When an author writes a novel, they make up the characters and the story, but the character, setting, story arc doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. There is usually a story behind the story. Often several little stories, which an author tweaks and cobbles together to mold into the main character or the supporting characters. Sometimes they will set their story in a real place. Other times they will create a fictional place that has aspects of places they’ve visited or lived.
In my series, The Story Behind the Story, I share some of the stories behind my stories. Though I have never outright written a person I know into a book, I have definitely been influenced by those who have crossed my path, as well as places I’ve visited or even simply passed through thoughout the many years I’ve been on this earth. Feel free to ask questions or leave comments. I love, love, love to talk books or hear moments of your own life a story might remind you of.
Homelessness – The Research Behind Worth the Effort
When my kids were younger, we spent a lot of time at the library. There was often a knot of homeless teens hanging out in the pocket park across the street. They didn’t cause trouble or even draw attention to themselves beyond their shabby appearance, but they always made me wonder. Especially when the weather grew cold.
I decided to write a story about a homeless teen, but I actually didn’t know anything about being homeless and I guessed that being underage made it a whole different ball game. I had the concept of the story in my head. The hero of the story, Ayden, was homeless and the heroine, Ella, was from privilege. When she discovered him, her first reaction was to be afraid – and she hated that so much, she challenged herself to conquer her fear and make a connection with him. They slowly grew comfortable enough with each other to make a superficial connection and everntually a freindship grew. But Ella had taken it Ayden for granted, so when she could no longer find him in his usual spots after the weather grew cold, she worried. When she does find him, she learns he’d been keeping a very big secret and her trust is shattered. Ayden has to work that much harder to earn her trust back.
Okay, this all sounded great to me, but I still didn’t know anything about being homeless beyond what I’d witnessed in passing and a few news reports or documentaries I’d watched. I knew I wasn’t going to become an expert overnight, but I had to do some more research in order to (hopefully) represent the situation as accurately as possible.
Enter The Loft. They are a local facilitiy that provides transitional housing for underaged homeless who hope to transition back into a traditional lifestyle. I was so excited when the program director agreed to meet with me. I arrived filled with enthusiasm. I left with the wind sucked out of my sails. I was shocked to learn how much more vulnerable our underaged homeless population is than an adult in the same situation. How human trafficking is alive and well in our small Central Oregon community. Though the ultimate goal of The Loft is to help their residents transition, they aren’t always successful. The program director shared a story of a resident of theirs who checked in and out of the facility over the course of a couple of years. He battled anxiety and depression and when he felt well, he was at home with his family and when he was low, he was on the streets. He would stay with them when he was somewhere in the middle. The staff worked very closely with his family. Everybody hoped to help him learn how to deal with his mental illness. Then she surprised me by saying his family was affluent and had money for medical treatment, but he wouldn’t always accept help. The reason it surprised me was because my hero, Ayden, was from an affluent family, too. I felt validated. But once again, the rug was yanked out from under me when she shared that they had recently lost their resident. He had run off during one of his low periods. Rode the rails, as he liked to do. He was hopping from one car to another and fell.
The underage homeless population often hides. Our local group, usually lives a couple miles outside of town in the National Forest, hoping to go unnoticed by those who would otherwise take advantage of them. They cut themselves off from all of the resources available to them, and have to drop out of school because they don’t have the transportation available to get in and out of town. All in order to survive.
Even though I didn’t know the young man whose story so closely resembled the one I was writing, his loss made me that much determined to share it. The story I wrote is by no means his story, but his tragic, short life supports my story in ways I had never thought possible.
Worth the Effort is a dualogy – a two novella series. Ella’s Story is from her point of view and we are with her as she meets Ayden and forces herself to overcome her fears. That book is (currently) free to download. Ayden’s Story is much the same story, but from his viewpoint. I was surprised by two things while writing this series. First, by how difficult it is to write the same story without it feeling the same or mundane. Second, by how much more emotional both stories are because we are in a first person, close point of view. I was exhausted after reading it, but these characters remain among my favorites that I’ve developed.
I hope you check out both stories. You can find links to the retail sites on my website. They are short reads, but pack a punch. And in the end, I hope they make you consider the battles people are fighting that you don’t know about. Maybe you too can force yourself to share a coffee with a stranger.