I grew up on Lake Byron in DeLand, Florida where my journey as a writer began. Both my books are set there. My father was an avid fisherman, and gave me my first tackle box when I was six. He was also a man who respected water, and because my sisters and I spent so much time in it, insisted we obey his rules of the lake: No Swimming Alone, No Diving in Unknown Waters, and the one that got me in the most trouble, No Using Dad’s Rod and Reel.
Remembering my childhood, I am flooded with images of water. Water was my playground and deathtrap; sustenance and enemy, and today, is the dark pool of memory into which I cast my hook. One particular, dark incident over forty years ago, brought forth a wellspring of creativity still bubbling today.
When I was nine years old, the man next door, whom I knew as Mr. Fischer, sexually molested me. (I’m fine, and he’s dead.) For years the incident lay dormant in my memory, a monster fish I couldn’t see but knew was there, waiting to bite me in the behind. Then, in 1982, I went trolling for that monster fish, dragged it into the light, and wrote it down. “Hooked” was my first short story.
“Hooked” won the Irene Ryan Short Story Award, was published, and on the strength of that same story, I was granted a fellowship in creative writing from the University of Virginia. “Hooked” was also the anchor story in my solo performance piece, Rules of the Lake, which won the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award in Drama. Then it became part of a collection of stories, Rules of the Lake, which was named a Best Book for Young Readers by the New York Public Library.
I mention these milestones not to toot my own horn, but to mark my journey as a writer. I turned a “monster fish” into an elevated version of itself, suitable not just for public consumption, but for critical praise. Rawest memories, then, are often seeds for fiction because, as we all know, monsters make good stories.
Although fiction may begin with real life, it cannot dwell there. Fiction is crafted; real life is not. And when drawing from memory, a writer must always be guided by the Rules of the Story.
The line between fact and fiction may be a fine one, but it must exist. Real life is incidental, fiction is planned. Real life unfolds slowly; fiction has pace. Real life isn’t fair; fiction evens the score. Writers interpret “what really happened” and transform it into “what happens next?” Facts are set aside, events reordered. Characters take the place of real people, who behave according to the writer’s plan, not their own. And the words used to describe characters, settings and events do not live in the mundane terrain of the real. They are carefully chosen so as to elevate the reader’s experience in a perfectly balanced world.
I created Annie Bartlett and dropped her into the setting of my life. Her story, like mine, unfurls in water. Her memories and monsters melt and swirl into a faded picture postcard of a Florida I once knew, but now belongs to her. Annie’s journey, while inspired by real life, is firmly grounded in Rules of the Story: No Sticking to Facts, No Naming Bad Guys For People You Don’t Like; No Writing Dialogue Exactly as Heard; No Telling it Like it Was.