I will thank the Lord with all my heart as I meet with his godly people. How amazing are the deeds of the Lord! All who delight in him should ponder them. Psalm 111:1-2 NLT

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Where and When in Life and Fiction

Delores E. Topliff

Where and when events are sometimes so major they transfix time. For the rest of our lives we recall where and when we were, which street we crossed, what recipe bubbled on the stove, which room we folded laundry in. When news came President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, I had just moved to Toronto as a young American university student. Many Canadians shared anti-American sentiment, what they called “Little Brother Syndrome” at being overshadowed by their Big Brother to the south. But that day classmates I barely knew, who’d heard I was a Yank or caught my accent, gave sympathy and comfort. Many Canadian homes displayed American flags in windows or flew them out front, though I don’t know where they got them on short notice. So many kindnesses spoke a message. “We’re in this together. We’re family. We’ll get through this.” I made lifelong friends.

Who doesn’t know where they were and what they were doing when 9/11 happened? One of 5500 employees in a Minneapolis hospital, I’d entered the staff elevator to hear others say an airplane had struck a New York Trade Center tower in a terrible accident. Back on the 4th floor, I told my news-savvy Christian boss who fixed sad wise eyes on me and said, “Two planes intentionally struck two towers. We’re under attack.” Numb, we migrated to a crowded staff room where T.V. blared the full story. Prayers were said. Churches filled. Our nation moved closer in unity. We’ll never forget, even if intensity wanes.

Next time I need a major event in a novel, I’ll remember real-life dates and draw from them for descriptions, sounds, gut reactions. I’ll apply them to my story while letting characters act and react to create solutions, taking missteps in the process, while generating strong emotions. That’s probably what Reba meant by journaling emotions.

Songs marry major events to become national favorites. George M. Cohan’s Over There for World War I, or Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition for World War II. Penned in 1984, Proud to be an American gained support during the Gulf War, but became our post 9/11 theme song. More songs need to be written.

Acts of kindness, snatches of conversations or poignant songs make handsome frames to highlight memorable portraits.

Do you have strong associations to a major event? How do you utilize them in writing? I finally get it, and can’t wait to do a better job myself.


  1. Reading your post brings chill bumps. When JFK was killed, I was getting a perm (can you believe it)After I got home I remember sitting in our living room with my 15 month-old toddler on my lap, watching the day unfold, and felt such sadness. The same type sadness I felt on 911, and also when the Oklahoma bombing happened.

    Great post!

  2. Dee,

    During a recent family discussion of the space program, someone mentioned the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle. Everyone who was old enough to be around then recalled where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

    I haven't written a story with a national crisis yet, but I have several memories to draw from. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

  3. Dee, Those events bring so much emotion into a story. Just three numbers, 9-1-1, and everyone remembers something different. I remember just wanting to be at home with my kids around me. Others had painful memories of waiting to hear...something...anything about a love one who worked in the area. Great post!

  4. Thanks for comments. I sat in a car repair shop all day yesterday finally w/ good (expensive) results. I'm ready for anything now.
    Yes, the Challenger--the best example I know of joy and shock and sorrow within seconds--like the class Greek drama quickly interchangeable masks of comedy (high joy) and then (irreversible) tragedy. Thanks, all!

  5. Dee, what a thought provoking post. I hadn't thought about the songs that represented certain events in our history. I remember on 9/11, I was getting ready for my first ever time of being a ladies' Bible study group leader. Getting prettied up and I turned on the news. To see the planes hit the Twin Towers, I stood in shock, watching. And wondering if my Air Force husband would be sent somewhere. That day passed in front of a screen and in prayer.

    Great thoughts today. So glad you shared them!