In the ashes, when inspiration comes from the saddest places …

{Truth in Fiction Series}

The first in a group of upcoming posts about the interplay of fact and fiction in our writing. If you feel you have something to contribute, would like to offer a guest post — please email me


Last night I watched a 9/11 programme.

September 11th 2001, as I say in the afterword of my novel, is one of the two events in my lifetime that seemed to literally stop the world. What made it all the more poignant was that I’d been a visitor to the World Trade Center just five weeks before, in fact my dad still had, at the time of the event, a message from me on the answer machine saying I was at the top of the world.

I was off work that day in 2001, studying I think, when Dad called me just after the first plane hit, at the time we thought it was an accident. But we watched together as the second plane went in and a third in Washington and for several horrifying minutes we thought the world was under attack. I remember it so clearly. It dominated the news for a long time, and after the horror came the clean-up, the death toll and finally the stories of hope and reunion and the stories of loss and grief.

I think the image that has always stayed with me, apart from watching the towers plunge from the sky and tear a gap in the NY skyline, were the people falling — jumping to their deaths. I still remember a long sequence shown on the news set to music with a list of names that fallers and how heartbreaking that was.

As I sat there last night, almost twelve years on, I realised how much this moment must have affected me and spilled into my writing.

Not that long after I wrote a story called Airport. Not something that was ever published, only in the local writing group magazine, focussing on three characters catching a plane, one in particular an old man leaving behind his life in New York after his wife died to move to his sister’s. Another was a young woman eager to tell her parents she and her husband were pregnant, and another a loud family with kids and a beer guzzling husband who might not be allowed on the plane. It  cuts to a scene at the end with the old man arriving back at his apartment, TV set on as the new breaks the plane he wasn’t able to catch, to leave behind his old life in New York, is one that crashed into the twin towers. And the question that resonates — who did catch the plane?

Later I wrote a story, now published in a US collection, called Stepping into Silence about a girl who never has the courage to follow her husband’s sky diving example (he’s an instructor)– we see her at Victoria Falls, various other places, him saying “Go on, Pumpkin, you can do it. Close your eyes. Just jump.” But she never can — not until she has no choice on that fateful day.

Later I also had a story published called Fallen in the Voices of Angels collection about a fallen angel who is trying to work out who the child is she watches on a swing, the old woman who takes care of him and the doctor she shadows in an Emergency Room, until she finally realises what happened to her and why she is an angel — she died on 11th September, she jumped.

Later still I wrote a story, yet to find a home, called Director’s Cut about an old movie director’s last day and which ending he will use for his fireman blockbusting trilogy — and you guessed it the last movie is a 9/11 movie.

It was a realisation last night about how this single event has inspired so many stories from me alone and who knows that a novel might not be born from one of these or more likely something new.

Some might think writers who use real events for stories are in a way cashing in on the tragedy — well from a financial viewpoint — er no! But I think most realise that these stories need to be told. I suppose for me it was a way of dealing  with what happened and creating something that touched me and I hope others, tinged as I so often do, with hope — rising from the ashes.

I see my role as a writer as trying to make sense of a world that often feels so nonsensical.

Something happens and we watch and we feel the pain of it, but we’re still here and we’re still breathing — one minute later, ten minutes, a day, a week, twelve years. And that’s how we cope, every day. But if we didn’t find a way to express that maybe we’d burst.

If  we can’t write perhaps reading becomes part of the same thing? Another way to look at the same story, only in fiction, while it never pretends to be anything but fiction, I think we can make an even deeper connection; deeper than  is reported as news because we live in that moment with that character — the old man who can’t get on the plane, when the others did, the young woman who hears her husband’s voice say. “Do it, Pumpkin, just jump” as she steps into the silence and the woman who realises it’s her son she watches on the swing, her mother who takes care of him now and his father she watches in the Emergency Room … now these fictional characters become real. And so do the stories — or that for me is what it’s about.

While the stories might be fictional, I like to think they carry truth. And in that truth we all find a connection.

I will leave you with the ending of Stepping into Silence


I hear a saxophone: John Coltrane, ‘Say it over and over again’ is playing. It’s playing so loud it blacks out everything else. Even the fear.

Something falls in front of me. That’s when I close my eyes. The smell gets to me now: hot, metallic.

“Sorry, Ritchie,” I say. “Live every day for me.” This time the words catch in my throat. Burn. It’s just a regular day, you’ll be getting to the airfield now, checking the parachutes, hearing about the airplane that just crashed into the World Trade Center. You might even be trying to call me on my melted cell phone, hoping I fell back to sleep, hoping the car wouldn’t start. Hoping I called in sick. Anything for it not to be true.

“I’m ready,” I say. “Next time you jump, Ritchie, remember I did it for you.”

“What you waiting for? JUST JUMP!”

I hear your words in my head, I hear them above the sounds of John Coltrane. I hear them one last time as I step into the silence.

 © Debz Hobbs-Wyatt, Rattlesnake Valley Publishing





Filed under Acceptance, Angels, being a successful writer, Believing, Blogging, Conflict in fiction, Dreaming, Endings, Grief, ideas, Indentity, Literary Fiction, Living the dream, Loss, Love, Mainstream Fiction, Novel writing, Passion for life, Passion for writing, principles in writing, Psychological Thriller, Real events that inspire fiction, Show don't tell, Subtext, Theme, thoughts in fiction, time to think, Tone, Truth in Fiction, Winning, Writing

2 responses to “In the ashes, when inspiration comes from the saddest places …

  1. Great piece, Debz, and so true. My latest Laura Wilkinson novel is set against the backdrop of the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike and was inspired by real women’s stories and a photograph that I happened upon while researching something else entirely.

  2. Thanks Laura. I know I seem influenced by real events. Love the idea of your novel and how it came about 🙂 Debz Ps I haven’y forgotten I need to send you questions for the blog about your new book!

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