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Writing fiction from real-life experiences isn’t as easy as it sounds. Fiction writers—writers of short stories and novels—must know when to use real-life details and when those details don’t work well in prose. Putting your real life in writing can be inspiring, but it can be dangerous too.
Creating Fiction From Personal Experiences:
Life is a wealth of material for writers. Most fiction is autobiographical to some extent, as writers draw from their real-world experiences—a first kiss, graduation, birth, death, marriage, divorce, career changes, the assassination of JFK, the invention of Spam (both kinds). Sometimes a story is created from the tiniest real-life detail. You notice a little boy digging in the sand at the local playground, and this sparks an entire spin-off—a full-length novel about a man who makes a living digging wells. (Sounds boring but of course you’ll make sure there’s a clever hook, won’t you?)
Creating Fiction From Other People’s Experiences:
Grab a National Enquirer and take a look at the headlines. Surely, there’s something that calls to your creative side in “Man Captures Muck Monster” or “How to Make Millions with Beet Juice.” Or drift back to your childhood/adolescence, and think about someone you haven’t seen since. Did Mary Sue, the terribly shy, mistreated girl who never spoke, become a radio personality or a serial killer? There are many possibilities.
There are many well-known authors who have used their work backgrounds to create believable, technically correct fiction. John Grisham and Patricia Cornwell come to mind. Grisham made a name for himself writing legal thrillers based on his experiences as an attorney; Cornwell worked in a medical examiner’s office and turned this experience into a series of medical examiner thrillers. The inside knowledge these two authors possess contributed to their success and made their fiction believable.
Warnings About Writing Fiction Based On Real Life:
Consider this story: Once upon a time there was a man who was born, went to school, became a teacher, got married, had two children, and died at the age of 82. This man collected stamps, was afraid of flying, and once broke two ribs in a silly fraternity stunt back in college. During his lifetime, he helped his children and his students become better, more well-rounded people, which is a great accomplishment. But is it a novel?
Most fiction stems from real life, but if you think about the lives of ordinary people, there’s not usually a novel to be had. Real life is messy and complicated and doesn’t follow the rules of fiction; it’s also boring at times…mundane. The trick is to lift characters, events, tragedies, and triumphs from the pages of real life and create a new existence for them—using literary techniques and a good dose of creativity to make them more exciting, more interesting, more disturbing—more worthy of being read.
Just be careful that you’re being honest with the way you show real life in fiction. If you become too emotionally attached to turning your real-life story into fiction, you may lose sight of those elements that differentiate a smooth, well-crafted story from a real-life tale. Emotion can be a stumbling block if a writer isn’t flexible.
Also, sometimes a real-life story simply won’t “feel” real in writing. For example, a story about a jaded “loose cannon” Italian cop who solves mafia murders in New Jersey might be cliché and unbelievable—whether he’s real or not. When real life becomes too unbelievable for good fiction, writing nonfiction is often a better choice.
Disguising a real-life story as fiction doesn’t necessarily ensure that you’ll avoid lawsuits. In a previous article on creative nonfiction, we discussed the possible legal ramifications of using real people in your fiction. Exposing the school principal’s quirky bedroom habits is a risky proposition that could lead to a lawsuit. Better to model a character after the principal; as a writer, you can improve on his character to better suit your story, and no one will be humiliated or prevent your child from graduating elementary school. The same holds true for transplanting Cousin Ida into your fiction; she’s a true character in real life, but she’ll likely need some tweaking if she’s going to feature in a story.