Family Stories - Use Them

by Kathy Coogan

My family is very ordinary. And while family stories abound, they sometimes fade away and are lost. That's too bad. Like most famlies we have our share of misfits and over-achievers; optimists and negative thinkers; celebrators and isolators; benefactors and knuckleheads. There is much to harvest by way of stories just by observing the people who share my bloodline. Throw in the in-laws and the bounty of stories overflows the cornucopia.

My writing begins with observation and selection. Next comes the subterfuge that fiction permits. Aunt Daisy may have been married three times, twice to Uncle Harold with Uncle Jack in between but in my story she becomes Samantha, a saucy feminist who changed her mind and changed it back. Nothing like Aunt Daisy who thought Uncle Harold had surely gotten better over time.

Memoir is for braver writers than me. Though the downward spiral of Great Uncle Anonymous is a fascinating tale, that tale will remain in the family vault. Black sheep have offspring too and it’s up to them to reveal the worst about their daddy. But spirals can be tornado-or-Slinky-like so that part of the story is up for grabs.

Even sweet stories can wreak havoc. A middle-aged cousin found out he was adopted only when his mother’s will was read, ten years after his father’s earlier demise. His poor mother had never found the words to tell him herself. Her fear of discovery and lack of confidence in her son’s love is great story fodder.

Another cousin was clueless that his father had been married and divorced as a young, young man until Cousin announced to his parents his own plans for divorce. His father’s comment, “Like father, like son,” almost knocked Cousin over with a feather. The curious reasons for keeping that secret aches to be told or created. Was wife number one an under-aged bride retrieved by her parents? A mail-order bride from a third world country? Or an unfaithful strumpet who broke Uncle’s heart? Make it up.

It has taken me years to incorporate sad stories of my own into my fiction. That bad date in college that scared me into secrecy was finally put to use in a short story. The bouts of my father’s depression that silenced my childhood home planted the seed of a character’s conflict. Seeing an eating disorder up close gave me a vivid, excruciating story that ended less well than the real one.

Life’s experiences don’t have to be reported. They can be hinted at, embellished or chopped into pieces. If you’ve got a story, tell it. If it’s close to home change the name, add a moustache, move it to Alaska or make your evil twin a triplet. Take the foundation from real life then build your story around it. And don’t forget to call it fiction.

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