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Monday, July 01, 2013

Desperately Seeking Story

Rachel Allord grew up as a pastor’s kid, vowed never to marry a pastor, and has been contentedly married to her husband, a worship pastor, for seventeen years. She holds a B.A. in English education and is privileged to be both a biological and adoptive mother. Mother of My Son, her debut novel, released in May 2013 through Pelican Book Group (Harbourlight). She resides in Wisconsin where she avidly consumes coffee, sushi, and novels– preferably at the same time.

Visit Rachel at!
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   When I began writing my novel Mother of My Son, I didn’t know first hand what it was like to adopt. A few years later, after holding my daughter for the first time in a sun-lit governmental building in China, I did. From then on, when I fleshed out scenes from the viewpoint of my adoptive mom character, experience grounded me. I’d been there. I knew.  And we all know—altogether now—write what you know. Write what you understand, what you’ve experienced, what you get

    Seek the story in what you know.

    But here’s the truth: If we only crafted stories centered on our experiences the world would be full sleepy books because, let’s face it, life is a whole lot of humdrum. Sure we all have a handful of those firecracker moments—death and betrayal and crisis and danger, utmost joy and searing loss—but mostly our days consist of moments not worth writing about: losing keys. Staying up all night with a throwing up kid. Muttering at the pick-up behind you riding your tail. Yawn, yawn and pass the coffee. Not the ingredients for a best seller. 

    And yet…

    Could these moments be helpful, even essential, to a writer? Does that frustration you feel when you punch a series of numbers into your phone, desperate to talk to a real live not automated person, bolster your ability to flesh out a character desperate for a job? When you slam your finger in a drawer—can that pain help you create a better car crash scene?  Can the daily blah be transformed into fodder for the craft?

Oh yes. The lackluster everyday provides lovely, rich soil in which honesty and resonance flourish in our manuscripts. 

    The thing is, we have to pay attention. As storytellers our job is to take what we know, what we feel, begin there… and run like the wind. Take it a step further.  Take, “When I was seven and my cat died I was so sad I could hardly swallow” to “What if my father had died when I was seven?” True, in terms of loss, the experiences can’t be compared; in terms of emotion, they can. 

    Here’s what I love about writing: We are forced to wake up to the world around us. Why? It’s all potential fodder. All of it. That mom hollering at her kids in aisle six? She has a story. And it might be worth telling. So drink her in.  What do you see in her eyes? I mean past the anger? What do you see in the eyes of her children? In the eyes of those passing by? It’s like my high school art teacher used to say: draw what you see, not what you think you see. Write what you see

    Seek the story in the mundane. 

    People are wonderfully, infuriatingly complex. And we love complex characters, as layered as tiramisu. But doggone it, they can be so tricky to pin down with words. 

When I was knee deep in writing Mother of my Son I was hit with a frightening realization: I didn’t understand my protagonist, Amber. Not only that, I didn’t even like her. And if I didn’t like her, why would my readers? She does this awful thing, right off the bat in the first chapter—she leaves her newborn beside a dumpster. I felt compelled to tell her story, I couldn’t shake it, but I didn’t get her. 

So I got really quiet. I stopped clicking the keys and prayed. And then I listened. Shhhh. What does she say? Who can I listen to in my real world that’s tread a similar path?  What news stories and radio shows can lend me understanding? What memories and emotions can I dredge up to evoke empathy? How can I move past the stereotype of her, the image that surfaces when I think “girl leaves baby in dumpster” to her, so I can write not what I think I see, but what I see

    Seek the story in what you hope to understand. 

    Because story is all around us, when we are watchful and hushed to see and hear.


  1. I'm an adoptive mom, too! Writing fiction is a lot like acting, eh? What emotion have I had that could clue me in to what my character is feeling. Helps me think of writing as play, which always gives me a smile. Thanks!

    1. You're right- It is a lot like acting! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Sounds like an interesting book! And yes--no matter how crazy or bad our main characters are, we have to give readers some SHARD to relate to. Even with Scarlett O'Hara, consummate bad mom and overall baddie, we feel for her on some deep level...we relate to her determination to survive, just another day. All the best to you!

    1. Yes, we can probably relate to Scarlett (and other baddies) because we all, if we're honest, have our own brand of "bad" and "crazy". Thanks for sharing.

  3. After pitching a book on personal finances and being shot down, mainly because I do not have the credentials. I know Dave Ramsey is successful, but I also know we started from the same point. My job used to take me through Nashville six days a week and I listened to him before he was big. The publisher told me to write what I know. Thanks for helping me see and understand what I know. I was going about it all wrong. Your post definitely helped me to get focused.

    1. Thank you for sharing that... so glad you found it to be helpful.

  4. This post could not have come at a better time. I've drifted away from my WIP because I couldn't get my protagonist to be compelling. He and I were almost legally separated! Time for some counseling....
    Thank you!

  5. I definitely sense a story there! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  6. I really enjoyed this! I definitely agree in writing what you know, then taking that and expounding on it... Thanks for sharing!

  7. Thanks, cjoy! Happy writing to you!


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