Tip for writers: Incorporate real life places and events into your fiction.

The youngest and I were zooming south down Highway 51 at 70 mph Tuesday afternoon, on our way to Dyersburg for music practice. We flashed past something that looked like a large mound of heavy, thick, wet pink fabric, wadded in a heap in the left lane.

Me: “What was THAT?!”

I spotted another, similar object several yards ahead, so I slowed the car a bit. My daughter and I stared out the window with keen eyes.

“It’s a pig skin!” my daughter exclaimed.

Apparently, the skins had blown out of a truck hauling raw pig hides from one of the meat processing plants in our area. Folks, you just never know what you’ll come upon here in the hills of rural, Northwest Tennessee. You can’t make up stuff this weird.

On the drive home later that evening, I commented, “You know, I should put those pig skins in a book.”

Somewhere in all my reading about how to improve my writing craft – not sure if it was in a blog post, online article, book – someone recommended incorporating newsworthy real-life events into a fiction manuscript to create a strong sense of place, time, reality.

Tom Miller did this in his debut novel, “The Philosopher’s Flight,” a historical fantasy set in World-War-I America. (I’ve heard of historical fiction before, but historical fantasy? I didn’t know there was such a thing!) Much of Miller’s story takes place at Radcliffe College, a real-life women’s liberal-arts college founded in 1879 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Throughout the book, Miller references historical WWI and pre-WWI military campaigns.

Miller’s tale about flying philosophers who rescue wounded soldiers off battlefields is entirely fictional, but placing his characters in real places, at real battles – battles we all read about in school – makes them (almost) believable.

But those raw pig skins…

While real places and events give fiction a stronger sense of reality, if you are feeling a little wild and crazy, real places and events can also lend your writing a zip of the fantastic or the absurd.

In my first book, I borrowed names of real-life local communities to use in made-up Tatum County. Frog Level, ‘Possum Trot, Booger Hollow…surely those aren’t real places! Stop by my house when you have a free afternoon and I’ll drive you there.

Random earthquake tremors, a cow standing in the bed of a truck that’s driving down the road, chitlins every Tuesday at the Quick Stop, the skunk that sprayed the air-intake of our AC unit one hot summer night, a live snake in the clothes dryer, raw pig skins on the highway…folks, you can’t make this stuff up. It’s too ridiculously unbelievable. And yet, these things actually happened.

Okay, I made the snake up, but I hope you get my point: If you are a fiction writer, real life is your most valuable resource.

Get out in life. Live it; keep your eyes and ears open; pay attention; watch the local news; read your local paper. And then, bring that rich harvest home. Think about it; process it; write about it; and through your writing, share it with the rest of the world.

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