On earthquakes, hurricanes, and hyperbole

It’s hard to talk about anything much but the weather this week. Between the earthquakes in central Virginia and the hurricane on the east coast, it’s been pretty exciting. Everybody here in Virginia has an earthquake story they’ll tell you, and I could share mine, too, but I won’t. I prefer to use mine, embellished and exaggerated ( I have a real gift for hyperbole), in my fiction.

Because that’s what writers do. We take an experience and we shape it into something that fits into a story, we use it to underscore and provide an anchor for the story itself.

As I tried to explain to someone once, a war story is not really a story about the particulars of war, but rather it’s a story about the people who live through that war. (If you’ve never read Tim O’Brien, you should.) If we want history, we can read nonfiction. Fiction is not about reporting an event. It’s about finding the truth and meaning of a character’s life through the lens of the event. It’s about tossing characters into a hurricane and watching how they react.

I read a wonderful short story once about the breakup of a marriage in the midst of a hurricane. The hurricane was real, and powerful, and I could hear the freight-train rushing of the wind outside the house, feel the fear of the dog the couple was fighting over. But it was the characters themselves that gave the story meaning.

Anyone can describe what it feels like to be caught up in a hurricane, or feel the earth move under them as it shifts and buckles in an earthquake. But writers do more than report the experience. They give it meaning within the context of a character’s life, use it to expose weaknesses or show previously untapped courage. Writers use their experiences to enrich their writing, to add veracity to their fiction.

So if you want to hear about my experience sitting in the upstairs of an old house while the walls shook and groaned, don’t look for it here. Just keep reading my fiction. It’s sure to show up there sometime.

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