Gale Martin On Building A Great Story Around Anecdotes
By Gale Martin
Your first sentence can dazzle. Your prose can incite or enrapture. But ultimately, it is your storytelling that is going to keep readers hooked.
How many books have you read that failed to deliver on the promise inherent on the first several chapters? More than a few, I’ll bet. I tend not to give up on a book, even if the middle is soggy and the end falls flat. Having published two novels thus far, I know all about the challenges in telling a book-length story. I prefer to give authors chances to redeem themselves and usually hang in until the last page. But I’m happiest if I’m caught up in the story.
How does a writer tell a good story? In my experience, it’s all about collecting anecdotes.
I write contemporary fiction, so anecdotes work for me. The opening of my new novel GRACE UNEXPECTED (Booktrope Editions 2012), in fact, the entire premise for the book, is built around two anecdotes. First, I traveled to Shaker Village in New Hampshire in 2005, and came away with some impressions I’m predicting many other people did not: while I was inspired by the order and the ingenuity of the Shakers (did you know they invented the clothespin?), I thought it was a shame that generations of women bought into the myth that they couldn’t be the equal of men without sacrificing intimacy with them. Then my smart young professional protagonist in GRACE UNEXPECTED tried on these impressions for size, and they clung to her like a pencil skirt, one size too small.
A few years later my husband and I were detoured off Route 9 near Wilmington, Vermont, onto a two-hour back roads detour trying to make an Easter dinner seating time of 3 p.m. Now, the roads in Pennsylvania may be rutted and potholed. But at least they are paved. It was the height of New England mud season, and the detour sent our rear-wheel drive Camry barreling down unpaved roads for miles and miles. I never thought we’d come out alive and intact—the car and the people inside.
When I began writing GRACE UNEXPECTED in 2007, both these anecdotes surfaced in the opening chapter—the mud road detour combined with the overarching story reflecting Grace’s takeaways from Shaker Village, that whole generations of women denied themselves the privileges of sex and child-bearing in order to fully participate in Shaker society.
As the book progresses, other anecdotes are incorporated, from experiences with college presidents whose idiosyncratic behaviors are suffered by their lowly subordinates to a news story about a museum visitor who defaced a priceless painting when she kissed it, leaving a big fat lip print on its unprotected surface.
How do you tap into anecdotes? Here’s how I do it. At the same time I take part in something—anything, really—I also detach from it—just as if I were standing over myself or having an out-of-body experience. Then, using my mind’s eye, I watch myself take part. Later, I record as many details as I can until I have a full-bodied anecdote.
Do we as writers have to detach from all our life experiences to watch ourselves participating in events and activities for the rest of our lives? In a word, yes. It may sully our enjoyment of things initially, but eventually it makes bona fide storytellers out of us.
Do all books begin with anecdotes? Not all, I’m sure. One of the faculty members where I obtained my graduate degree in creative writing was inspired to write a book from an image that was powerful and robust enough to inspire his storytelling. However, if you want your reader to stay connected, you’d better have all the things readers expect from fiction (clear writing, interesting characters, clean prose) but, foremost, a great story.
If you have other ways of capturing stories for your fiction, I’d love to hear about them. In the meantime, as you embark on your day, think about adding to your anecdote collection!
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Gale Martin’s humorous backstage novel Don Juan in Hankey, PA was published by Booktrope Editions in 2011. Grace Unexpected, contemporary women’s fiction also from Booktrope, was published in July of 2012. She has a master of arts in creative writing from Wilkes University. She has worked in higher education marketing for ten years and lives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a rich source of inspiration for her writing. Her blog “Scrivengale” can be found on her website at http://galemartin.me.
In addition, there are a limited number of print review copies of Grace Unexpected available and numerous ebooks for early readers on a first-come, first-served basis. Simply email galemartin (dot) writer (at) gmail (dot) com to request one.
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