Whether you are following the winter Olympics or not, you have to love the story of the trio of young men who swept the men’s slopestyle ski event with the gold, silver and bronze medals. If you’re playing catch-up, here’s a great article from the Los Angeles Times written by Bill Plaschke.
Winning is lovely, or as Joss Christensen (gold), Gus Kenworthy (silver) and Nick Goepper (bronze) would likely say, “awesomeness,” but as a writer, what ignited my imagination was the backstory of each of these young athletes.
Joss Christensen's father died of a heart condition in August 2013. His mother wasn’t sure she could make it to Sochi until friends helped her buy a ticket and get her a hotel room. Joss skied with a photo of his dad inside the pocket of his suit. He said this about his dad: “He’s always supported me and never said stop. I wish he was here and I hope he’s looking down and smiling. I did it for him.”
Gus Kenworthy became an overnight sensation, not only for his skiing but for rescuing a stray female dog and her four puppies from an uncertain future and spiriting them into the safety of the Olympic village. Apparently, the Russians are exterminating stray dogs in the area. I guess they think homeless canines looked bad on the international stage, but reportedly at least some of the dogs belong to families who have been evicted from their homes to make way Olympic roads and buildings. Now Gus is leaving Russia with a silver medal and perhaps a few new friends.
|Gus with his new pals|
Nick Goepper is from that famous ski destination—Indiana. Indiana? Really? Last time I checked a map, Indiana wasn't anywhere near Aspen or Vail. In his Times article Plachke writes: "As a child, he would spend three months a year skiing down the 400-foot bump of a hill at Perfect North Slopes near his home. It was about one-fourth the size of an average ski resort vertical drop. The other nine months, he would ski off AstroTurf and pipes on a homemade backyard obstacle course." Nick's story is a double whammy: local-boy-makes-good AND success-against-all-odds.
So what does this have to do with writing books? Writers work hard to create characters with this degree of awesomeness. One of the tools I use is to write a personal anecdote about an incident that changed the character in some way. This preliminary background work may never appear in the novel, but I know what happened and that knowledge helps cement the character's psyche and motivation.
My books have humor so I decided that in first grade Tucker's mother bakes cupcakes for the class for Tucker's birthday. She uses store-bought frosting but it's expensive so she only gets one can and thins it out with water to make it stretch (Pookie would never be confused with Martha Stewart). The cupcakes are a disaster. A bully in Tucker’s class makes fun of her and tells everybody the frosting looks like bird shit. Six year-old Tucker challenges him in defense of her mother and he backs down.
I had no intention of using that anecdote. It was just for me. But in my second book, Tucker is throwing away leftovers from a disastrous dinner. The white sauce reminds her of the cupcake frosting and she jokes about what happened all those years before.
Get real: The careful planning writers do before starting a novel makes the characters, setting and events real for the reader. The stories of Joss, Gus and Nick touched me emotionally and reminded me not to give short shrift to that phase of writing. Their poignant histories sent me back to strengthen the anecdotes I've already created for the characters in my work-in-progress because back-stories work best when they are replete with emotion and humanity.