FH #47: Using Your Own Memoir in Fiction by Catherine Schaff-Stump

While I talk a lot about the writing I do that takes place in the 19th century, there is another piece I had published in 2018 from Paper Golem Press called The Ground is Full of Teeth. In this novella, there are really four characters: Alice, a high school teacher; Chris, the werewolf veterinarian; Irv, a paramedic, and the town where I grew up, which is called Oscar Springs in the story.

Whenever someone uses memoir in historical fiction, or any fiction for that matter, it’s important to note the experience of memoir is highly subjective. The town I portray in Ground is meant to convey not an accurate picture of my hometown, but the hometown I remember. My adolescence was a painful time, not because of the town, but how I perceive the town is irrevocably shaped by those experiences. The town had beautiful homes, well kept with manicured lawns, but it also had jagged barns tilting and ready to fall, rust-covered gas pumps from the 1930s, and outdoor buildings painted with indoor paint. The people of the town were sort of similar, my own family more like the tilted barns than the manicured lawns.

I wanted to revisit my past, not to exorcise demons, but to take a look at it. Memoir means you see details because you have lived them. If you read Ground, you’ll see cracked sidewalks because of tree roots, the same three-tiered school I attended, the railroad tracks that cut through town like stitches holding a wound together. The Methodist Church, solid stone and maintained. Tracks of land wild and overgrown. Children popping wheelies on a blacktop street. All of these things are not just the description of a place. Because it’s memoir, they are also descriptions of me.

Writers try to recreate authenticity through research and trips to places. The life you have lived can be the most important research. It is small wonder there is a suggestion to write what you know, because you can do that down to the molecules of what you’ve seen and felt. My small town in this novella is the story of my memory, and takes place based on my life in Oscar Springs in the 1970s. Recreating what you have lived, by virtue of it being in the past, creates a painstakingly accurate history, and the more you write, the more you remember.

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Cath Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and adults, from humor to horror. She is the author of the Klaereon Scroll series, the most recent of which is The Pawn of Isis. She lives and works in Iowa, teaching English.