Jilly: Word Candy II – True Stories

Word CandyLast week I had a light-bulb moment regarding my heroine, Rose, finally solving something I’ve been struggling with for so long that I was beginning to think I’d never get there. I’d already attacked it from a number of angles so this time I decided to dig deep into her family back-story. It worked! Out of the blue I suddenly realised what had made Rose’s father, Paul, decide to leave his wife and child, and where he went. That led me to think through the way Paul’s life choice had formed Rose’s most deeply held beliefs, and suddenly everything fell into place.

I mention this because the future I settled on for Paul is based on something that actually happened to a friend’s husband back in his bachelor days. When I first heard the story I loved it so much that I immediately asked for his permission to recycle it at some unspecified future date, though I wasn’t expecting it to come in useful in this context.

True stories are fantastic for sparking ideas. I have a collection of scrap books filled with press cuttings, random snippets, brochures, pictures ripped out of magazines, anything that attracts my attention or captures my imagination, even though I almost never know why I want it. I had images for Rose (from an old jewelry ad) and Ian (a grainy black and white newspaper shot of a brilliant young businessman) long before I signed up for McDaniel. I should confess that I eavesdrop all the time – on public transport, in restaurants, shops, waiting rooms, everywhere – and I quiz my friends relentlessly for their favorite family stories and off-the-wall anecdotes.

I also love autobiographies – not of celebrities, models or it-girls, but stories by people who’ve found themselves in extraordinary situations. They’re a rich and often-overlooked treasury of character development or world-building.

I could probably pick a top 50 or so, but here are half a dozen favorites:

Touching The Void, Joe Simpson

If character is choice under pressure, this book is the ultimate character manual. Joe Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, were descending a 21,000 foot mountain in the Andes when Simpson plunged off an ice ledge and broke his leg. Yates tried to lower his friend to safety in impossible circumstances until darkness fell, a blizzard raged, and the rope stuck. Simpson was dangling on the end of the rope, knowing that if his friend cut the rope, he would fall to his death, but if Yates did not, they would both die. Yates cut the rope, and this book is the story of what happened next. If it wasn’t a true story, you’d never believe it.

Muscle, Sam Fussell

Sub-titled The Story Of An Unlikely Bodybuilder, Muscle is articulate, hilarious, gruesome, and fascinating. The author was a skinny, bookish Oxford graduate, an intellectual child of an academic family. He got a job in New York before starting graduate school and found himself intimidated by street people and city life in general. He decided to reinvent himself, and the book documents his slippery slide into the world of competitive body building. To his family’s consternation and bemusement he quits his job, cashes in his inheritance, moves first to a windowless concrete basement, and later to California where his world becomes one of extreme workouts, even more extreme diets, steroids and fake tan. It’s worth it for the photographs alone.

The Past Is Myself, Christabel Bielenberg

The fascinating story of an English/Irish girl from a wealthy and influential family who married a young German lawyer in 1934 and lived in Germany throughout the war. Her husband was anti-Nazi and was closely associated with participants in the failed von Stauffenberg bomb plot against Hitler. Peter Bielenberg was arrested, interrogated, and imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp, and Christabel proactively demanded to be interrogated by the Gestapo in order to convince them of her husband’s innocence. She succeeded. If it wasn’t a true story …

The Secret Race, Tyler Hamilton

You want character arc? You don’t have to be interested in cycling to read this inside account of professional cycling during the Armstrong years. Here’s choice under pressure, clearly and painstakingly chronicled. A world within a world. The trade-off between personal values and professional advantages leading inexorably to a series of life-changing decisions and ultimately discovery, disgrace and regret.

Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain

Fantastic, hilarious, insightful, shocking account of one chef’s career in the restaurant business. Contains tales of drink, drugs, debauchery, Mafiosi, and a surprising amount of solid information about what it takes to run a successful restaurant and why so many fail. Fabulous world-building.

The Innocent Anthropologist, Nigel Barley

Subtitled Notes From A Mud Hut; the story of a young anthropologist’s first field trip, to study the Dowayo people in Northern Cameroon. His account of his attempts to gather facts and maintain an appropriate anthropological distance as he gets to grips with missionaries, chiefs, administrators, rain-makers is hilarious and sympathetic.

Do you enjoy autobiographies? Recommendations, please!

14 thoughts on “Jilly: Word Candy II – True Stories

  1. I don’t normally read autobiographies, and the one I’m recommending to you is only “semi-autobiographical,” but Daughter of Earth by Agnes Smedley is really terrific. Smedley really got around, and at a time when women were more socially and economically constrained. Whatever makes Daughter of Earth “semi-autobiographical” rather than just “autobiographical,” her real life seems to be just as exciting and colorful as that described in the book.

  2. Oooh, Kay’s rec sounds very good!

    When I was a kid, my sister was the one who liked autobiographies and biographies, and I didn’t, really. But I’ve come to love a good one.

    I think it’s fascinating to read autobiographies and biographies at the same time, if you have the time. For example, there was a biography about Gypsy Rose Lee that I enjoyed called American Rose. Then I turned around and read her memoirs . . . fascinating to see what a person leaves out of their autobiography.

    I love reading humorous autobiographies by comedians, but a lot of them poop out before the end. Steve Martin’s was really good.

    I also liked reading The Paris Wife about Hadley Hemingway, Hemingway’s first wife, and also there was one that came out in this decade about Constance, the wife of Oscar Wilde.

    A biography or autobiography will usually be an organized view of a life, and a lot of writers will organize them as acts, with turning points and all the building drama we expect from fiction.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee sounds like a fascinating character, Michaeline. Did you read the book My G-string Mother by Erik Preminger (her son by Otto Preminger)? That sounds like a good read and would be very interesting to get her story from a third perspective.

  3. I don’t have a biography to recommend (although all the ones mentioned so far sound absolutely fascinating), but the beginning of your post reminded me of a story I read about L.M. Montgomery. She got the premise for Anne of Green Gables from a newspaper article, just a paragraph in the local paper about a couple who arranged to get a child from the orphanage to assist with farm chores, but the orphanage mistakenly sent a girl.

    I read somewhere once that story ideas are often intersections between two bits of info that collide.

    • I love that story, Jeanne.

      My WIP started when I read a piece in the newspaper about a celebrity marriage, insinuating that the couple had got married for the advancement of their careers. I started to wonder what kind of person would regard their private life (marriage, children) as career fodder. Then I started to wonder if it could be justified in any circumstances, and if so, what those circumstances might be – could the end ever justify the means? My story has changed a lot since then, but that’s the spark that began it.

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