The Compulsive Reader: Stealing From Reality: A Guest Post from Trina St. Jean

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Stealing From Reality: A Guest Post from Trina St. Jean

Trina St. Jean is the author of Blank, a novel about a girl who wakes up from a coma to find that all of her memories have disappeared. She's here today to talk about stealing from reality to write fiction!

First, about Blank:

All Jessica knows is what she’s been told: she’s fifteen, and thanks to a run-in with a bison bull she is stuck with a brain injury. The rest of her life is a blank her brain no longer fills in. The doctors send her to home to piece together her shattered life, but no matter how hard she tries, she can’t be the old Jessie everyone misses so much. When a new friend comes along with an alternative to staying in her old life, Jessica must face the reality of what it means to truly leave her past behind.

And here's Trina!
Psst. Come a little closer. 
Im a YA author with a secret. Some of the ideas in my debut novel Blank" are not completely original. I am a a thief. Or maybe pickpocket is a better word. 
No need to call in the legal team, Orca Book Publishers. I dont mean that I plagiarized or that I have someone chained in the basement writing novels for me. What I mean is that the details in the novel that add up to the big picture of plot, description, character and setting are scraps and snippets that I borrowed from different periods of my life to create the fictional world of my main character, Jessica. Some of the borrowing was subconscious; some of it was outright intentional. I believe that any writer, if they answered the question where do you get your ideas?, would make this same confession. 
Now that Ive gotten that off my chest, its time to come completely clean. Here is a list of some of the things I have pilfered: 
 1.     Names. I am terrible at coming up with names for characters. Every name I find in online lists seems too cutesy, too dull, or way too out there. So I steal from people Ive known. In "Blank", Jessicas last name is my mothers maiden name, Grenier. The rebellious friend she makes in the hospital, Tarin, is the letters of my name mixed up. The neuropsychologist Jessica sees for therapy, Dr. K., is named after a friend Tamara that I havent talked to in at least a decade.  She looks like her, too. (Hello, Tamara, howve you been? Surprise!
2.     Places. The town Jessica lives in is Winding Creek. I grew up in Wandering River. (I guess I could work on my subtlety.) Winding Creek is, however, a bit different from Wandering River: it has a high school, for example. It would have been much too inconvenient for my characters to drive an hour to another town for high school like people in Wandering River do, after all. Now that I think of it, I really should have taken the opportunity to jazz things up for the Wandering Riveran's who still live there. Like giving them a roller derby rink or something. 
3.     Meaningful objects and symbols. Jessica has a collection of mini-frog statues. One of my best friends, Shellie, has such a collection, one shes been gathering since childhood. I was always in awe of it, since I have never been able to maintain a decent collection of anything but dust bunnies. So I borrowed it for Jessica. So sorry, Shellie, that Jessica loses her temper, and well, a few frogs are injured. Some items Jessica studies to understand her pre-amnesia self, however, are my real-life childhood treasures, like a peacock feather and a brooch of my name made from twisted wire. 
4.     Experiences. One of my most creative friends growing up was Kim. One weekend in high school, she came up with the idea of tying kitchen knives to the ends of broomsticks to go spearfishing. (Yes, we have to create our own kind of crazy fun in the country.) Jessica has the same scheme in my novel. During the revision process, one reader questioned whether you could make spears that way. I had to laugh and admit, oh yes, that I knew you could, because I had done it. I cant remember frying up any delicious trout afterwards, mind you. Like Jessica, I have also been to parties in gravel pits and watched events where trucks with huge tires race through giant pits of mud. Like I said, in the country 
5.     Danger and Conflict. I have never been charged by a bison bull, thank goodness. But I can imagine how dangerous it would be, because my parents had 100 head of bison on their ranch about a decade ago. Believe it or not, this was a hobby they took up in retirement. These beasts amazed me. They are so strong and powerful looking, and if you can somehow get close enough to see their eyes, theres a genuine intelligence there. Whenever I visited home, my dad would take me on the tractor to drive into the pen and feed the bison hay bales. They snorted and pawed at the ground all around the tractor, giving me chills. They are not easily domesticated and cant be trusted. The alpha male, a bull named Mufasa, was a sight to behold. So when I began writing "Blank" in an urban Montreal apartment, as far-removed from my parents prairie home as possible, and I needed to put my main character in danger, guess who came trotting into my mind? Mufasa, waiting to cause trouble. I hated having to send poor Jessica off to deal with him, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
I could go on and on, adding to my list of crimes. Some of them, I dont even realize Ive committed. A friend of mine, for example, sent me an email while she was reading an earlier draft of "Blank" - Ha ha! she wrote. The sex-ed teacher is named after me. Too funny! I actually had to go back and check if she was right. Of course she was.
 Of course, there are many, many parts of Blank" that I created from scratch (like all writers do). I cant even pretend to know what its like to experience a brain injury or memory loss, for example, like Jessica does in my novel. Writers write to explore topics we are curious about just as readers read to delve into unknown territory. Its a journey were lucky to take together. 
 There you have it. I feel better now that the truth is out in the open: we writers have sticky fingers. Or minds, I should say. On behalf of all authors, thank you in advance for the things you say and do, names you give your children, your creative parties and events, and treasures and interesting pets. Keep the great material coming!
About Trina:

Trina St. Jean grew up in a small town in northern Alberta, Canada, but left in pursuit of degrees in psychology and education. During a decade out east, she picked up a husband with a cute accent and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. She now lives in Calgary, where she teaches ESL and tries to stay out of trouble with her husband and two daughters. Blank is her first novel. You can pay Trina a visit at http://www.trinastjean.com or like Author Trina St. Jean on Facebook.
 Blank is out now!

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