by Ottilia Scherschel
I grew up in an era without social media when privacy had high value. My grandmother had rules about privacy. She loved to say don’t air your dirty linen. That cliché translated into a reminder not to talk about personal/family matters outside the family. In reality, the unwritten rule translated into something akin to you can’t tell anyone, and if you can’t avoid saying something when asked, embroider the truth. In my writing life, my grandmother’s rules have come in handy.
Characters in a book have secrets—personal and family secrets—and tell lies. Imagine what I could do with Uncle Vinnie’s story. He and Aunt Hilda had a solid marriage, or so the family thought. Then one day, Uncle Vinnie came home from a business trip to find his house empty. Stunned, he meandered around searching the kitchen cupboards for the pots and pans and Aunt Hilda’s closet for her personal belongings. He finally spotted an envelope taped to the back door. Inside was the deposit book for their joint bank account with the money withdrawn. Poor Uncle Vinnie was left with the house payment and his underwear. We later found out Aunt Hilda ran off with an old high school boyfriend and moved to Costa Rica. Did Uncle Vinnie ever embroider that one?
A story like his creates a whirlwind in my brain. I see the seeds of a backstory for the life of a character peppered with Uncle Vinnie’s emotional ups and downs. Next time you read your favorite author, ask yourself whose dirty linen helped create the characters. I know I would have no stories to tell without airing someone’s secrets and lies.