make this stuff up, storm troopers pushing giant egg, once upon a time, the transforming power of story, you can't make this stuff up

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

“Art takes nature as its model,” Aristotle said. In other words, art imitates life—and I believe that to a point, since much of my own writing reflects the settings and characters I interact with every day. While I’ve never suffered from a scarcity of story ideas, after experiencing the Chilean version of a “24” season this past week, I’m convinced no invention of mine could rival the “Santiago Spring” many people have lived through. You simply can’t make this stuff up.

Though our present atmosphere of tension and uncertainty makes creative focus as haphazard and chaotic as the world we inhabit, I’m encouraged by another writer who, in effect, said that the things that stole her writing time ended up giving her something to write about.

I really don’t have that great an imagination anyway. Like an acquaintance who buys thrift store paintings and embellishes them to match her personal style and her home’s palette, I’m just good at grabbing whatever’s going on and embellishing it. Highlighting, redesigning.

My friend’s brush-on-canvas play has furnished her with some amazing customized works of art. And that’s more or less what I do with the raw materials and rough drafts life hands me. Because I could never make this stuff up.

Stranger than Fiction

You’ve heard more than once, I’m sure, that the truth is more original than the most exotic fantasy fiction. And that’s no tall tale. Our lives transcend any story ever told. The banner of human history unfurls a reality we could never conjure up in our most far-out dreams.

“He who has imagination without learning has wings but no feet.” –Joubert

Yet a good writer can take the fabric of real life and paint a picture of strange places and stranger times, thereby offering a service for global consciousness and compassion. A good writer teaches and entertains at the same time, in order to connect on an emotional level. Using the medium of story, she applies the truth—the stuff you can’t make up—to touch hearts and transform minds in a way the evening news just can’t do. Every good story is a Seaglass Saga.

Consider how once-current events created the world’s most famous fiction:

  • What did you know about the Hispanic Southwest before Zorro? About medieval Scotland before Braveheart? About the decline of Rome before Gladiator? Mere stories—but you can’t make this stuff up.
  • Who in our generation ever heard of the Regency until the rash of romances and sea yarns that began with Horatio Hornblower, Lizzie Bennet, and her Mr. Darcy?
  • Didn’t you learn most of what you know about American pioneer life from Laura Ingalls and the Little House on the Prairie?
  • Of course, I’d heard of the Resistance in World War II. But Casablanca and The Great Escape and Schindler’s List impacted my life. Ditto for the Thoenes’ Zion Chronicles, about the founding of the State of Israel.
  • Rosemary Sutcliff’s YA series made Roman Britain heroic. A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel made the French Revolution real—and terrifying.

We could go on, but you see…  A good story can enhance the historical-cultural perspective of any ordinary (or extraordinary) news feature with a uniquely personal flavor. A great story can turn it into a memorable masterpiece.

Only in Chile

My long career in Chile is another case in point. Whenever I think I’ve heard and seen it all, something else happens. But never in a million years could I have made up the million-plus people thronging Plaza Italia last week—or any of the myriad of other recent events.

Someday I’ll write about it, be sure. Though not yet…it’s all too painfully close. I need time to process—or even shut down the information intake—and just pray. But on the bottom line, this is what I do: I collect the epic battle scenes for my idea file…

  • The lethal roster of frequent natural disasters—earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, flash floods and fires
  • The military dictatorship, the deep divisions in society
  • The ongoing indigenous unrest
  • Border conflicts, piracy and human trafficking
  • Class warfare, terrorism and insurrection.

And I snatch the tiniest seeds that might sprout as well…

  • A false paternity accusation
  • Art theft, scandals in the soccer bubble
  • Murder/suicide in a school
  • An innovative teacher
  • And random acts of kindness amid epidemic displays of violence and hatred.

Then…I mine for the diamonds in the dust, for the story within the story. Oh, I change the names, the dates and places. “Any resemblance is entirely coincidental,” though you can’t make this stuff up.

