Writing begins with ideas that you gain via personal experience. As writers we depend on the photographs in our minds. What have we seen? What have we done?
No shortcuts exist. There is only experience. Bad writing happens when one goes against this grain and tries to write via ideas they gather and recycle from other books, movies, or TV. Even if your writing project involves a time or an area of which you are not familiar, you will still have to incorporate your personal experiences to make it come alive.
When I was eleven years old, I lived for a year with my great aunt, Eron Rowland, in Jackson Mississippi . She was a writer of historical books as well as her husband, Dunbar Rowland. In addition, he founded the State Department of Archives and History for the state of Mississippi. Aunt Eron wrote the state song for Mississippi.
Once when I was living with Aunt Eron, a distant cousin, Tom Williams, his friend John and his friend’s wife Mary came to spend a week or so with us in Jackson at Aunt Eron’s very big home across the street from the state capital building. Tom was really a teller of tales and a writer himself. His friend John was a poet. They both kept me in stitches.
At one time the three of them had lived in a trailer court in Laurel, Mississippi. I thought it was awfully adventurous to live in a house on wheels. Being a very curious child, I asked them about the bathroom set up. Tom and John laughed and then told me a story involving the manager of the trailer court, an overweight woman whose name was Blanche DuBois.
One day the sump truck came by to pump the waste from the cesspool. Blanche, they related, was in the area when all of a sudden the hose came disconnected and began flaying waste all over the place, with Blanche getting totally doused. It was a sight to see, they said. We all really had a good laugh—that is, except my great aunt who thought their bawdy stories were too raunchy for my delicate ears. Three years later Tom (aka Tennessee) turned Blanche into one of the world’s most famous characters in his play A Streetcar Named Desire. His core experiences at that trailer court in Laurel served him well in his writing.
I taught Spanish in Riverside, California, in the late sixties. One summer a fellow teacher and I took a driving trip down to Guatemala City, Guatemala, in his Volkswagen van. At the border between Mexico and Guatemala, we were told by fellow tourists just driving into Mexico from Guatemala as well as the border guards that terrorists were operating along the route and that we had to be very careful.
Joe and I decided that we’d chance it anyway and crossed into Guatemala. We pushed our luck by straying off the main highway to check out some Indian ruins. On the way, we were stopped by a gang of terrorists and robbed. We had taken the precaution though to hide some of our money in the van so we weren’t totally without funds.
That night we recuperated in a dump of a place called Hotel Virginia, which had a tawdry lounge called Bar Romance. A very full-figured prostitute named Chucha plied her trade on us with no success but she was a wonderful character. I knew right then that if I ever became a writer, I would use her.
Flash forward to my Paris years when I founded The Paris English Theatre. I wrote a play called Hotel Virginia about some terrorists kidnapping a group of tourists and holding them hostage in a bordello by the name of Hotel Virginia. One of the lead characters was the very same Chucha. She did not become as famous as my cousin’s character Blanche, but she was an idea that became a stage play.
So, we plant our ideas like seeds and they grow into novels, plays and screenplays. Life is a giant platter of hors d’oeuvres just waiting to be experienced.