The moral qualms of a story thief

Like many would-be authors I started out writing mostly from my own experience. My twenties were spent filling notebooks with confessional poetry and rambling attempts at stories of significant episodes from my life. The trouble was that I did not feel able to submit any of this for publication because in exposing my own life’s stories I was also exposing those of the people involved in them. I was reminded of this the other day when I heard someone on the radio talking about a story she had wanted to write for a long time but needed to wait for her mother to die first. Her mother was now 96 and the author decided she was going to go ahead and write the story anyway. ‘I’ll just have to ban her from reading it,’ she said. For me waiting for my mother to die in some unforeseeably distant future seemed an unreliable strategy for success as a writer, and I turned my hand to fictionalising my experience. Many of my published short stories use my experience as background material, but the story itself is a fiction.

I am what could loosely be described as a social realist writer. I’m not a big fan of fantasy fiction, though I do recognise there is some good stuff out there, it’s just not me. I draw my inspiration from the ‘real world’ and it is to this world that I look for material. Over the years I have moved from basing my writing on my immediate experience to creating fiction based on the (often more interesting) stories I hear from people around me. I have become a rampant story thief.

Everyone has multiple stories to tell, they do so all the time. Mundane, banal stories with peculiar twists; bizarre strange stories that seem scarcely believable; stories that are side-splittingly funny, heart wrenching, heart-warming. I’m always on the look-out for the best ones to stash away in my notebook.
Prime pickings come from people I know, gathered during those endlessly enjoyable sessions over a pint, a coffee and a smoke, or from my customers at work whose stories expose the reality of the increasing attacks on the poor and vulnerable. I store their stories in my leaky memory – there are so many that get away before they make it to my notebook.

Real life stories are often the best – there are stories I’ve been told that would make the perfect novel. The old cliché of ‘you couldn’t make it up’ – nothing I can invent seems as compelling. As a story thief I guard them closely, for like a robber of an Old Master’s painting, I cannot actually sell these stories. Or I least I could, but for the moral qualms.

Of course there are many who appear to have no compunction about exposing the lives of the people around them. They fill the columns of the weekend magazines, the plethora of personal blogs and self-publicists on the internet. Reality TV, media obsession with celebrity lifestyles and the explosion of social networking makes living your life in the public eye seem normal. And I don’t judge people who do this: for all I know their long-suffering relations are perfectly happy to have their lives exposed in this way, or it’s all made up anyway, who knows? All I know is I’m not prepared to do this. However good the story it is not for me to expose it.

And so my moral qualms have forced me to become a creator of fiction rather than a simple chronicler. The stolen stories are the raw material, the clay from which I fashion the pot. I create fictional worlds populated with fictional characters and mix up the detail from the stolen stories to give authenticity and hopefully avoid predictable plots and two dimensional characterisation. I make it a rule that no-one walks on my stage as a cardboard cut-out, however brief their appearance. In a fictional world, of course, you have the advantage of being able to structure events and bring resolution in a way that rarely happens in real life. But I try not to make this too pat, to leave a few unanswered questions and a sense that an ending is just the start of the next event. And I carry on banking those stories, insurance against running out of material for as yet un-planned works of fiction.

Check out my website for more about Penny and downloads of short stories and novel extracts.


One thought on “The moral qualms of a story thief

  1. […] writing process. And I am not in the business of revealing much of the people close to me (see my moral qualms of a story thief). But ultimately life resists compartmentalisation and when events batter down the doors, they […]

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