Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

But It Really Happened

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 18•12

But It Really Happened

Jessica P. Morrell©

“With any kind of fiction, there are basically two ways to incorporate your real-life experiences. Either you write a story based on something that happened to you, or you write a largely imagined story, with snippets from your life woven into the fabric of the story.” Robin Hemley

Being a writer can be a wonderful excuse for our less-than-noble tendencies to snoop, eavesdrop, and stand on the sidelines and report on the fray. But all this curiosity and awareness can lead to a particular catch-22 that exists for many fiction writers: do you write a story based on real events and people, and if so, how much can you borrow from reality? The short answers are sometimes and as little as possible except for creating a believable sense of place.

The urge to write from the raw materials of our lives can be overwhelming. After all, we all had a unique upbringing and most of us have witnessed or starred in events that have Technicolor™ vibrancy. We’ve met lovely people and oddballs and sociopaths and losers. We’ve traveled, taken risks, and fallen in love and also had our hearts mangled, our trust betrayed, and our hopes smashed. In fact, many writers are downright fascinating and have had experiences that would make Dickens weep.

But none of that adds up to fiction nor does it mean that your life story should be shaped into autobiographical fiction. While real life seeps into fiction—and should—writing fiction brings life into sharper focus than reality. The fictional world and its inhabitants are more closely examined, more entwined, more enchanting, and in more trouble than in real life. So what’s a writer to do when he or she is convinced that his or her life story can be the basis for a novel?  Lately I keep meeting writers struggling with this dilemma and based on what I’ve observed, want to make a few suggestions.

First, it is entirely possible to write from life and that doing so doesn’t mean you have a limited imagination. Second, just because an event happened does not mean that it can be honed into interesting fiction. And interestingly, often bizarre real life happenings can seem too far out on the page. In fact the “ but it really happened” defense is one of the weakest in all of fiction writing.

What seems to work best, instead of trying to merge reality and fiction, is to allow life events to spark a story instead of struggling to capture the whole tapestry of a life or a situation. Since there are several pitfalls that arise when writing from life, let’s examine them. The biggest problem with writing based on real events is that it can be constraining. As a writer you’ll be struggling to report with accuracy on events, people and places and this sort of reportage squeezes out creativity and all the possibilities that can happen when your imagination is given free rein. When you write from real life you are often stringing together a series of anecdotes and moments instead of weaving themes and causality into a large and pulsating whole. Writing from real life can also lack focus since you’re trying to capture generalities and memories.

When you write about yourself or real people you also miss the magic that happens when a character takes shape in your day dreams and starts whispering her secrets, urges and fears. Fiction in essence is a record of threatening changes being inflicted on a character or group of characters at a particularly interesting or dangerous time. When we shape our own lives into fiction it’s often difficult to hone in on the most interesting segment, to know when exactly we changed, when the turning points occurred, and when we were most threatened. In fiction the stakes for the character are high and unless you’re an astronaut, brain surgeon, or top-level spy, it’s difficult to make the stakes from reality as compelling.

There are other dangers too—fiction readers simply don’t trust stories that stem from life as much as they trust stories born of creativity. Writing from real life also tempts us to seek revenge on people who wronged us and in this vengeance we might not be able to see the persons clearly or understand their motivations. Writing biographical fiction also tempts us to not reveal how lonely, depressed, broke, cynical, gullible, or desperate we were. It’s tough to admit to our weaknesses and foibles, all the more reason to create characters who make mega blunders and missteps while you duck for cover like the wizard behind the curtain.

Here’s another consideration: a storyline must be unified and balanced but life isn’t. Life is random and chaotic with moments of calm interspersed. Fiction is structured on ever-increasing threats and momentum with all the parts creating a unified reality.  Writing from life also risks that the writer will spend too much time ruminating, too much time looking back instead of forward. Another problem is that often our daily lives contain large swaths of boring or humdrum happenings. We spend a lot of time at our desks, or smothered by the demands of others, or watching television, or running errands or struggling to make a decision. Fiction leaves out the boring parts of life and when you write from facts, that can be difficult.

So what do you do with the stuff from life? Obviously you don’t want to toss it out like dirty dishwater—you want to use it somehow. Real life events and people can imbue the fiction world with depth. If you live in New York and your story takes place there, you want all that honking vibrancy to show up on the page. The trick is to sort through it, searching for what to keep and what to discard. Just because an event happened doesn’t make it believable on the page or guarantee that it stirs emotions in the reader.  And while you’re sorting through the truth of a life, always handle life events and real people with extreme caution. You’re cautious because you don’t want to get sued for libel and because fiction writing is artifice and smoke and mirrors.

After all is said and done, if you still insist on writing from life experiences, here are a few tips for contorting the truth. If you’re writing a coming-of-age story based on your own experiences, make sure that enough time has based so that you can the past clearly and then twist the truth. If you want to write about real people it works best to create an agglomeration based on several people and to capture the flavor of their speech, gestures and mannerisms. If you have based a character solely and closely on a real person, inform your agent and publisher of this fact so that libel issues can be worked out before the book is in print. Or, if you use a real person, transform him or her into someone their mother would not recognize, remembering that you mostly want to capture his or her inner world. If your character is a celebrity you might want to research how other writers have handled this technique or consider writing about someone who is, uhm, no longer with us. Perhaps this one is obvious, but if you’re writing to avenge a wrong, rethink your strategy.

The bottom line is that when you write from life you’ll want to exaggerate, disguise or bend the truth. Create characters whose behaviors you can understand with the emotional truths your readers can relate to. And while behaviors and emotions in characters you write about can reflect some of your own past, vary their experiences from your own as much as possible.


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  1. Hmmm, I seem to remember you telling me this about one of my very early manuscripts. 😉 Good advice!

    • jessicap says:

      Alas, you’re not the only person who wrote too close to home. Only works with memoir, but then you still need to weigh what to keep, what to leave out.

    • Caroline says:

      Just read this book last year. Made me want to read more Cather, but have not been able to find the time. Summer is coming and I am lionokg for some great reads, so thank you for jogging my memory about author Willa Cather.

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