Writing from life isn’t a novel idea. Indeed, there are whole books on the topic. For many (if not most) people, writing from life conjures thoughts of memoir, autobiography, or biography. But opportunities to mine your life to enrich your fiction are virtually limitless. This blog explores ways to tap into your life experiences. It’s a long but not exhaustive overview. Here’s hoping you’re inspired!
1) Maybe the most obvious: you lift a character whole cloth from an acquaintance, friend, family member, or neighbor. Virtually the only thing you change is the name. (You may want to get permission or change just enough so that you can still show your face at parties.)
2) Choose a habit, quirk, characteristic gesture, favorite word, etc. from someone you know (maybe yourself) and make it a character note. This could be a private, unmentionable behavior (see my recent blog on the topic) or it could be quite public (think Rafael Nadal touching forehead nose, and both ears before every serve). My story “Solid Line” (in “Chrysalis Reader”) drew on my husband’s habits of food shopping and breakfast cooking (alternating eggs and cereal six days a week, pancakes on Sunday).
3) Choose one or more factually true things about a real person and graft them onto a fictional character/story. For example, my story “Family Man”(published in Distillery) started with three true facts about my father: he had great eye-hand coordination, was stationed in Texas with the Army Air Corps in WWII, and he was a winning pitcher for the Old Timers Softball League in his later years. In “Belle” (Compass Rose), I used my maternal grandmother’s true story of having thirteen children to craft a fictional piece in which the character leaves after naming the thirteenth and heads west.
1) Draw on a familiar neighborhood for the setting of a story or scene.
2) Take details from a place you have worked, lived, or visited often. I wrote “The Old Home Place” based on the hardscrabble farm where I visited my paternal grandmother for two weeks every summer.
If your setting is as important as a character, you will need to return to it often and provide lots of detail. Otherwise, don’t dwell on it, but use it to describe color, furnishings, feel, etc.
1) Give your character a familiar object to love or abhor. Think skull, Tiffany vase, worn baseball glove, cast iron skillet, whatever. Consider whether the character inherited it, received it as a gift, or chose it for him- or herself. “Pictures Not Displayed” (Storgy Magazine) is fiction based on a box of photographs I found under my mother’s bed after she died.
2) Give your character a collection of objects. Here again, it could be anything—teacups, cloisonné napkin rings, antique farm implements, fake Christmas trees. If you choose a collection you are familiar with, you might also want to incorporate some of the characteristics of the collector.
3) Consider objects around your home that could contribute to your plot: be damaging or even lethal (think beyond knives and pokers), be used in defense or attack, or used in unconventional ways (think cast iron griddle used to hammer a nail).
1) Use repeated events to establish the rhythms of a character’s life. For example, attending every home game, square dancing, hang gliding. In addition, sometimes very different repeated events can be combined to form a new whole. Think holiday traditions, anniversaries, birthdays.
For example, I’m a devotee of massage. In “Beautiful Bones” (Connecticut Review), I combined the behaviors of many massage therapists with a formerly abused widow getting a massage during a hurricane and becoming paranoid about the massage therapist killing her.
2) Sometimes an event sticks with you just because it’s quirky. Once I was visiting family over Christmas and my granddaughter, who was enamored of special effects makeup at the time, had received a kit as a gift. Simultaneously, she was looking up imaginary diseases for a writing project with friends. The upshot was that she made up herself, her mother, and me to look like three generations suffering from hanahaki disease and I wrote “Lethal Love” (Good Works Review), in which suffering unrequited love resulted in growing flowers in your lungs and throat.
3) Perhaps more often, it will be one time only events that have made a huge impact on you. For me, driving from upstate New York in winter in a whiteout led to “White Out” (Happy) involving a case of road rage that never happened.
When my husband had eye surgery, I used descriptions of his treatment, treatment, restrictions, and the aftereffects to write a magical realism story, “Her Husband’s Eyes” (Midway). After the surgery, a superstitious wife thinks her husband’s eyes are haunting her. My exposure to Chinese culture via a trip to Singapore and Taiwan resulted in “Good Works” (descant).
