Stories are full of little details designed to bring the scene to life for readers. A distant sound. The hint of smoke in the air. The sensation of silk on skin. These touches resonate because we’ve all experienced them and if the writing is good enough, we feel them as the characters do, we inhabit their minds for a moment.
I don’t want my writing to be thinly-veiled autobiography, so I try hard not to build characters around who I am and what I’ve experienced. I view it more as acting, taking on the role of a person I’ve invented, making sure that they don’t follow the same path as I have. But for these little details to work, they have to come from what I’ve heard, smelled, or felt.
The other night as I got ready for bed, I paused for a moment by the open window. A car drove by and as the sound faded, another took its place. Crickets in my urban backyard. Crickets like those I’d heard, long ago, in a place far more rural. In the dark, I sat and listened. Another car came and went, but the crickets remained.
I thought of my characters. Which one sits in the evening by an open window? Which one walks through the twilight woods? Who hears these crickets and what does it mean? This one moment will become part of a larger story wholly unconnected with me. The character will take what I heard and make it her own.
These are the parts of my life I want to share with my characters. I don’t want them to be me, but if something beautiful happens—or sad or unexpected—I preserve it by writing it in and using it. So that one character, who lingers on a forest path to listen to crickets hidden in the tall grass, meets another character. An unexpected encounter that makes all the difference.