I can easily look around my neighborhood and get ideas. The older couple on the corner, how he seems to spend endless time in the garage and she never gets our names straight. The younger couple on the other corner, how she seems to work tirelessly and he always has a beer in one hand. Then there’s our "crazy" next door neighbors.
I could easily write a short piece about any of them, a slice of real life. But if I want to do something more involved, I need to find a stronger reason for staying there. l also need to give the reader a reason to stay.
I could interview each of these neighbors and find out they actually are fascinating individuals all on their own. Then it’s not fiction, though. It’s a magazine article. Plus, the gig’s up—they’ll know I’m watching them.
So I have to make stuff up.
Our next door neighbors intrigue me the most. A husband and wife with two young children. The mother and the children never go outside on their own—they only accompany the father. They travel as a protected group (safety in numbers?), in darker hours. I want to write about her, about them, but lately, I’ve been stopping short of what I don’t know. My love of the ordinary and the real has bred an apprehension of the imagined. Because now I have to plunge into make believe and make it—well, believable. Harder work. I don’t want to get it wrong, as if there is a "wrong." Because sure there is reality, but my fiction is this story’s reality. I just want to make it the "right" reality.
Because it is fiction, I do normally bend the truth: a shift in time, a change of personality, a line that maybe wasn’t so funny in real life. But with a longer, more complex piece, I must plunge into complete pretend and not panic. I hang on to real bits along the way: the style of the home, her hair colour, a name I think I can safely use. Bits of bread crumbs dropped along the way, like I need to be able to remember my way back.
But most important, I need a character based on Me. That is my strongest foothold. If there is a Me character (a nosy neighbor, perhaps?), then if I feel I’ve gone too far into the make believe world, I can always come back to her.
Of course, she isn’t exactly like me. Maybe she’s taller, maybe she speaks her mind more. Me but not me. She watches on the periphery. This helps calm the anxiety of going places unknown.
I’m not alone.