Storytellers and Writers

photo courtesy of Carlos Xavier

photo courtesy of Carlos Xavier

Welcome to “Behind the Story,” a writer’s blog for readers and writers.

In the coming weeks and months I’ll be writing about  such varied topics as tigers, fashion, food, art, war, maids, inter-racial marriage and Gulangyu, the small Chinese island where my late husband was born. I hope you’ll join in by leaving your comments and opinions.

The topic for today is:

Storytellers and Writers

All morning and half the afternoon I sit at the kitchen table and make up stories. I’m a writer. But am I a storyteller?

I don’t think so–not in the way I think of storytellers. To me, a storyteller is the person who starts his story when you’re dishing up the Thanksgiving turkey and still has everyone’s attention when it’s time for the pumpkin pie. He remembers anecdotes from elementary school and college that have a point. And yet, he never seems to write anything down. My theory is, he gets enough satisfaction simply telling the story face-to-face with his audience.

The storyteller at our Easter brunch

Paul (I’ll call him) didn’t start telling stories until after the Easter egg hunt. Like the other adults, he was too busy guiding the three- and four- year olds through the Byzantine rules of the hunt? Look for stickers on the large eggs. You only get one of each kind. If you find an extra, re-hide it. You may keep all the small candy-filled eggs you can find. No shoving, and the three-year-olds get a twenty-second start. Ready, start counting.


Easter, 2013After a mad scramble during which most of the eggs were found, the baskets of candy were tucked away. It was time to eat.

Paul stood back while the women encouraged and cajoled. Some strata, honey? Come on, just a spoonful. Don’t these strawberries look good?

Eventually, after the children were settled at their small table in the living room and the adults at the tall adult table, the conversation began, flowing from person to person in groups of two and three.

Then the storyteller found an opening and launched into his tale, an intricate story about his sister, mother and grandmother that went back decades and traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and back. It was fascinating enough to hold everyone’s attention for the next thirty minutes.

“I told this story many times when I was in college,” he said, adding a coda to the main tale. “The boys were incensed that my sister had made me drive all the way to Vermont and back on false pretenses. The girls focused on how romantic it was that she’d quit school and flown to Paris to be with her handsome French boyfriend.”

This is another thing I’ve noticed: Storytellers tell the same story over and over, adding flourishes here and there, embellishing as the years go by. If you’re married to a storyteller, you may feel you know his stories backwards and forwards. But can you repeat them? Will people listen if you try?

My husband, the storyteller   storytellerEugene 001                                              

My late husband Eugene was a storyteller. He told long stories at dinner parties and everyone listened. Many times I asked him to write them down, but he never did.

After he died, I felt it was up to me to tell his stories. Since I’m a writer the best way to do that was to incorporate bits and pieces of his stories into my novels. The stories about his childhood in China during the Japanese occupation were the inspiration for my first novel, Tiger Tail Soup: A Novel of China at War. In its pages, you can read the fictionalized version of Eugene’s stories.

Next week’s blog post: “The Fall of the Bamboo Curtain.” Please stop by and check it out. If you’d like a reminder, check the second small box below the comment box.

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About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
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  1. Gretchen Houser

    Writing as smooth as silk. Your creative spirit and willingness to share are wonderful gifts to the world.

  2. Dear Nicki,

    I’m keen to find out more about your stories. You have touched upon some very interesting Chinese themes.

    With your east and west influences, I’m sure you have a special niche and beautiful stories to share.

    My mother went through her childhood in Singapore during the Japanese occupation. It was a very painful memory for her.

    You’ve got a Chinese surname and I’ve got an English surname — I look forward to sharing more cultural issues with you through our writings.

    All the best to you and with your new website.

  3. Mary Huskey

    How exciting that you are starting this new adventure! I look forward to learning more about your life, love, and dreams since we were roomies.

  4. Chick Sandifer

    Nicki–It’s nice to know you’ve finished the novel and exciting to see you’ve already started a new chapter and avenue for writing. It will be great fun to watch your study and insights and experiences come to life on the blog.

    We’ve all known story tellers. I marvel at them. There’s something in the way they engage listeners or insert themselves at just the right moment or avoid or, perhaps, just ignore, interruptions Some stories offer lessons; many pure entertainment. I’m rarely bored even on multiple hearings.

    I think most writers, especially fiction writers, are story tellers. The scope, the canvas, the circumstances and the discipline are certainly different.

    • Thanks for your comment, Chick. One of the great stories I heard at our 50th reunion was from David G. about dating and marrying his wife. I wouldn’t mind hearing that one again.

  5. Hi Aunt Nicki
    I think the above would be a very good theme for your next book.
    Uncle Eugene discussed in our conversations many things about his father and grandma. I did some research on the side, Uncle Eugene’s grandma ( great Uncle DK mom..) very high probability could be descended from Buumbutai, or empress Xiazhuang, wife of HongTaiji. Buumbutai, was a direct descendant from the Borjigin ( eagle) clan of the Khorchin tribe, a direct descendant of Khasar, brother of Chinggis Khan. XiaoZhuang was a pivotal figure in the Qing dynasty.
    Hong Taiji is the founding father of the Qing dynasty. If there is an interest , I can provide more details.

    God Bless

    • Dwight, that’s fascinating! I would like to hear more. It may be beyond my ability to understand and write about, but still I’d love to hear more, and my kids would too.

