Saturday, April 6, 2013

Confessions in Writing... Fiction and Place

A real sea of red and blue gowns, Dodge City Senior High School graduation ceremony, May 1988.

My novel takes place in Dodge City, a town of about 27,000 people in southwest Kansas. It was a bit smaller when I was growing up. I would guess the population was about 22,000 when I left home for the first time in 1988. It's true; I returned. After college and five years in Houston, Texas, I went back to Dodge City for a spell. My third child was born there.

In the second chapter of my novel, I write:

"The photographs on the mirror were curled with age, that clear “magic” tape still doing its job. I ran my finger along a line of school photos of myself. First grade. Second grade. For some reason third grade was missing. In the fourth grade I’d gotten glasses and in the eighth grade I’d stopped smiling to hide the fact that I was wearing braces. Looking at each photo, I could almost imagine myself again, the person I once was. Closing my eyes made me feel dizzy. It was similar to what I felt when I sat in front of this same mirror as a kid wishing with my whole being to be older, to finally be grown up so that I could get the hell out of Dodge and on with a life that would be more worthwhile and exciting."
Tracy Million Simmons. Tiger Hunting (Kindle Locations 96-101)

In this scene, my character, Jeni, could very well be myself. She could be most any kid that grew up in Dodge City, I think. Getting the hell out of Dodge was our key phrase. We owned it. We claimed it. And I think the majority of us imagined it with at least some level of longing for most of our teen years, if not longer. Anyone from any other place in the world who said, "Get the hell out of Dodge," was just pretending.

I allowed my story to take place in Dodge City because it felt rooted there. The opening scene of a circus caravan accident, with a dolphin dying on the side of the road, could only be so absurd and unlikely in a setting like western Kansas, where the river beds have never held significant water in my lifetime.

Through the first draft of the story, I didn't worry too much about blending my fiction with the real town that I know better than any other. It was an exercise in writing, at that point. It was a challenge to myself to complete a manuscript that contained a beginning, a middle, and an end.

In deciding to present my fiction to the public, however, anxieties immediately crept in. Dodge City is a very real place, and for those who also grew up there, I am sure there are scenes that ring entirely true. I have no doubt that every graduate of Dodge City Senior High (at least, before the new school was built) has visual images of Zach's graduation that look very much as I imagined them as I was writing my story. We picture the same red and blue gowns. We have the same memories of sitting in the seats at Dodge City's Civic Center watching the Tournament of Champions basketball games, attending the annual floor show, and watching our friends, year after year, cross that stage to pick up graduation diplomas.

The characters in my story may be a bit shifted in time, as their experiences in many ways mirror those of mine and my classmates, but they also carry cell phones that did not exist in 1988.

As I was rewriting and massaging Tiger Hunting, trying to get all the scenes to flow, one element I kept getting hung up on was reality. The adventure starts out south of town and I struggled with that setting for a long time before moving my tiger hunt north. I know the countryside south of Dodge City, you see. I spent the first 18 years of my life there. I learned to drive on those dirt roads. I spent summers riding bikes down them with my cousins. I took day-long horseback rides at a slow and steady pace that allowed me to soak in the scenes from every square mile so completely that I can close my eyes today and still imagine myself there.

North of town, my experiences aren't nearly so deep. I was able to shrug off what I knew to be true long enough to focus on the story. I didn't have to worry about how the real Mr. Nicholson would respond to a white tiger lurking in his back pasture. I was able to create canyons that are deeper and wilder than the real things. I made up countryside that might not be entirely recognizable to a kid who did happen to grow up on the north side of town. The general idea of Dodge City remains clear, but by walking away from what I knew best, I was able to more easily fictionalize to suit my story.

I think the fear as a writer, of placing fiction in reality, is that someone is going to call you on it. I still imagine a reader who knows the roads as well as I know them. I imagine them correcting me the way an editor shows me where I used the incorrect homonym. And then I think about all the times I've gotten together with people from my past and we've enjoyed sharing stories and reminiscing. How many times have I found myself a key figure in someone else's memory, only to realize that even our realities differ.

If reality can enjoy so much variety in interpretation, imagine all the places fiction can take us. It was this thought that allowed me to go tiger hunting in western Kansas. It was this that allowed me to embrace what wasn't real in a place I know so well.

The author and fellow DCSH graduate, Derek Simmons.

The author and fellow DCSH graduate, Yvette Bertholf Ediger.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog Archive