I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling lately. I work in theater (I run a service organization for the New England theater community called StageSource), so I spend a lot of time in the theater, seeing different plays. Sometimes I see a play I know well, done differently. Most times I am told a familiar story, one that fits my familiar and comfortable narrative lens. Sometimes I have my mind blown. But it is all storytelling.
I am also working on Book #3 in my mystery series, wrapping up some narrative arcs that are threaded through the entire series while telling readers a new story with the same characters. I’m adding books to my TBR (To Be Read) pile at an alarming rate, grateful to be traveling a lot in the coming months so I can catch up on my reading.
I am also collecting stories for future use.
The other day I was grocery shopping. It was right before a “maybe you are going to get nailed with snow” forecast, so there was a lot of anxiety snow shopping. (Carbs, cheese, wine, chocolate for me.) I kept running into one couple. At first she was berating him because he didn’t answer her text within a half-hour. Next aisle he was questioning her food choices and cooking abilities. By the bakery aisle I was sure they were going to break up, or at least go to their separate homes to wait out the storm. By the time they were checking out, there seemed to be a detente. They left first, so I didn’t witness the next chapter.
I’ve been thinking about that couple a lot. I can tell their story from her point of view, from his point of view, from my point of view. Three different stories. I can also create different endings for the story, and have. In one, she poisons him. In another, he throws her phone out the car window on the way home. In another, they break up but can’t leave the apartment because of the storm. They even live happily ever after in one of the stories.
I think of people as a puzzle while I get to know them. The more I know, the more pieces I can fill in. With real people I care about, I can tell when there is a piece missing. I know it will be uncovered in time, and I let their story unfold. With people I don’t know, I just make it up. This is what writers do, we make up stories. For the grocery store couple, I decided she freaks out about him not responding to a text because her last boyfriend never broke up with her officially, he just stopped calling. He actually does think she’s a good cook. He can’t tell her he’d rather just get a prepared meal and sit on the couch because he’s tired because she’s fifteen years younger than he is, so he feels compelled to keep up with her. He also can’t tell her he turns off his text notifier during the day because he can’t see his phone without his glasses.
Storing stories also means that I keep the drama on the page. After a very contentious meeting a few years back, someone followed me back to my office and demanded to know how I kept my cool. I replied that I had been thinking about how to poison each and every person at the meeting, and showed her the diagram I’d worked out. (It involved tainted sugar cookies–very Agatha Christiesque.) Her reply? “You are a very scary woman.”
Perhaps. But it doesn’t mean I don’t feel. In fact, I feel a lot. I absorb stories, and storytelling. I channel the passion I feel into my own stories, even if they never make it on the page. Sometimes that makes me seem cold, or distant. I am trying to be better about reacting appropriately, rather impassively filing away details to be processed fully later. This is what makes me a writer–filing away stories for future use. That is where I put my passion, on the page.
How about you, dear readers? Do you make up stories about strangers? Follow people to hear their conversation? Pretend you are reading on the train when you are actually watching a story play out?
Julie Hennrikus runs StageSource and teaches at Emerson College. Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery series. Just Killing Time was released last October.