Bozeman, Montana author and friend, M Mark Miller and I have been having a discussion about good stories. Thought I’d let you listen in . . .
Of course you’re welcome to borrow my tagline: “All good stories are true. Some of them contain facts.” But I must disagree with your assertion that “all good stories are stolen.” If what you mean is that writers of good stories should expect others repeat them, then we have no quarrel. In fact, I hope to tell good enough stories to inspire that. But if what you mean is that writers approach their work with larceny in their hearts, then I demur.
Working on my recently published book, Adventures in Yellowstone, and my next book, an intermediate grades novella titled Uncle Bird, has led me to think a lot about the origin of stories.
A friend who studies American Indian storytelling traditions commented that she liked my introduction to Adventures. She noted that I began by talking about my grandmother’s tales of visiting Yellowstone Park in 1909 and her grandfather’s trip there in 1880. This, she said, established my right to tell the stories.
An Indian tale usually begins, she explained, with an assertion that it comes from “my people,” or “my family.” With such an introduction, the teller establishes that she owns the story or at least the right to tell it. Stories told in this way are not stolen––they are gifts.
For Adventures I collected first-person accounts of early travel to the area that is now Yellowstone National Park. These accounts are more than a hundred years old so I decided to edit them extensively for today’s readers. It was obvious that the stories were riddled with errors, exaggerations, and downright fabrications. My initial reaction was to footnote such things, but I soon concluded that would do more damage than good. I disavowed being a historian and labeled myself “a storyteller.” I’m glad I decided to present the stories as they were told, not as historical documents.
We writers spend much of our time looking for stories to tell. (We call it research.) My motivation for writing Uncle Bird was to salvage some of the stories I had collected for Adventures. My publisher restricted Adventures to just a dozen stories but my research had yielded hundreds.
Many of the remaining stories weren’t strong enough to stand on their own so I decided to create a 14-year-old boy to bring some of them together. Stories of that boy’s adventures indeed are stolen or at least borrowed.
I’m glad we agree that all good stories are true and many of them contain facts. But not all good stories are stolen. Some stories are told by the people who lived them, some by people who received them as gifts, and some by people who earned them through research.
I hope the stories I tell ring true. I try to make them irresistible. Welcome to them.