Fact or Fiction

As a writer, I’ve always contended that most writers draw on their personal experiences and the people and places they know as fodder for their work. This may not be true of every writer, but it certainly applies to me. I’ve dabbled in creative non-fiction, but my forte lies with fiction … at least
most of the time. When I think back about the novels and short stories I’ve written, I realize that I have borrowed people, places, and situations from my past. Of course, being 72 years old gives me plenty from which to draw. I guess the question is, where to we draw the line?


I just finished reading a non-fiction piece entitled DEATH SENTENCE. It’s the story of a New Jersey man who murders his mother, wife, and three children, and then disappears for 18 years. The author, Joe Sharkey, has done exhaustive research of both the murder and the 18 years that followed. When I finished reading the book, I looked at my wife and said, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Had I written this convoluted plot and character study in one of my novels, would any reader have been able to suspend their disbelief long enough to finish the book? I rather think not.

So where do we draw the line? That’s a hard question to answer. Working with our writers’ group, The Milton Workshop, gives me plenty of feedback on my writings. I usually limit my biweekly offerings to a single chapter, feeling that will give my fellow writers more than enough to digest and critique. I am never disappointed. They are a very insightful and thorough group. Their questions and comments about a piece are always thought provoking. They will effectively dissect and evaluate the characters and the plot line: Why would he/she say that? Would so and so really react that way? Is that comment true to character? Why would the character do those things? Do you really think that would or could happen? That’s a little hard to believe. And, of course, they go on from there.

When I apply these questions to what I’ve written, I have to take a step back and analyze them from a more objective position. Many times, I find myself in agreement with what has been said, but there are times when I do not. I guess that’s the bottom line … trying to determine what is true and
believable for the piece I’ve written. I have to ask myself, “How will the reader really feel about this? Will the reader accept the character or situation, or will they be forced to shake their head in disbelief, close the book and set it aside?” That’s the chance we, as writers, have to take. Sometimes, it’s a difficult determination, but it is one that has to be made in order to keep the reader turning the pages.

Five Minutes of Fame

My wife and I have been watching a Hulu series entitled The Path. It stars and is produced by Aaron Paul. Paul came to fame as the apprentice/ accomplice in the well known series, Breaking Bad. Since that time, he has starred in many films.

The Path is a story about several families living in a religious cult, which they refer to as a movement. A couple of weeks ago, the head of the cult singles out a young man for a special assignment.

“I need someone I can trust on the ground in Milton.”

The young man replies, “Where’s Milton?”

“Delaware” is the immediate answer.

In the next episode the leader visits the young man at his new post. The leader is wearing a light blue tee shirt with a dark blue silhouette of Delaware on the front. The name, Milton, is scrawled
across the front in bright white script. Of course, the setting is simply the inside of a building that could be anywhere. But hot damn, we’re suddenly famous.

Delaware often shows up in novels and TV shows but never, to my mind, does Milton. Once The X-Files set one of their scenes in Angola, Delaware. We thought that was pretty cool since, at the time, we lived right down the road from that resort. The show depicted a large motel/restaurant complex
illuminated by a mass of sodium street lamps. Of course, it bore no resemblance to any spot near Angola. Angola only boasts one restaurant and no motels.

Milton is equally obscure. The picturesque, quaint little town at the head of the Broadkill River is home to just over 3,000 inhabitants. We have no cults…or none that I know of. You can buy a tee shirt here, but it will tout Irish Eyes Pub, Po’boys Creole Restaurant, Dogfish Head Brewery, or the Milton Historical Society rather than the one from the series. Still, it’s a nice place to live and is close enough to the ocean beach resorts to be convenient without being subjected to the crowds that throng there every summer. No, Milton is not famous, but it was exciting experiencing the recognition if only for a few minutes on national television.

And I did kinda like the tee shirt.

Times: They Be A’changin

Today is my mother’s birthday. If she was still alive, she would now be 102. She held on for a long time, finally giving up three and a half months before her hundredth birthday. My father-in-law also lived well into his nineties, dying in the year 2000. So, what am I getting at?

All my life, I’ve heard people say, “Thank God, so-and-so didn’t live to see this.” That prayer of thanks still holds true today.

My mother was a self-styled socialite. She loved only the best of everything. Her clothes, her shoes, her jewelry all spoke to the importance she saw in these material items. Cooking was not her forte; good restaurants and the country club were. Although she lived with me and my wife for the
last ten years of her life, she was continually “on the go” well into her nineties. Restaurants, the casinos, and the bridge tables were her daily haunts. She was not a home-body. With our current pandemic, I can’t imagine trying to keep her quarantined. She was always strong willed, and I would have failed miserably at the task. Thank God, she didn’t live to see this.