But this is what fiction does: transforms hard reality to stuff we can chew, an overwhelming panorama to a size and shape we can grasp. Fiction brings the world home to a reader’s doorstep…and deepest thoughts.

While we need the catharsis (emotional release) of a story, I at least need the happy endings too. We need hope. The best fiction moves us from broken to better. It hits us in a way that we sometimes never forget.

Most reporting about Chile tends to either positive or negative exaggeration. Not so strangely, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. And most fiction portrays only one side—the strident voice of political correctness, violence and violation of “rights,” anarchy.

In my writing, however, I’ve tried to strike a different note. We have only one real problem, it’s a congenital heart problem, and every one of us—top to bottom of society—suffers from it. All my stories impress the need for a change of heart, not a change of religion or a change of government.

And I offer only one solution—Jesus. As I tell my friends in Chile, our position or opinion on the current situation must reflect a Christ-centered life and worldview.

A True Story

My books present cameos of life. For example, in Destiny at Dolphin Bay, Melissa Travis arrives in what is for her a strange new world. But the Chile she finds in 1990 is also tiptoeing through the tenuous first months since the rebirth of democracy, and Chiloé Island always was a world unto itself. Then an earthquake further upsets the status quo…

Is it a true story? No, not remotely. On the other hand, a thousand times yes.

 “There is a certain embarrassment about being a storyteller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics.” –Flannery O’Conner

Yeah, I get it. Fiction is often deemed second-class to the evening news and real-time events. Some people are only interested if it’s a true story. But where do I get my ideas? Believe me, you can’t make this stuff up.

On the other hand, with every story I tell, I retell the one true story. About how the Son of God arrived on our planet and marched into history, laying aside his rights and riches. How He invites us to follow Him and do the same, on the way to the peace of His “kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Heb. 12:28). How the Gospel can redeem a life, a family, a town… That’s HIS incredible story, and I could never have made it up. But it’s the core of all of mine.

In Search of a Hero

Why do we love stories, to tell and hear/read them? Newbery Award winner Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time) suggests it’s related to our hope, our “faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”

A story reminds us of what’s worthwhile and that it’s within the reach of anyone. A story encourages us to become not only participants but heroes in life’s story. And I trust that my stories point to the only Hero who can save us, meet our needs, and take away our fear and loneliness.

My latest novel, Hope Chest, opens in December 1968, denominated by historian Mark Kurlansky as “the year that rocked the world.” Sixteen-year-old Angie De la Cruz is caught on the brink of this writhing globe, but things are looking up in Chile. After all…

  • She’s the first in her family to attend high school (and what fun it is!)
  • The country’s recovered from the big earthquake of 1960 and even enjoying modern technology—television and “groovy” music.
  • Peaceful demonstrations and needed reforms abound.
  • The stable, up-and-coming democracy hasn’t had a coup in more than 30 years.

Sound eerily familiar? I didn’t make it up. Yet, into that historical background, I introduce a personal trauma which forces Angie to make a decision that will alter her life and family forever. And with every word, I pray my readers will be stirred by ‘only a story.’

Oh, and I’ve been thinking I might write a tale about two little storm troopers who caught a big bad egg looting their galactic grocery store. No one could ever just make that up.


  1. I LOVED this post. They just get better. So much truth and encouragement in your words.
    This week was amazing. Sincerely, I cringed yesterday when our pastor talked about being “back to normal.” Maybe we will buy again at our favorite supermarket, but what about the 22 small business owners downtown that lost everything? Or the families mourning the death of their loved ones, regardless of what “side” they were on. I don’t want it to be back to normal in my heart. Or in my focus. And you are so right….you can’t make up this stuff.

  2. I don’t see things getting “back to normal” anytime soon, especially for some people, though a steady diet of adrenalin and anxiety is hard on the mind and body. May God help us all to learn whatever lessons He has designed and use them to fuel and accomplish His plans. Instead of flowing with the crisis- and activity-oriented culture (as we talked about), we’re going to focus on faithful hearts today, right?!

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