“I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
Today, we will write stories set in America. Stories about the real America (as seen on TV). America the beautiful, the verdant, the violent, the ugly, the redemptive, the free. A story that is both true and fun and yet cuts to the bone of what it means to be an American.
How do you write an American story? Simple, set the story in America (in Wisconsin or Texas or some other state that you’ve heard of). Merely setting the story in America, gives it an American character. When some story is set in Texas, without any additional descriptions, we know that the place has guns, large cars, long highways and cowboys and ranches. Use American ‘markers’ in your story, the high school, the diner, the church/temple, downtown, muscle cars, cheap petrol, guns, nuclear missiles, etc. Use as much americanisms as you can in your dialogue – e.g. – ‘Gosh darn it to heck, ‘I know when I’m licked’, ‘A simple country lad like me’ ‘ain’t gonna stand a chance against y’all’. ‘Folks’, ‘Like they say in Gaffney’, etc (and worse). All of these phrases will help you write in an accent – i.e. write like an American would think. Use proverbs – American proverbs – to get the story in the right frame like ‘The bigger they are, the harder they fall’ or ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ or ‘No pain, no gain.’ or ‘The buck stops here.’. The next couple of paragraphs hold prompts, pick one and run with it.
Arrival – Your average prompt begins at birth at the border (for life only starts once you reach the promised land), you have crossed great distances, sweltering deserts, destitute plains and perilous seas, and you have come to border – how do you break in? What stories can you tell the guardians at the gate?
School – Perhaps it was just luck, but you’re through, as is your entire family – and you start school in a small town – what is it like? To be a young child in a school where you can’t even speak the lingo? How do you fit in? What kind of adventures do you have for Halloween? What local legends have you heard? What will you find if you look for them?
Prom! – the culmination of your school career! The night when all bets are off, a night without rules, the last chance for a smorgasbord of teenage experience – vengeance, apologies, singing, dancing, driving, driving back in the dawns early light.
Army – Schools done for, and you’ve got no plans. Well, uncle sam is here to help with that. You get to travel to exotic places, meet exotic people, and well kill them (and be killed as well) – What do you see? Do you follow orders? Do you follow your conscience? Do you go native?
Rambo (part 1) – Having made it back, you begin your life as a vagabond, traveling on trains, scavenging from farms, living hand-to-mouth (literally), avoiding the law (for you have no papers) – when you catch a sight of your big break – a pot of gold, a job opportunity, a significant other, losing some baggage, a town in need of help – that requires an act of dishonesty? What is that opportunity? What act of cruelty will you do to get what you want? Or will you stop yourself?
Courtship – You have arrived – you have made your name as a man worthy of respect, a man of industry (or art or shopkeeping or governance) – a serious man (or woman), you have your castle, and it needs a queen (or king). Courtship is exactly what you’ve seen on the silver screen, with the only caveat being that the woman (or man) like yourself comes with a lot of baggage? Is she (he) rich and you poor? Does she (he) see you as beneath them? Do you pursue with unrelenting effort even when the response is lukewarm? Do you abuse your power?
Bliss – Married with kids, and your kids are in school, and school is out. Summer is in. ‘Suburbia’ is glorious, safe and gloriously boring. Your kids are playing all day and sleeping all night and watching TV in between (luxuries you could never afford). Do you resent them? Do you fear for them? Do they tell you of their adventures? Of lemonade-stands, and little-league base-ball?
Turmoil – who knew that boredom could undo bliss? At the top of the world, you begin your fall. This is America, and temptation lies at every corner-shop – men and women colliding, and making secrets. Will your fall be fatal to the life that you lead?
Violence – Inevitably, the neighbourhood goes to the dogs. Aliens with hideous accents are moving in. You try to be welcoming, even though there are thefts, and muggings, left, right and center. Worse still, your children seem to like these foreigners. This is America, you buy yourself a gun. You patrol the streets at night (sleep-deprived as usual) just waiting for them to start something.
Departure – The kids have grown up and gone away. Your long suffering wife (or husband) has passed on. Your house turns weedy and gray, and you dream of the day you came, and the life you’ve had. Will you pass the wisdom you’ve gained to the kid who has moved in next door?
Ultimately, Americana (for me at least) constitutes stories of strivers yearning for a life that is just out of reach, in a land where everything seems possible. The damage that this striving may cause is the conflict within every such story. Few of us have lived there for long, however, thanks to its omnipresent culture, we probably know more about America, than we know about our own land. So dig deep, avoid cliches, and write on.
There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” ― Kurt Vonnegut.
1.Write with an accent, read with an accent. We will vote (this session is a democracy!) on who has the best accent.
2. If you need to give some background before the story, please do, but limit yourself to two minutes
3. Google is your friend, if you need some local detail about the place that you’re writing about. Also, search for ‘American phrases’, if you need some more.