Celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas are so traditional to us that it may not seem like fodder for our stories. But these holidays bring family and friends together, and while we don’t like to think about it where there is family there is emotion and sometimes conflict. Those sibling disagreements resurface: Along with the love and generosity demonstrated there is sometimes the unspoken or insinuated messages that children have disappointed parental ambitions, one is celebrating promotions or special honors while another is mourning job loss, disappointment or a feeling of failure. The petty differences are magnified.
There are senses tested more—the spicy aromas of mulled cider, the unmistakable smell of turkey in the oven, the sharp scent of cranberries, a real tree and the tallow from candles. The sounds of laughter, the din of mingled voices and Auntie’s annoying laugh, dishes clattering and those sleigh bells attached to the door preceding the shout of “Don’t slam the door!” just before it slams hard enough to rattle the pictures on the wall. And then it is all over for another year. All of this is exaggerated, of course, for the sake of writer’s license to create conflict.
These are the details that form a background on which to build a story. Our writers’ group for Christmas brought a holiday themed story to our December meetings to read aloud, our gifts to each other. I found in the exercise of remembering Christmases past that nearly every one of them contained drama that with a bit of tweaking would make unique stories. They varied from the year we postponed Christmas when my beloved collie Sable was stolen Christmas Eve to make some other child happy, perhaps. There was the year when I expected nothing at all with Dad away on war defense work and I woke to find a beautiful bicycle—and my Dad. There was the joy of creating a full Christmas dinner care package for my pen pal across the ocean and getting a letter back that it all arrived in time for the holiday. The laughter we shared when she described preparing the popcorn for the first time in her life. Apparently the instructions failed to mention to use a lid on the pot. “We thought it was the blitz again,” she wrote. “We all took shelter under the kitchen table.” Then there was the mysterious gift she sent us. It took some research to discover that it was a “tea cozy.”
I’d learned something really special about my uncle after his death, that despite their lack of money and his physical affliction he brought a bit of Christmas spirit to a family with even less. I wrote that for my gift one year. The scene haunted me through Valentine’s and Easter, and that summer that story became the first two chapters of my middle grade novel, Growin’ Pains. It sold the first time out and was reprinted in several paperback editions and in Swedish language. So as you prepare to celebrate and memories—positive and negative–come rushing back, don’t tuck them away with the tinsel and ornaments this year. Nourish them into your best stories ever. You have the opportunity to rewrite the disappointing and hurtful times and relive the good ones.
There are as many holiday stories as there are writers to tell them. Yours is unique because it is yours. There are many more holidays throughout the year, particularly during the school year when librarians and teachers are scrambling to find related material. Holidays that honor ethnic groups and environmental causes and personalities are received well. They needn’t be the main crux of the story; they make good backgrounds against which a rollicking good story of ordinary struggles play out, Happy writing