"Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen." --Willa Cather
As a young girl I accompanied my grandmother to visit an aunt in the mental institution, once call The Provincial Lunatic asylum. We went in the streetcar. She spent much of her life within those those walls; they said she was melancholy. Today it would probably be called bi-polar or clinically depressed. I met a cousin once, an old fellow, who said if she lived today she'd probably be thought of as a rock star. What I remember about her is that she was always carefully, made up, and wore lots of beads and earrings and had a sweet smile. She was always so glad to see us. She read poetry aloud to me, and read beautifully. I thought she was like a movie star, but of course I knew better. I didn't really understand why she couldn't come home.
The smells, the sounds and sights of the place crept inside the senses of the 12 year old girl I was, and have never left. There the seeds of Night Corridor were planted. Not so long ago they were further nurtured by a diary I read written by a woman named Mary Heustis Pengilly, in 1885.
Night Corridor was inspired by my aunt, and influenced by Mrs. Pengilly. But it is not about them.
I search for connections when I begin a novel. Something that I can grasp in my writer's imagination and make something of it. I then ask myself what if?
When writers talk about the magic or mystery in novel writing I think this is what it is – the subconscious working away while we mull over our story. Or to paraphrase Stephen King in his splendid book 'On Writing', the boys in the basement.
When you make a connection with that memory from your childhood that is so vivid, that you can transport yourself there in an instant, it already has life. Use it. This is fodder for the imagination. And it makes no difference what genre you're working in. It can be romance, suspense, horror, whatever you enjoy writing, you can make something of that memory. It's almost impossible to say exactly how it all works. Enough that it works for me.
Writing can be cathartic. For example, if you've been betrayed in your life, and who among us has not, you know what that feels like. You know the devastation, the disappointment, the difficulty of learning to trust again. You don't trust you your own judgement in people. I used this emotional memory in my novel CHILL WATERS. I infused my main character with those emotions and readers tell me I achieved someone believable and sympathetic. And that was someone they could relate to. And root for. I write suspense, and in order to keep the reader turning those pages, she or he must care about the character you have created. When her emotions are real, her motivations understandable, you're on the right track.
Use your childhood.