled with another idea; an idea that either compliments the main story line or an idea that can be juxtaposed against it, like a spark to set it off.
Later in my military career, after my alert days were over, I met a retired First Sergeant who liked to spin the yarn about the time he awoke to the sound of the alert siren going off. He rose from his bed and started to get dressed and his wife poked her head out of the covers and asked him what the heck he was doing. After thirty years of active duty, he had forgotten that he was retired and no longer required to report in when the siren called. The story was funny, especially the way he told it, and it made us laugh. But it also stuck with me.
In addition to the experience and the spark, there’s one more thing that’s needed. A writer also needs to recapture emotion. The feelings you once had, the feelings that, like ghosts from the past, well up inside of you now. The feelings that make your story come alive.
Should you wait until you’re sure you have all these things to begin writing? Absolutely not. You write anyway, every day, and hope that these elements appear. You trust yourself, your intuition and, most importantly, you set all doubt aside and you write. And maybe the story is good and maybe it’s not so good. But if you’ve done it right, the feeling is there. The emotion that you hardly realized you had makes it’s magical appearance; the small, diamond-hard emotion that is the stuff of life.
So that’s what this story is; it’s my memories and my feelings, of the things I’ve experienced and the people I’ve known—and the people I would’ve liked to have known. It’s a little piece of my life that now has a title: “Beehive Round.”
Martin Limón’s “Beehive Round” appears in the September 2012 issue of AHMM. His new book is The Joy Brigade.