Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Writing (and Deleting) the Memory Dump in Fiction

By Pat Stoltey

The setting for my first mystery, The Prairie Grass Murders, was central Illinois. A man's body was discovered in a field on a farm that strongly resembled the farm on which my younger brother and I grew up. The protagonists of the Sylvia and Willie mysteries are also brother and sister.

What an opportunity, I thought, to use my memories to help create my story's setting. There are things I could never forget: the oily smell of the wood workbench in the tool shed, the reek of ammonia in the chicken house, the vicious white rooster that guarded the barnyard, the sweet scent of our lilac bush, or biting into a warm tomato fresh from the garden.

In the first writing, two of the chapters were memory dumps, reading more like memoir than mystery. The descriptions were lovely (if I do say so myself). The incidents charming, even amusing. But there were two problems. (1) The memories had nothing to do with the story, and (2) they were plunked into the middle of tension-building scenes, which destroyed the pacing.

You know what that meant. I had to scratch them out. Select and delete. It wasn't easy.

It helps me to save deleted blocks of my writing in a separate file, or retain a copy of the original draft. If I know the wording is not gone forever, that I can retrieve it for a personal essay or a short story, it's less traumatic to kill my darlings.


Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - I'm so glad you brought this up. I think there's always a balance needed between tapping one's experiences (absolutely great for a story) and the "memory dump" (great term!). I had a similar experience in the manuscript I just finished, which takes place in Philadelphia where I lived for many years (still consider it home). It was very hard to walk that tightrope between my experiences and the story I was trying to tell. I like your idea of filing those memories away separately when they get in the way. They can always be used later...

irishoma said...

Hi Pat,
As always, you've given great advice.

I am fortunate enough to have read Prairie Grass Murders some time ago. You did an excellent job of leaving in the right amount of description to breathe life into your scenes without overwhelming the action with descriptions.

I also savedeleted blocks of writing in a separate file to keep "my darlings" and use them in a future piece of writing.


Patricia Stoltey said...

Margot and Donna, thanks for stopping by Chiseled in Rock -- you both always leave great comments that add to the post. And thanks for for kind words about Prairie Grass Murders, Donna. I appreciate that.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

If I ever run into this problem, I'll know what to do! (I tend to write very bare bones and have to fill in details later.)

Patricia Stoltey said...

Alex, just set your next book in your old high school (even if you move it to outer space) and watch the memories climb into your story.

Marilynn Byerly said...

When I'm working with new writers, I always tell them that they have to learn to recognize when they are writing for the reader and when they are writing for themselves.

Writing for yourself usually means that you are trying to get a sense of the place, events, or back story. The writing is really notes to yourself and should be deleted.

Marlena Cassidy said...

I am guilty as charged. When I was working on a previous novel, I had a tendency to slip long descriptions of Manhattan architecture into the most random scenes imaginable. It killed the pacing of the entire scene.

I find now that it's easier to pick one detail out of memory that you want to include in your work and slip it in as innocuously as you can. One detail per chapter so this way you don't saturate your writing with overly sentimental ramblings.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Marilynn -- good advice. I find it hard to avoid writing for myself when I use settings that are familiar to me, so I often have a lot to delete.

Marlena -- Also good advice. Writing about a big city would be hard. There's so much to tell.

Karen Duvall said...

I sometimes get carried away with my exposition, be they descriptions or character monologues. I always go back and pair them down, but i don't always weed my garden enough. As my editor let me know in copy edits. Ha! :) That's okay. Words are never wasted.

Word verification: pleding (giggle)

Patricia Stoltey said...

Oh those editors, don't you love 'em? Mine practically taught me how to write, bless her sweet heart.