My father-in-law was very politically active and a staunch supporter of the Republican party. He was proud to number several high-ranking Republicans in our state as associates and friends. He always voted a straight Republican ticket and even ran for office once or twice. Since my mother-in-law was often ill, he would drag my wife and me to various Republican fund raisers and political events. When my wife and I finally gave up our membership in the Republican party, we guarded that secret for the remainder of his life. Had he known, I’m almost sure he would have disinherited us. Of late, my wife and I have pondered just how he would have reacted to the current administration. My father-in-law was an intelligent man who never tolerated stupidity and weakness in anyone. We can’t help but wonder what he would be saying now. Needless to say, we thank God, he didn’t live to see this. I am seventy-two years of age and suffer from terminal cancer. The idea of death is something I’ve become very comfortable with. As bad as things are in our country, I can only hope and pray that things do not deteriorate further. I don’t want my children and grandchildren to have reason to echo, “Thank God, he didn’t live to see this.”

Busted

With all the controversy concerning the police lately, I thought it might be refreshing to share with you an occurrence that happened over fifty years ago.

My father-in-law had retired as a Major in the Army Military Police. After moving to our little town, he soon became the Chief of Police. His daughter, Marilyn, my wife to be, loved cats. He was more a dog person, himself, but he never prevented Marilyn from having at least one cat around. Fluff was perhaps the most notorious. She was a mottled gray and orange long hair variety who really must have enjoyed sex. Never a season passed without her presenting with at least one litter. Of course, this was in the day when people did not think about spaying their pets. Puppies and kittens abounded.

Fluff had one idiosyncrasy the continually frustrated Marilyn and her mother. The cat would always deliver her kittens in the basement crawlspace next to the fireplace foundation. This habit was all well and good, but that was as far as it went. As soon as the kittens were cleaned up and fed, Fluff would begin moving them from hiding place to hiding place. It was a never-ending merry-go-round of, “Where is Fluff now? Where are the kittens?”

Late one morning, Marilyn and her mother were working in the kitchen. Fluff suddenly appeared at the dining room door and began to meow. At first, she was ignored, but the constant complaining became annoying.

My mother-in-law scowled at the cat. “What’s her problem?”

Marilyn shrugged. “I don’t know.”

The complaining continued until Marilyn walked over to her. “What is it, girl?”

“Meow.”

“I hear you, but what’s the problem?”

“Meow.” She then turned and trotted through dining room and up the stairs.
Marilyn followed. Fluff led her a merry chase, looking under beds and into closets. It
became obvious that the kittens were gone, and Fluff didn’t know where she had put them.

With a sigh, Marilyn reached down and scratched the cat’s head. “Sorry, girl. I don’t know where you’ve put them.” She and the cat headed back to the kitchen.

At that moment, the town patrol car pulled into the car park behind the house.

My mother-in-law looked puzzled. “What’s he doing home?”

The Chief of Police climbed out of the car and headed for the back door. Marilyn and her mother moved to intercept him.

“What are you doing home?”

Without answering his wife’s question, he turned and walked back toward the car.

“Come here.” His voice was firm and brokered no discussion.

Marilyn and her mother reached the car as he threw open the passenger side door.

He pointed. “Look there.”

Marilyn didn’t see anything. “What?”

Her father cleared his throat. “Under the seat.”

Marilyn leaned down and looked. There, under the seat, were Fluff’s missing kittens.
Somehow, she had gotten them outside and into the patrol car.

My father-in-law laughed. “They’ve been all over Sussex County this morning.”

Marilyn and her mother joined in the laughter as they collected the stray kittens.

Fluff stood at the back door and meowed

In the Trenches

Last month I touched on the question of a writer’s response to the our current condition. I ended the piece with the question: “Are we up to the challenge?” Well, one writer in our writing group was more than up to it…and she hadn’t even read my blog.

Our writers’ group, The Milton Workshop, is devoted to writers over the age of forty. Most of us have no problem fitting that requirement. Carrie, however, just squeaked by. As a result, Carrie’s writings tend to be more in tune with what is going on today. She works full time as a midwife and also has a journalism degree. Her writing is a vivid testament to her ability to view life, analyze it, and clearly report it. Her constant immersion in the medical world has put her on the front lines of our pandemic.

In the piece she most recently shared, Carrie brought us face to face with what is really happening. She has expounded on incidents in her work place that show the tragic effects of the virus as well as racial injustice. Because of her career, Carrie sees women from all walks of life, all socioeconomic strata, all races and religious affiliations. As a result, she is able to report on the overall impact of what our world and governments are bringing to bear upon us. It isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s downright scary. The pictures Carrie paints reflect the uncertainty, desperation, and fear so many people are experiencing right now.

Unfortunately, Carrie does not offer up any solutions to our problems. How can she? None of us knows where this is all headed or how it will end. Certainly, our national government has been of little or no help. Reassurance and a sense of security is not something they are capable of dispensing.

I would love to present you with excerpts from Carrie’s writing. I am not sure if she has a writer’s blog, or if she would permit me to do so. These are questions I need to answer.

