Some of the best advice for writers I’ve heard in a long time comes from the renowned playwright Israel Horovitz, writing in The Dramatist magazine. Horvitz says, “Try staying at home.” He doesn’t mean staying around the house all the time, he means using the life close at hand as the heart and soul of your stories.
Horvitz writes, “The language you grew up speaking in your hometown or homecity neighborhood is the language you know best….And the people around you growing up are probably the people you know best. So your point of difference from all other writers is probably found in your ability to re-create those people you know so well, speaking a language you know so well.”
When I read that, I thought about the place where I grew up, the people I grew up around, and how I’ve used them over and over in my own storytelling. Elba, Alabama is a small town by any standard – around 4,000 souls today, and about the same number when I was a child and youth in the 1950’s. For me, it was just the right size – small enough that you could know just about everybody who lived there, and large enough that it had a variety of kinds of people, including enough oddballs to make it interesting.
Somewhere in my youth I became an observer. I figured out that if I kept my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut (except for asking a lot of questions about people and place) I could get a pretty good notion of what makes human beings tick. It was a small stage on which the same characters played out their lives over time, bumping up against each other, making sparks, making stories. I worked at the local weekly newspaper, and one of my jobs was to write a column called “25 Years Ago In Elba,” in which I went through the back issues of the paper and pulled out items of interest. It gave me a keen sense of the history of the place, how Elba and its folks got to where they were in the present day.
Years later, when I wrote my first novel, Home Fires Burning, I set it in a small southern town that physically looked a lot like Elba, clustered around a courthouse square, and peopled it with characters who were inspired by people I knew – a crusty old newspaper editor, his grandson with an overactive imagination. I even used a couple of incidents from Elba’s history to flavor the business. The colorful, colloquial language my characters used came right from the rhythm and indiosyncracies of speech I heard as a youth. If I write good dialogue, it’s because I heard good dialogue.
Over time, as I’ve written other stories, I’ve gone back again and again to Elba’s well. No matter the setting, no matter the characters, I’ve used and re-used those things about the human condition – warts and all – that I absorbed growing up, being a part of and observer of that small stage. I am a simple fellow, a small-town kid and a storyteller, and most of who I am is a product of that dear small town. In many ways, I never left.
I would say to young writers, as Israel Horovitz does, to try staying home. In imagining characters and putting them in compelling situations, use what you know best. It is rich and fertile ground, worth cultivating and nurturing to produce those crops we call good tales.
First, you have to be an observer. You have to watch and listen, absorb the life around you, the way people move and talk, the rhythms and patterns of their lives. And then use all of that in creating characters of your own who are unique because they are yours.
Just change the names to avoid litigation.