We are in the midst of the longest holiday season of our year, with Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Cuanza, and New Years among them. These holidays are a literary feast for writing ideas. Family and friends come together with good intentions. It is a time for joyful reunions. We catch up with all the wonderful news.
But the reunions might also trigger memories of slights and misunderstandings that we long ago tucked into dusty corners of our minds. Holidays also usher in those gushing/annoying letters naming all the successes and awards that they achieved while we were battling poverty, feeling as if we were at wits in, and underappreciated by our bosses. These are fodder for stories for children or adults, secular or non-secular.
Not all writers want to write holiday stories because they have such a brief window for publication and promotion. The competition is fierce for short stories in magazines, and even more for books. Holidays are a microcosm of conflicts that could happen anytime, anywhere, and you still have the differences of opinion, conflicting goals, and memories of conflict. Sometimes old slights fester from childhood and erupt into a contemporary rage. A 70-year-old woman burst into a rant about her sibling tearing the heads off her paper dolls when they were little girls. I imagined that was easier than recognizing the abuse that was too recent and raw to confront head-on.
Holidays bring with them high expectations and the inevitable disappointments, opportunities to heal old wounds or inflect new ones. They sometimes skewer our objectives and magnify our human needs to love and be loved, to achieve and learn, to have respect from others as well as self-respect, and to feel secure spiritually, physically, and emotionally.
I once wrote a Christmas short story based on a memory a relative told me about my deceased uncle. It focused on his love and generosity to a family at Christmas time when he had little to share and embodied everything I thought Christmas should be. It was my gift to our writer’s club holiday party. I was too impatient to wait six months before shopping for a market. Meanwhile, the idea nagged at me–the bond between the two people seemed a living thing. It became the first two chapters of my middle-grade novel, Growin’ Pains, which followed a troubled girl through her year of coming of age. We writers should never waste anything when we can recycle.
The dinner conversation with those we rarely see is a highlight of holidays. It is also the catalyst for conflict and story ideas. When I worked on a metropolitan newspaper, we single folk worked the holidays so that our married coworkers could spend time with their families. [That reminds me of another Christmas story, but I think Dickens already did it]. With nearly everything else shut down, the city desk was sluggish. To while away our quiet morning, we had a pool going as to when the phone would ring with news of the first murder of the day, and whether the weapon was a gun or carving knife–big cities; you can always count on them. Inevitably, it was the carving knife at the table, and it depended on when they sat down to eat. At some point, someone at the table would ask, “And just what is that supposed to mean?” The second most used dialogue was, “We don’t talk about that in this family.” How’s that for a story-starter?
Whether your own holiday story is a mystery, burying the hatchet on old grievances, or the story of redemption, it is your opportunity to rewrite a bothersome past.
Holidays make the perfect starting point for a good story or a renewed commitment to work on our craft. Happy Holidays!