Regardless, Carrie has more than met my personal challenge, and I commend her for it. Her  writing is always tight, concise and descriptive. It leaves me wanting more. That’s the sign of a truly good writer.

Freedom of speech?

Independence day is fast approaching. It’s a day when we celebrate our freedoms as Americans. For writers, freedom of speech is among the most important. But, for a writer, that freedom carries an obligation. Unfortunately, for me, it is an obligation that I have considered and chose to ignore. Why? I guess one could say that, in recent years, I’ve become increasingly neurotic. I hesitate to speak or write my mind for fear of offending someone. As our country continues to devolve, the fear of rejection and reprisal is becoming all to real.

One has to admire John Bolton and Mary Trump for their courage in attacking the current administration and those responsible for our plight. I wish I had that courage, but I don’t. Whenever the “President” does or says something stupid, I become angry and want to strike out against his obvious ignorance. That has become an almost daily occurrence. Of course, I say nothing. There have been a few times when I have started to do so, but I have always deleted that which I’ve written.

I went to bed early on election night in 2016. It seemed pointless to watch the returns. I was confident Hillary Clinton would take the election.

When I came downstairs the next morning, my wife met me at the foot of the stairs. “The light is out in the refrigerator.”

“Damn!” I hated changing those bulbs. They were hard to access and difficult to remove.

“Don’t worry about that now. We have bigger things to worry about.”

I looked at her quizzically. “What?”

“Trump won the election.”

It’s hard describe the feelings of fear and uncertainty that flooded my mind. Later, I took time to analyze those feelings. I could only compare them to how the German Jewish community must have felt when Hitler came to power. I shelved those emotions, but I have to admit that they do return from time to time. In fact, I shudder whenever I read of him being compared to a Nazi dictator.

As I said, I’ve never expressed my feelings in writing. What you have just read is probably as close as I will ever come. Take it for what you will.

What’s in a title?

Last week, during a virtual reading of my novel, someone asked, “Did you come up with the title first or after you finished writing?” My reply was, that in this particular case, I had the title long before I put pen to paper. However, this is not always the case. Often, the title for a piece can be elusive and can require quite a lot of thought. I’ve experienced both scenarios. Needless to say, I prefer the former.

When I was fourteen, I wrote a story simply for my own enjoyment. The title popped into my head at the very beginning of my endeavor. I submitted the piece for my senior high English class three years later. During my Freshman year of college, I revamped the story and used it again for an English class. In my Junior year, I submitted it again for a creative writing course I was taking. Most recently, I dragged it out once more, dusted it off and updated it for a Halloween anthology submittal. The editor liked the story and made a few suggestions that I readily accepted. Then came the surprise.

“You need to think about changing the title.”

“Really?” I replied. The title was something that I had never considered changing. “Why?” I asked.

“It gives away too much of the story.”

I had never thought of that, but he was right. The title did divulge more than it should. Now, the question was, “What was a good alternative?”

I was at a loss. I was so comfortable to the existing title that I could not see beyond it. I finally tossed the ball back into the editor’s court. With his help, I finally arrived at a more suitable title, and the story was published in the anthology.

Titles can be tricky, and I don’t really have a pat formula for choosing one. If one of you does, please let me know.

Between a rock…

Well, here we sit … between a “rock and a hard place”. The hard place is our current pandemic caused by COVID19. The rock is a completely unprepared and totally incompetent Federal government. Needless to say, we are all doing our best to deal with this unfortunate situation.

Our local writers’ group meets every other Sunday for about four hours. We have been doing so for the last five years. We read and critique one another’s work, have lunch and exchange personal stories and opinions. With the advent of the virus, we have been meeting virtually, and, for the most part, this has worked well. The one exception is that it seems difficult to really converse. I suppose that is the result of being on line and having to wait until it is one’s turn to speak. Any overlap leads to confusion and somewhat garbled comments. I suppose this problem will gradually wane as we become
more familiar with the program.

However, to date, no one has raised the topic I would like to touch on today. Certainly, such a subject requires much discussion and personal feedback. Our group may be avoiding it because of our limited on- line experience.

Regardless, I can’t help but wonder what this pandemic means from a writer’s standpoint. Over the years there have been various novels, short stories and movies dealing with the subject. Now we are in the midst of the real thing, and any presupposed assumptions are now truly fiction. We are seeing what really happens in such a case and have been exposed to a variety consequences. Personal accounts of sickness, death and hardship abound. People have lost their jobs, their sense of security and their naivete. We are experiencing the gamut of emotions that accompanies such a world-wide attack. We are also experiencing the lack of leadership that we always assumed would be there when country faced a major crisis.

As writers, we often ponder possible scenarios, characters and situations. COVID 19 has now provided us with a multitude of possibilities. The question, now, is, are we up to the challenge?