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Using Real-life Experiences in Our Writing . . . Or Not!

by Gail Kittleson

Sometimes we can use our real-life experiences in our manuscripts. Often, something you’ve experienced fits right into your story—you know the emotional reactions by heart because you’ve lived them. But it would be a mistake to think that everything we go through in life qualifies as novel fodder.

My husband and I recently spent a week with our church youth group as they traveled to Arizona to work for Habitat for Humanity, help out at a food bank, and see some of the area’s sights.

What a great bunch of Iowa youth—they set out determined to maintain cheerful attitudes and make a difference in this needy world. Every time we’ve taken a youth group to do work like this, people are surprised at how much they accomplish and how fast they complete the jobs. Without fail, supervisors wish they’d prepared more for them to do. It’s ten a.m. of the first morning, and they’ve already finished a full day’s tasks.

This time, I was recovering from a stem cell procedure on my hip, so that limited my involvement. But I made myself available to play Scrabble or a card game in the evenings, and helped make sure the food supply remained adequate.

One evening, the array of healing supplements I was taking for my condition caught up with my gastrointestinal tract. After dinner, some of the adults were sitting around discussing the beautiful weather and the abundant wildlife all around us. A few elk appeared on the property, and the youth went out for a closer look.

That’s when the warning signs occurred. Unmistakable rumblings and gurgling. Yep, diarrhea had showed up. You know how sneaky it can be, and how quickly one needs to hurry to the closest bathroom.

Fortunately, it wasn’t far away, and I got there in time. Relief! But at the same time, concern overwhelmed me. How could I heal if I couldn’t handle taking the required supplements?

I uttered something like, “Good grief—I really need help!” After cleaning up the area, I headed back into the hallway.

Just then, two of our teenagers almost ran into me and asked, “Have you seen Mellie? We’re playing hide and seek and haven’t been able to find her for a long time.”

“No . . .”

Suddenly a teen careened from the small bathroom I’d just exited. She looked a little pale —a greenish cast to her skin. A little sick.

“Mellie? Where were you? We’ve been hunting all over.”

“In there,” she gasped. “I was hiding in the shower.”

“You’ve been in there this whole time?”

“Yeah, but somebody just came in and . . .”

Now I must have looked sick.

“Oh no!” I blurted. “I’m so sorry—it must smell just awful in there.”

One of the other girls took a whiff and confirmed the truth. Then she bent double with laughter and the other two girls joined her.

I hope Mellie isn’t traumatized for life.

We never know when life will surprise us, or how. At times like this, keeping our composure offers the greatest challenge of all. I wonder if Mellie and I will ever be able to look each other in the eye again without bursting into laughter.

I’ve also been trying to think how this scene might work for one of my characters someday, but so far, nothing has come to mind. When you’re dealing with life and death situations in wartime, a bout of diarrhea and a little embarrassment don’t even compare.

About the Author:

An Iowa “baby boomer,” Gail Kittleson became addicted to books at an early age and spent as much time in the town library as possible. After earning her M.A. in Teaching English as a Second Language and some missionary work in North Africa, she instructed college writing and ESL courses. Years later, she penned a memoir. Soon after that publication, the fiction bug bit her HARD, so she writes World War women’s fiction and facilitates writing workshops and retreats. She and her husband, a retired Army Chaplain, enjoy gardening and grandchildren in northern Iowa, and the amazing Ponderosa forest under Arizona’s Mogollon Rim in winter.

Connect with Gail at http://www.gailkittleson.com/



Until Then

by Gail Kittleson

March 3, 1943

Bethnal Green, London’s East End

Shortly after a quarter past eight, a siren split the air. Marian Williams lifted her sleeping daughter from her bed and darted down the stairs. Her mother and father-in-law, off on air warden duty, had left the front door unlocked.

She hugged her youngest child close. The blackout made the going difficult, but her husband’s instructions echoed in her brain: “Whatever you do, get down inside the station fast as you can.”

She hoped for a spot near the canteen, with access to milk. Uneven light shone over the paved steps. Then she tripped. Her knee hit the concrete, then something bashed her left side. Someone cried out. Another blow scraped her arm on the landing floor. Where was her baby? She attempted to get up, but an even heavier weight slammed her face down. A crushing burden descended, then all went black.

Riding in the backs of Army trucks across North Africa, throughout the Sicily campaign, up the boot of Italy, and northward through France into Germany, Dorothy Woebbeking served as a surgical nurse with the 11th Evacuation Hospital.

During World War II, US Army nurses worked and slept in tents through horrific weather, endured enemy fire, and even the disdain of their own superior officers, who believed women had no place in war. But Dorothy and her comrades persevered, and their skills and upbeat attitude made a huge difference in the lives of thousands of wounded soldiers.

Dorothy and Marian’s stories converge on a simple, hand stitched handkerchief.

My heroine and her real-life nurse buddies during the war.