Straw into gold—turning life experiences into story

My current job description is self-employed clinical social worker and author (my dream careers I’ve been working toward my whole life), but prior to this I’ve had a number of colorful jobs and life experiences:

  • Food truck Mexican cook
  • Upscale shoe sales
  • Maid (everything from hotels to  movie star beach houses)
  • Landscaping worker
  • Pizza maker
  • Jewelry designer
  • Stained-glass art assistant
  • Babysitting/nanny
  • School Counselor
  • Mental Health Therapist
  • Waitress (everything from Denny’s to fine dining)
  • Parenting teacher for CPS referred-families
  • Program director for nonprofit
  • Bank teller
  • Polo pony exerciser

All of these jobs provided opportunities for meeting interesting people and having experiences that are worth writing about. What are some of your most interesting jobs?

In addition to that, I’ve had a lot of roles to play:

  • Daughter
  • Niece
  • Grandchild
  • Wife
  • Mother
  • Friend
  • Sister
  • Auntie
  • Colleague
  • Teacher
  • Mentor
  • Supervisor/supervisee

Every role carries with it unique challenges and relationships, and those have been a rich vein for writing material as well.

How about places we’ve lived?

  • Kauai
  • Oahu
  • Maui
  • California
  • Indiana
  • Michigan
  • Massachusetts

I don’t have as many places I’ve lived as many of you, I’m sure, but my story has some unique aspects—I grew up on Kauai, and went to college in Boston, dropped out, got married and started a family, then the Hubby and I took that whole family to Indiana and Michigan for college (we went together, and graduated together) returning to live on Maui in 1999. (We did this because we hoped we could afford to go to school, raise a family and own our home—and we could, and did. Try doing that here in Hawaii!)

Whether you are interested in writing a memoir, and sharing your life experiences with others and your family, or writing fiction as I do, your life experiences can shape those interests and provide the raw material for riveting stories. Let me explain.

Working with clients who’d been sexually abused, their courage and struggles, gave me the idea for Lei Texeira, my  and brave and vulnerable local-girl detective. A part of me wanted to be able to do something more active to help victims than hand out tissues as a therapist—and this character really came into focus when I was part of a grief response counseling team that went to the some years ago when two young girls were drowned.

When the tragedy first occurred, we were told the girls were murdered, and even after it was ruled an accidental drowning (they were swimming in the EMI tunnels) the situation stuck in my mind.

I wondered what it would be like to try and solve such a crime in a small Hawaii community, with a damaged, flawed detective who was working out her own issues—and that was the story that eventually became the first in the Lei Crime Series, Blood Orchids. I set it on the Big Island to help distance it from people who might be still hurting from the tragedy here.

In Blood Orchids, Lei goes to mandatory counseling for making a dangerous mistake—again, material that came easily to me along with the unconventional therapist, Dr. Wilson, who works with her.

In Torch Ginger, the sequel, Lei moves to Kauai and uncovers a pattern of missing people—again, a crime sparked by real events that stuck in my mind as a young person. Growing up there, we had several unsolved disappearances on the North Shore, one of them a high school friend of mine whose body was never found. I never stopped wondering what happened to him, and that provided the fodder for a whole new bad guy who disappears people.

Black Jasmine, coming up in October, is set on Maui—and the prime crime scene is Pauwela Lighthouse in Haiku, a creepy place with an unsolved murder of a high school student and disappearance of a young woman. Again, the crimes bothered me and visiting the site in person cemented it in my mind as a great crime scene. Lei storms through the island looking for justice for a nameless sex trafficking victim found out there, from the galleries of Lahaina to chicken fights at Giggle Hill—rousing some powerful enemies in organized crime.

It wouldn’t be fair to talk about the Lei books without mentioning Lei’s complicated love life, which is woven through the mysteries. She overcomes her fears enough to get involved with fellow detective Michael Stevens in Blood Orchids, only to run away from commitment to Kauai and find herself embroiled in a love triangle in Torch Ginger, choosing the one she loves to settle down with in Black Jasmine—but being Lei, nothing’s ever easy, or simple, and without giving too much away, the story doesn’t end there.

What research did I do on love relationships? Nothing but a whole lot of living and working stuff out with my husband of 26 years, artist and photographer Mike Neal, doing therapy with couples, and reading up on it. Does real life creep in there? You bet—yet I’ve learned everything I know about love and relationships in the context of only one relationship—plus a little reading, movies and imagination, ha ha!

It’s fun to get an idea, use real-life information, reshape and redo it, and weave it into a story. The best stories have a ring of truth about them, because the old adage, “Write what you know” is what works

How do you prepare to use life experience to write? I start with an idea file. Whenever I come across an interesting article or TV special or blog post, I save it. Then, I research. For instance in the upcoming Black Jasmine, the villain(ess) is an identity thief. So I read up on how people do that kind of crime,( and in the process I’ve discovered some ways to protect myself better—destroying my mail and bills is one of the main ones.)

I also journal, and practice noticing the way things look, taste, feel, smell. This takes practice, and we are usually moving so fast we don’t take the time.

Right now, close your eyes. Listen. Smell, feel what’s under your hands. Imagine how you’d describe those things. Now open your eyes. Look at what’s directly in front of you, and think of how to describe it.

Creating a sense of immediacy through details anchors a fast-moving story, and in memoir, transports the reader into your world

These are a few of the ways I’ve turned the “straw” of real life into the “gold” of entertaining stories. We are all surrounded all the time by interesting people and experiences—capture them, and transform them. What are some of the experiences that you’d like to transform into “gold”?



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