  6. Karen Ferguson

    It’s wonderful to see you share your thoughts. Looking forward to many more. You are

  7. Howard Lee

    Hi Nicki:
    It would be wonderful if you can share some of the adventures you had with Eugene.
    Eugene was a good story teller even in high school. He always has a story. In high school, we all said we are going to have sons when we are married — guess what! all three or four of us that was tight — all have daughter or daughters — we are luckier — daughters much better.
    Good luck with your new adventure.
    Howard Lee

  8. Sheila Valentine

    This is so exciting. Thank you for letting us know about your blog. Knowing what I know about you, I truly believe your novel will be wonderful. I have always so admired your quiet and thoughtful presentation of ideas – good luck on this new venture. What a brave woman you are!

  9. Maureen Rogers

    Hi Nicki, You’ve already captured my curiosity with this blog. Can’t wait to read more of your stories about Eugene’s life. Hope Tiger Tale Soup comes out soon!

  10. Hannah

    This is great! I’m look forward to reading more posts! Great job Nicki!

  11. Andrew

    Great to see the photo of Eugene!, I have an interesting moment I’ll share with you next time I see you of him standing atop a beaver lodge in the teanaway. Let me know when tiger tail soup is available.


  12. Nattalia

    Kudos to you for completing your first novel–Tiger Tale Soup! I love the title. I am intrigued with its possible connection to the extraordinarily beautiful drawing you made of a tiger which I remember was hanging in your dining room. When you told me you were turning away from graphic arts to writing, I thought, “How blessed you are to possess such varied talents!” It sounds like you put in many hours in the creation of this new venture– may you receive all the recognition and acclaim you deserve!
    Best wishes,

  13. Patrice Cromarty

    The birth of a novel – what an exciting time to share! We too can’t wait to read Tiger Tail Soup and be privy to author’s “inside scoop” via the blog. Bestest wishes Nicki!


  14. From what I just read idk… I feel like you just told me a story Nicki. One that I want to here more of! Maybe you’re more of a storyteller than you thought? After all, blogging is like that. 🙂 keep it up and keep us all posted! Sending love, pink glitter, unicorns, and vodka your way!



  15. Stephanie

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful blog with me. I do believe that YOU are a storyteller.
    : ) Stephanie

  16. This is wonderful Nicki! Thanks for sharing. I especially enjoyed the photo’s.

  17. mumtaz iqbal


    Lovely blog. Glad u started it. Pls continue.

    When was your book published? Publisher please.

    I’d love to hear Eugene’s stories. He was a great raconteur with an infectious, booming, raucous and prolonged laugh. Rowshan and I recall with absolute clarity and pleasure both of your impromptu October 1973 night visit to our 15 Constellation house after we had just moved in with the boys. As a matter of fact, you were our first guests/visitors!

    About storytelling, this is a gift and an art, something which was widespread and in vogue when writing and printing were in infancy and word of mouth was a major means of communication. Mass literacy is a 19th cent product. With pervasive internet and texting, storytelling is under threat as is listening–the corollary of instant gratification?– and storytellers are an endangered species (Greenpeace?). But it’ll never die out. Storytellers will be worth their weight in gold, or platinum, should I stay because of their rarity and scarcity.

    Take care. Regards to u, the girls and their families.


    NB;That’s Stephen Lau in the picture. The other chap is American I think but can’t recall his name.

    • Mumtaz, you’re right. Eugene was a raconteur. That’s the word I should have used. (You’re so erudite.) When Eugene worked in Western Samao, they bestowed on him the title of “tusitala.” The way I understand it, tusitalas, or storytellers, are highly regarded in Samoa. There’s also some tie-in with Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived there for many years.

      I also remember visiting your house on Constellation St. and the delicious food Rowshan cooked.

      Tiger Tail Soup hasn’t been published yet, but I’m working on it. A couple of agents are looking at it.

      • mumtaz iqbal

        In Samoan, Tusitala =teller of tales or story teller. RLS is buried on a hill in Apia the capital of W. Samoa where the leading hotel built substantially of wood is named Tusitala. I was fortunate enough to stay there. Eugene would have been a hit because of his personality and ability to make people listen raptly and laugh.

        Pls advise when the book’s out.

  18. Glenice Pearson

    Fascinating and well done, Nicki! Looking forward to more.
    ~ Glenice

  19. Carol Hayes


    I am so grateful to Sue for sending me the link to your blog. China has always fascinated me. In 2005 I made my dream journey to China with 17 other artists and now I consider myself very fortunate to be reading your well written intriguing blog. I look forward to following your journey and reading Tiger Tail Soup when it is available.


  20. Veda (Melton) Baldwin

    Thank you for offering your blog–it’s interesting and very well written. I’ll look forward to each chapter. It sounds like you and Eugene had a wonderful life together. –veda

  21. Dear Nicki,
    thanks for dropping by on my blog.

    I just read through your blog posts and enjoyed reading about your arrival in China back in the 1980s. I’m looking forward to reading more of your blog posts!


  22. Edward Chobanian

    Thank you for this wonderful and literate review of China, Eugene and the Family. He left a life long impression on me that is unshakeable. He is one of seven people that have make an impact on my continued effort to look beyond the media nonsense. Please keep me in your pipeline.

  23. SHERRY


    • Sherry, reconnecting with people is one of the fun things about writing a blog. I’m going to have to look up my old Klahoya to connect names to faces. I’m glad you stopped by. Thanks.

  24. Nicki – your words are inspiring and absolutely interesting in the extreme. Have so enjoyed reading your writings. Have subscribed, and look forward to notifications of your next, and future entries. Good wishes ….. Anne Byam

  25. Henry Chen

    Hi Nicole, Thank you very much for your desire to write about my dad. I am willing to email you more materials if you wish. Just email me.

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