How Do I Come Up with Stories?

Given my six books of fiction and 17 short stories in print, a blog reader asked how I come up with the stories that end up in my writing. The answer is that I don’t—the stories come to me. It feels as if a noncorporeal being, maybe a muse, presents me with the tales I end up writing. When I look at the end result, I see that what I have written is based on real events in my life, turned into fiction by attributing the action to fictional characters rather than to myself or people I’ve known.

What happens almost invariably is that I imagine an event or happening so powerful that I have to write it down. Then comes the question: how did this happen? So I have to write the history that led up to it. Then the muse (really my unconscious) asks what followed the event, so I have to write that.

But all my novels and short stories tell of events that really happened. Critics are correct in charging me with writing fiction in name only. That’s because I can’t make up stories as fascinating as the things that really took place. I was a spy, a linguist in seven languages, operating on the battlefield in support of U.S. and friendly troops first in Vietnam and later, after the 1975 fall of Saigon which I escaped under fire, all over the world in places that are still classified.

An example is Last of the Annamese, my novel set during the fall of Saigon. Everything described in that book really did happen. I fictionalized it by ascribing the action to fictional characters.

So all I have to do is wait until the idea for a story come to me out of the blue, usually when my consciousness is drifting or I’m half asleep or not focusing my attention. Then comes the hard work of writing it down and filling out the story.

My guess is that I am no different from most fiction writers in the way that stumble upon story ideas—except that mine are drawn from my own history.

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