You Bet I Have!
By Jeff Salter
Before I regale you with things that I’ve personally experienced (that I later used in a story), let me tell you about two true incidents in the lives of my wife’s ancestors. One occurred about 600 yards from where we now reside; the other took place at the church those ancestors attended, which is perhaps a mile distant (as the crow flies).
The first situation occurred after the local Civil War Battle of Dutton Hill – some two miles distant – after which a badly wounded Confederate soldier struggled to the Bishop cabin and pleaded for sanctuary. My wife’s ancestors let him in and cared for him the best they could, but he died of his wounds during the night and was buried early the next morning. This was extremely dangerous business, since this area was occupied by Union Forces at the time and any “aid” to the “enemy” – if discovered – could be punished by forfeiture of property and exile to Canada.
The second event, likely decades later (I could never pin down a specific year), was witnessed by that same family (among many others). As Sunday evening church service was letting out, an unknown rider came up to the church, asked for a drink of water, spoke with one or more people, and was – seconds later – shot dead as he rode away. The stranger was buried where he fell and his fenced off grave was undisturbed for decades until a state road crew re-routed several sections of Clifty Road.
I used both of those fascinating family stories in my novel, “Hid Wounded Reb,” and stayed true to the basics of each incident… though I moved the “stranger shot at the church” episode earlier in the timeline… just a few years after the Civil War. I also had to provide (in my story) an identity for the murdered stranger and the reason for his visit. Many versions of the family lore featured a SECOND Rebel soldier, who accompanied the badly wounded man. That survivor took the better horse and rode south the following morning. In my story, he lingered in the area – hiding in a cave – as he healed from his own wounds.
Now for a few of my own experiences.
Likely the most notable – since it formed the basis for my entire seventh novel, “The Overnighter’s Secrets” – was when my friend showed me the contents of an old suitcase he’d obtained in barter, some 16 years previously in California. The items had been recovered by dumpster “divers” who had scooped them into two small boxes. My friend placed the pieces into a small suitcase and he’d shown those items only to one other individual (his wife), all that time. As he and I pored over the pieces, we realized not only were most of them connected to one individual (and her family), but they were the belongings of a Vaudeville actress who later became a star in silent movies. At one time she was in the same company as a young Charlie Chaplin. “Meeting” Lizette Holdsworth Thorne – as I did through examining her playbills, photos, clippings, and other items – I built my entire story around the “secrets” we uncovered, how we connected things that (at first) were not readily apparent, and then I devised a suspenseful plot around how such belongings might affect multiple individuals in modern day Tennessee. To pull it all together, I also had to create a sinister villain, Kaser.
Another example of an entire novel arising from my own experience was when I was strapped onto a compression table in a chiropractic office and gazed out the window to pass the time. Watching a leafy tree move in the breeze, I thought to myself, “my heroine works in a chiropractic office and lives in a tree house.” Thus was born the primary elements of my novel, “Stuck on Cloud Eight.” Several scenes in my story came directly from my own experiences in that clinic.
In my first Christmas novel, “Random Sacks of Kindness,” I borrowed heavily on my own experience with many homeless individuals from my years working in a public library in busy downtown Shreveport LA. Some of my characters were derived from individuals I actually knew. The experience with the dangerously aggressive panhandler – featured primarily in one scene, though that character emerges multiple times – actually happened to me in Shreveport.
Finally, in my W.I.P. – set in a nursing home – I am using many situations I’ve encountered in the 14 months I’ve visited my own mother at Somerwoods Nursing Home here in Somerset. Several of my characters are inspired by individuals I’ve met there. As of this blog writing, I’ve not been allowed – due to the KY governor’s restrictions related to CoVid-19 – to visit Mom since March 10… but I will resume my thrice weekly visits as soon as that restriction is lifted.
What about YOU? Have you experienced any situation or person that you’ve later written into one of your stories? Or, if you’re primarily a READER (rather than writer), have you read scenes which feel like they were taken right out of your own life?
[JLS # 490]