Where do story ideas come from?
Or, probably more importantly, how do we make them our own?
No, I’m not going to lecture you on how to find inspiration or how to file the serial numbers off of something to make it your own. What I am going to do is give you an example of how inspiration can hit without warning and when you aren’t looking for it.
Those of us in the United States just finished the Memorial Day weekend. This is seen as the official beginning of summer, a time when schools are let out for the year (or they used to be). A time for sales and picnics and family. It is also a time for remembrance and tradition. One of my family’s traditions is to watch the Memorial Day Concert from Washington DC. The first concert, aired by PBS, was held in 1989. The emotional impact of the concert comes not from the music but from the stories, real stories, read by actors, of the men and women who have sacrificed so much for this country. It is their story, and the stories of their loved ones, that remind us so powerfully of the reason behind this holiday.
This year, one of those stories was that of a young girl growing up in during the Viet Nam War. Her father was in the Army, a Green Beret if I remember correctly. She loved her daddy and missed him so very much. Every day, she wrote him. She waited by the mailbox for his next letter to arrive. Then, one day, her letter came back unanswered. She asked her mother about it and, like most of us would, her mother did her best to put on a brave face and reassure her daughter there was nothing to worry about.
Then the call came in one night not long after that. Her father had been on a mission and he, along with others, were missing. MIA. Missing in Action. No one knew what happened or where they were. They didn’t know if this little girl’s father and his squadmates were alive or dead. They were just gone.
The family waited, as so many others did during those long days of the war, for word of their loved one. When news came that the North Vietnamese were releasing a number of POWs, the little girl ran into her room and started packing her bag. She knew they would be going to meet her daddy. Finally, after so many long months and years, she was going to see her daddy again.
Only they didn’t make that trip. One of the hardest things her mother had to do was tell this lovely little girl, this daughter who never gave up, that her daddy’s name wasn’t on the list of POWs being returned. Their wait continued. When the girl’s brother was old enough, he followed in their father’s footsteps and joined the Army. I can only imagine the fear the girl, now a grown woman, and their mother felt as he was sent into harm’s way in service of the country.
But they didn’t try to stop him. They understood he was driven by the same values as the much beloved father had been.
That phone call, the one they’d been waiting decades for, finally came. The North Vietnamese had released remains and a tooth — A TOOTH — had been tested. It was their father’s. He’d been dead so many years. Their questions had been answered and yet, in many ways, knowing was no better than not knowing. At least before there had been hope, fading yes, but hope he might one day return.
The son, still in the Army, escorted their father’s body home. Daddy was laid to rest with all appropriate honors.
Their story became part of our nation’s history, and hopefully our conscience, with the reading of the letter that little girl sent and had returned unopened.Seeing Mary McCormack, the actor who read the girl’s letter and told us her family’s story, embrace that girl now grown, her brother and mother, brought tears to my eyes. It also reminded me of other stories I knew, some of which I’d forgotten. Stories of those I went to school with during Viet Nam, of those whose older brothers and fathers went off to war. Many of those returned, some injured some not. Others never returned. Each one had a story behind them, a story to remember and, in some cases, to tell.
It reminded me of my mother’s friend who opened her mailbox one day and pulled out the latest Life or Look Magazine and saw her son’s death in Viet Nam documented. It reminded me of my Uncle John who, during World War II, ran away from home to join the Navy at the age of 13. When the Navy realized what he’d done, they returned him home where he told my grandparents they either signed the waivers to let him officially and legally enlist or he’d run away again. He served from the end of World War II through Viet Nam. He was a POW more than once and, when he had the chance to leave Nam and return home, he refused as long as the rest of his men — he was a senior non-com — remained.
I remembered Uncle Joe, my father’s older brother. He who enlisted in the Army in World War II and served in both Europe and Japan. He was part of those troops who, as they pushed through the territory held by the Japanese, saw the atrocities we tend to forget. He came back changed and suffered from what we now call PTSD for the rest of his life.
Being a writer, as I remembered these stories, my brain went to work. By the end of the evening, I had not one but two novel ideas in mind. I hadn’t meant to do anything other than watch a concert with my mother and remember our own family and friends who have stepped up to serve the country the love so much. Now, I have two books to write and I pray I can do not only the stories but the inspiration for the stories justice.