Writing Fiction from Facts
Tips for Re-mixing your Life Experiences to Create Fiction Gold
As writers, we are keen observers of our lived experiences. There’s a reason for the adage, “write what you know.” The people in our lives, the places we are from or travel to, the conversations we have, and the emotions we feel are ripe writing material! Everyone I date is warned that what they say and do may someday end up in a novel. Even in this digital world, I always carry a small notebook in my purse to write down ideas and conversations I secretly overhear.
Writing from experience can help avoid clichés and add authenticity to keep readers turning pages. But how much of our lived experience should end up in our finished novels? Where is the line between “inspired by” and an autobiographical account? And, what is more compelling for readers?
On one end of the spectrum is the autobiographical novel like On the Road by Jack Kerouac, which is generally a considered to be true to life. Here, fiction is only used to fill gaps in memory, and small facts may be changed to protect identity. At the other end is a novel that’s inspired by the writer’s personal experiences, which have then been re-mixed into a fictional account. The ratio of truth to fiction in these novels is small. The majority of novels, including mine, fall into the latter category.
“All fiction is largely autobiographical and much autobiography is, of course, fiction.” — P.D. James (mystery writer)
Here are some suggestions based on both research and my own writing experience of how to mine the facts of your life for those nuggets of fiction gold.
Re-mix the Facts
New writers can have trouble twisting facts, even if doing so will improve the story.
This was something that initially stumped me while working through the first few drafts of my novel. I could objectively see how suggestions from my writing group to add tension or rework certain scenes would make the story better, but I struggled with applying the advice because “that’s not how it happened” in real life.
Once I was able to look at what the story needed objectively, the facts of “how it happened” didn’t matter. I could choose only elements that strengthened the story and to make up the rest. What actually happened was inspiration, not a blueprint.
Here are some suggestions of how to re-mix the facts to move your story forward:
Ask, what if this happened instead? Would that make the story stronger?
Change a character’s gender, appearance, or point of view.
Change the setting, season, or time-period.
Consider spreading the unique qualities necessary to your plot across multiple characters (e.g., instead of giving all the characteristics to a sister, give some to an aunt, a friend, a neighbour, a teacher, etc.).
Create composite characters from the personalities of people you know.
Only keep the best, most interesting bits of truth, in narrative and dialogue.
Change the ending.
Is the truth worth the fallout?
Consider how the people you're writing about may react to your work once it's published. Although the probably of getting sued for libel is low, writing about people you know can upset them and damage relationships.
Do you care how people will react, especially if your account of them is negative? Can you talk to them before your novel or story is published? If you’re feeling apprehensive about asking someone to appear in your story, you probably have your answer. Maybe you can make changes that will create your desired effect without exposing the person you know? You can do this by re-mixing the facts, as suggested above.
The decision of course is up you, and as the writer Anne Lamott had said:
Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—the truth is always subversive. — Anne Lamott
Only you know what to keep and what to toss. But before you make your choice, always ask will this make the story better?
Happy writing and until next time!
Sources and Further Reading
Haislip, Shanan. The Problem with Writing About People You Know, and 3 Ways to Solve it. The Write Practice. 2013. https://thewritepractice.com/problem-people/
Houston, Taylor. Autobiographical Fiction: Using Your Real Life to Craft Great Fiction. Lit Reactor. February, 2012. https://litreactor.com/columns/autobiographical-fiction-using-your-real-life-to-craft-great-fiction
Langston, Eva. Writing a Novel Inspired by Your Life? The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Autobiographical Fiction. Eval Langston [blog]. December 9, 2019. http://evalangston.com/2017/12/09/writing-autobiographical-fiction/
Smith, Jack. Filtering Fact through Fiction. The Writer. October 24, 2018. https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/filtering-fact-through-fiction/