Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Grace-filled Tuesdays (Book Club "Meeting" #29): Where Real Life and Fiction Intersect, Redux

If you've never been here before, welcome to the club.  I'm so glad you stopped by!

Several years ago, I did a four-part series of posts called "Where Real Life and Fiction Intersect" here at the blog, to detail which parts of my first novel were inspired by true events and people from my life and which were purely fiction; and then when I formed this online book club, I re-posted the series in 2016.  (You can read the last installment of that series here, if you wish, and it provides links to the previous three.)

I'm not a very prolific blogger these days (said the busy Grammy who moved from NH to VA last spring to be closer to her grown sons and grandchildren, and who now has so much to blog about, but so little free time to do it!  A good problem to have, by the way!).  But yesterday I happened to pick up an old photo album with a 1984 picture of my husband and me on the cover, all dressed up to attend a Navy dinner, and I knew I had to write a Grace-filled Tuesdays post about something that happened that night and made its way into one of the scenes in Finding Grace.
I'm kind of glad I came across this almost-forgotten photo again, because I do think it's time to revisit the idea that when an author writes a work of fiction, she can't help but allude to people, places, and events from her own life.  It's just about impossible to avoid it.  They say you should write what you know, after all.  However, nothing in either of my books is autobiographical, per se.  (Except of course the way Grace Kelly feels about Tom Buckley in Finding Grace, because I was channeling my high school self there, and the inspiration for Tom was my then boyfriend/now husband of 37 years.  But other than that, anyone who reads my books must understand that the rest is fiction. And even Tom became a whole new person to me in the course of the four-plus years I spent writing the book.)

Let me tell you about those two crazy kids in that photo above.  They were young (so young! Only going-on-26!) so in love, and the relatively new parents of their first baby boy.  The fresh-faced girl in that photo never thought she was thin enough (but the woman she is now would kill to have that body again!).  She was still working on losing her post-partum weight when this photo was taken, and in fact was probably already pregnant again here with her second son, but didn't know it yet. Aside from the unfortunate uber-thick bangs, she's not at all bad-looking, but she is about as self-deprecating as they come.  For this fancy Navy "dining out" event, she is wearing a Victorian era-inspired bridesmaid outfit that she'd worn in her sister's wedding a while back (and they say you can never wear a bridesmaid outfit again!).  The lace-trimmed cotton calico skirt was made from a Laura Ashley pattern and the blouse, from the then-popular Gunne Sax brand, was dyed to match.  She is also wearing ivory-colored tights and her wedding shoes.  Her husband thinks she looks great; but then again, love is totally blind in his case and he always does.  He looks like a movie star here, because even a not-so-handsome man looks amazing in Navy dress whites.  And he's already handsome, no matter what he's wearing.  Very handsome.

Okay, enough with the third person narrative.  The girl is me.  Switching to first person now.  The bridesmaid outfit had looked perfectly at home when I wore it for my sister's nuptials--after all, her wedding dress was an authentic Victorian white lace gown, circa early-1900's, that had been found in our grandmother's attic.  Why, then, would my sweet and modest skirt and blouse ensemble not be perfectly at home at this Navy shindig?

So we got to the event, and I looked around at all the beautiful young women with their salon-styled tresses, attired in classy LBD's and silky body-skimming, spaghetti-strapped cocktail dresses, wearing strappy heels and statement jewelry...and I felt like a juvenile country bumpkin dressed as if I was on my way to a square dance.  I was mortified and wondered why in the world I had no idea how a girl was supposed to dress for such an occasion.  I stuck out like a sore thumb.  I remember feeling embarrassed for my husband, who must surely think every woman there was more lovely-looking than I could ever hope to be.  Our good friend, a single guy who was in flight school with my husband, smiled at me and said, "You look nice, Laura."  I knew he meant it, because in my experience I've found that men are so much less critical, so much less likely to overthink everything, than women are.  He was a friend who liked me and he was trying to give me a sincere compliment.  But my cheeks were flaming.  I was mortified and wished I could twitch my nose, "I Dream of Jeannie"-style, and be magically transported back home.  Maybe there was something--anything!--in my closet that I could change into that would fit the occasion better than the outfit I was wearing.

I excused myself and went to the ladies' room.  And while I was in the stall, I overheard two women at the sink talking in conspiratorially hushed tones and giggling.  "Oh my gosh, that outfit!  Did you see her?"  "I know.  She looks like she's on her way to a high school prom!"  They said a few other specific things that made me realize with a pang that the person they were talking about was none other than I.  I felt pierced by their words, utterly mortified, and I hid in that stall until I heard them leave.  Then I returned to the dining area and somehow made it through the rest of the night with my head held as high as I could hold it.  Not that high, mind you (the heavy bangs were probably weighing it down), but I managed.  And later, when I unloaded on my husband about my tragic fashion faux pas and my ladies' room nightmare, he assured me that I would always be the prettiest woman in any room in his eyes.  Sigh...When you're loved like that, how can it possibly matter what you wear?

When I was writing about Grace Kelly, with whom I share some personality traits (among them shyness and sometimes crippling insecurity), I thought I'd tweak that real-life event to make it fit into her story.  So when you read this part of the novel, an excerpt from Chapter 8 about Grace's difficult first day of high school, know that it was inspired by that night when I was the young wife of a Naval officer and had to listen to some gossipy women rip apart my outfit as I crouched in a bathroom stall, fighting tears:

       After the final bell had rung and Grace had retrieved from her locker the books she would need to do that night's homework assignments, she made a quick trip to the girls' restroom before heading down to Sister Immaculata's classroom [for detention].  Just as she was about to exit the stall, two girls came in, tittering and talking in conspiratorial whispers as they brushed their hair and touched up their faces in front of the mirror.  Grace froze with her hand on the door latch as she heard one of the girls say with mean-spirited glee, "She looks nothing like her hunky brothers.  Not the least bit.  That awful, kinky hair!"
       "Maybe she's adopted," coldly suggested the other.
       With a jolt, Grace realized that she was the most likely target of their catty comments.  Grace herself had wondered the same at one time--it would certainly explain why she didn't resemble the boys in the least--until Gus pointed out that she was almost the spitting image of their Aunt Nancy, proof positive that she'd been born a Kelly.
       "I'd be embarrassed if I had that name--and looked like that!"
       "I'd have it legally changed as soon as I turned eighteen.  I mean, c'mon."
     Crestfallen, humiliated, yet reluctant to embarrass the two girls by revealing herself and letting them know that she'd heard every petty word, Grace remained behind the safety of the stall door until she was sure that they were gone.

I know just what my poor little heroine felt like, and so that scene was easy to write.  While it was not exactly autobiographical, it was definitely inspired by something I'd experienced firsthand.

But at least I never had to share a name with the iconic beauty who was the princess of both Hollywood and Monaco.  That would have been a hard name to live up to indeed.

Does this post make you want to read Finding Grace?  If so, please do!  And share it with your friends.

Okay then, that's it for today.  Meeting adjourned.  And until next time, happy reading!


  1. I agree with Tim, I think you look beautiful in that picture..... and you NEVER age!!

    1. Hey, you're my favorite sibling--did I ever tell you that?