A while ago, I pitched a magazine about an article on adult bullying I wanted to write. Once I got the go-ahead from the editor, I called up my expert to get his input. Little did he know, I already had a really good idea about how this article would practically write itself--loving parents stepping up and taking control of coaches and teachers who scream at and intimidate innocent kids.
About twenty minutes into the interview, my expert--a licensed family counselor--completely turned my preconceived notions around and the article took off in an unexpected direction. Not only did the article end up being unpredictable, but I found myself recharged by the experience.
A few weeks ago, while listening to Jamie Ford talk about his book, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a member of the audience asked him if any of his characters were inspired by people he knew. Jamie described the old man in the story (as he related to his own grandfather) and also other family members who showed up in the book. As I am often wont to do (admittedly, this makes me sound vain), I pictured myself standing in front of an audience, fielding a similar question.
Crap! My characters aren't all that special because: 1) MC is a lot like me; 2) secondary character's personality is similar to my son's, and 3) other secondary character isn't really based on anyone.
Clearly, I had some work to do.
My story is about a mother and her teenage son who find themselves dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. (Which is where the son stops being based on my own, so help me, God.) But the pregnant girl became someone who I just--for lack of a better word--was winging! And yet I have a friend who runs a crisis pregnancy center!
I buried my reservations that I might be bothering a very busy woman who was out saving the world, one pregnant teen at a time, and sent her an email. She graciously responded and has put me in touch with families and resources that are taking my story in a completely different direction than I had planned.
Her encouragement for what I'd already written--based solely on my gut and vision for this story--helped fuel my excitement.
But most of all, just like my bullying article, I've come to the realization that perhaps the most predictable element about telling a story is to expect to be surprised.