Using Family Stories in Fiction

Posted on 19/03/2014
By Commonwealth Foundation

Diana McCaulay, Writer In Residence, Commonwealth Writers
If you’re a fiction writer, you love stories. You’re constantly looking for them – in newspapers, old and new, in overheard conversations, in the natural world. Whenever you find a glimmer of a story you run it through that familiar mental echo – what if? What if a man who loves the sea has to do something to harm the sea? What if a son learns of his single mother’s crime? What if a woman thinks a boy on his way from the beach is homeless, tries to give him money and his wealthy father is offended? What if this woman is white and the father and his son are black? These questions were the basis of my stories The Dolphin Catcher and After the Storm.
My earliest memories involve family stories – the great grandfather Baptist minister who came to Jamaica, fathered four children, and then was lost at sea. Their mother who died in a buggy accident or of a long illness or of heartbreak, leaving four orphans, one of whom was – what – retarded? Disabled? Mad? The other great grandfather who was a German gun enthusiast or a gun runner or a mercenary. The uncle who ran off with the cook and was cut off from the family. The Jamaican countryside. My father told a story of the trapdoor spider, which built an underground nest with a cover which could be lifted and lowered and the spider waited for prey to step on the cover and fall through. I have never learned whether this creature actually existed or exists still. My mother told of her mother burning the bed posts of their four poster beds for fuel, and I can see this clearly – a woman in the restrictive clothes of the era, nonetheless wielding a saw, and feeding the carved hardwoods into the black iron stove in the kitchen.
From a very young age, these anecdotes were full of complexity for me, ripe for exploration. Why did the Baptist Minister come to Jamaica? What kind of country did he find? Was he lonely or did he make friends? How did he regard the people he was automatically placed above by virtue of the colour of his skin? How did women and men relate then to each other and to their lives on a Caribbean island? Were they afraid or did they feel lucky to be away from all that was familiar? These and other questions formed the basis of my second novel Huracan.
And what were my great grandmother’s experiences in childbirth? How was a disabled child treated then – would there have been someone who advocated for a mercy killing standing beside the childbed? What about the shadowy people who were never in the family stories – the man who drove the buggy which perhaps crashed and killed my great grandmother – was he angry at some injustice and did he intend to hurt her, reckless with the reins in his hands, whipping the horse into a runaway, turning the buggy over, leaving a heartless woman crying and bleeding on a rutted road while he ran for the nearby hills, a wild exultation in his heart at finally striking back? Or were they running away together, my great grandmother and the buggy driver, were they breaking every societal rule, and did my great grandfather find them in a roadside tavern and kill them both, manufacturing the buggy accident story, knowing a man like himself would never be challenged? Might the metaphor of the trapdoor spider be used in a story, what is the narrative of the spider, living a life in secret, underground, waiting for food, away from the eyes of all but a mate? How does a genteel woman of wealth cope with sudden widowhood and poverty, how does she stiffen her spine and run a boarding house, does this empower her daughters or make them determined to find a rich husband, so that never would they wield a saw or stand over a smoky iron stove?
And every story needs a place. My family talked about Bournemouth Baths on Kingston Harbour with a high platform my grandfather dived from, before it was unsafe to swim there due to pollution. They described the waterfall near to the mineral spring at Rockfort which disappeared after the cement company was built or maybe when the road was constructed – there is disagreement as to the sequence of events. My mother was wistful about the north coast cove where she went with my father on their honeymoon; it too is no longer there. That led me to family photographs and there I found images to add to the voices – my grandfather like a seabird above the diving board, my parents leaning against a boxy motor car on the Palisadoes road, my mother beside a tall coconut tree with the sea crashing in the background and I could sense my father’s eyes behind the camera and I knew what he saw and felt what he felt. These are stories I have yet to write.
Family stores are my raw material; true wealth. I work them, carve and polish them, feed them to my imagination, transform them any way I like. This, for me, is the magic of fiction.