Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Tell Me a Story by Kathleen Delaney

My Christmas Tree is up. So are the lights, and there’s garland on the mantle. I don’t usually decorate this early, but two of my grandchildren were here over Thanksgiving and they wanted to decorate “their” trees.

Last year I bought two of those little fake trees that come with lights for the front porch. But things didn’t go quite the way I had planned. I barely made it home for Christmas, having spent a month in the hospital, and those trees were almost the only ones we had. The kids claimed them, and decorated them. For some reason they didn’t make the cover of Southern Living, but the kids loved them, and so did I.

This year they wanted to do it again. It seemed like a good idea, so we dragged them out, one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, we were Christmased.

It seems that decorating for Christmas requires more than ornaments and bows. Hot chocolate and stories are an integral part of the ritual. Family stories, mostly, and their favorites are stories about their mother and their aunts and uncles. One story in particular is required telling.

When their Uncle David was about eight, he ventured into forbidden territory, the main street a few blocks from where we lived, to buy me a Christmas present. How he ended up at the florist I don’t remember, and maybe never knew, but he came home with a small ceramic Santa’s boot, and in the boot was a fat red candle and fresh holly. My first thought was, of course, to ground him for life for scaring me half to death and my second was-where did he get the money?

It seems he had saved his allowance, which couldn’t have been very much, and I believe he did some special chores for his father. David didn’t get grounded, and the boot, now somewhat battered, comes out every Christmas. I still have the candle, but it gets fresh holly and the story gets a little better. David is now almost fifty-two, so that story has grown quite a bit.

This year we had a few new stories. Dalia, who is eight, took on the chore of story teller. The characters were familiar, but the story line—well, lets just say there were events I didn’t recognize, and I’m fairly happy about that. The child has a very vivid imagination.

It occurred to me, while we were retelling favorite stories and making up new ones, how important story telling is. We don’t often sit down and record our family history, it comes down to us through stories and it is through stories we really learn about the people that shaped our past world, and who influence who we are today. George Washington may not have really cut down the cherry tree, but that story tells us what kind of person he was, and serves to teach us the value of honesty.

But the stories about my Aunt Frank are true. She really did put on her hat and coat every time she opened the refrigerator. She was afraid she might catch cold. I dearly loved Frankie and spent many happy hours with her, listening to some pretty odd ideas, and learning that all people, even those that are a bit peculiar, have great value.

And that’s what story telling, or writing fiction, its all about. Stories about ordinary people and extraordinary people. Stories that make us laugh with someone, cry with someone else, and ones that make the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up.

The stories I like to write put ordinary people in traumatic circumstances, and then I can sit back and see how they handle whatever it is I throw at them. Mostly, its murder. Such fun.

We have to care about the characters. Peculiar people can’t be just peculiar, heroines can’t be just pretty faces, they have to anguish over something and grow through whatever trials and tribulations we put in front of them, and villains can’t be all evil. Unless you’re determined to do Hanibel Lector one better, of course. But you don’t usually want to read about pure evil, and it’s pretty hard to write about it.

Humans are complex. Sometimes mean, sometimes generous to a fault, sometimes happy, sometimes in agony. So are the characters in your story, or they should be.. Don’t fail them. Breath life into them. Remember, action springs out of character. So, don’t be afraid to give you characters a little—well—character.

Dalia has it right. Her characters live and breathe. Of course, her stories are mostly about an eight year old girl, her six year old brother, their mother, and sometimes their grandmother.

The stuff about the grandmother isn’t true.

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