4) Use a single event that isn’t quickly over to display coping skills. For example, having breast cancer. “Beast and the Beauty” (Clare) was a magical realism story spawned by radiation therapy following surgery, in which a woman suffering radiation poisoning turned to alternative healing methods.
1) Draw on how you were taught values, your moral compass. For example, in “The Pig Sticker” (Chelsea) when Uncle Earl calls a dirty rag doll “Nig” Mommy tells him not to talk trash in front of her babies. Of course, sometimes the lessons are much more explicit, as in being told throughout childhood that your word is your bond, or being exposed to church doctrine. Consider how you came by your values and whether those lessons relate to how your character came to his/her values and morality.
2) Sometimes attitudes transfer in elliptical ways. In my family, “waste not, want not” was a maxim. Several friends and I agreed to share our Lady Finger mold, fish poacher, turkey frier, and other seldom used cooking equipment. That led me to write “The Darwinian Co-op Lending Library” (Clackamus Literary Review). I created a post-modern library in which people could borrow everything from Valentine’s decorations to turkey basters to a husband and children for the holidays.
This is perhaps the richest minefield of all. Remember emotional reactions in as vivid detail as possible, both your physical feelings and behaviors. Rememberwhen you felt joy, guilt, loss, bereavement, excitement, embarrassment, regret, inadequacy, love, sexual arousal, awe, helplessness, fear, being tipsy—any emotion at all.
If your POV character is experiencing this emotion, describe how it felt. If otherwise, staying in the POV character’s head, describe what the POV character can see, hear, etc. of emotional character”s behavior.
The thing to keep in mind here is that you can transfer an emotion to a very different situation/even. For example, if you’ve experienced the death of a loved one, those feelings can be written into your fiction as a character’s reaction to the death of a spouse, a sibling, a parent, a friend, even a beloved pet.
Bottom line for writers: your life is gold. Mine it!
For me—and I venture to say, for most of you reading this blog—the initial exposure to notebooks—books meant to be written in—came with entering school. During the 14th and 15th centuries, notebooks were made by hand, often at home, by folding pieces of paper in half into bundles that were then bound. Binding involved sewing along the fold or punching holes and lacing with twine or other cord. The pages were blank, and any note keeper who wanted lined pages had to make ruled lines across each page. Making and keeping notebooks was so important to effective household, farm, and business management that children learned how to do it in school.
Currently, besides a stitched binding, a buyer can purchase notebooks that are glue-bound, spiral bound, or loose pages in ring binders. People keep notes on everything—food, physical activity, birds cited, blood pressure. . .
Today, notebooks are almost universally commercially produced. You can find them lined or blank or with printed grids, depending on your intentions. Specialized ones are available for virtually any and all needs. One can shop notebooks for elementary, middle, high school, or college. Additionally, one can find notebooks designed for particular interests.
Specialized notebooks often include related information, advice, etc. The Writer’s Notebook is a good example of this, providing tips and exercises to improve writing and creativity. Of the 207 pages of The Naturalist’s Notebook, the first 95 are pages of how-to. The body of the book is called a 5-year calendar-journal, though it’s set up like a diary.
So, segueing from notebooks to diaries: a diary is a record (originally handwritten) set up for discrete entries arranged by date, reporting on what has happened. Generally, a diary has daily entries. Although it might include anything, a diary is essentially a collection of notes, often brief, focused on “just the facts, ma’am.” A war diary would be a good example: a regularly updated official record of a military unit’s administration and activities, maintained by an officer in the unit.
Pre-printed diaries typically allot the same amount of space or number of lines for each day. This forces the diarist to record only the most important events of each day. The diary shown above is set up for one year, with one week on each double-page spread. N.B.: These are a woman’s diaries, and you will see weather notes in the margin of each entry, which is typical of women’s diaries.
One-year diaries can come in any shape or size, though the entry space is often larger than that of multi-year diaries. Typical of diaries are the inserts and write-overs caused by the relatively small amount of space allowed for each day.
To Myself, known today as Meditations, written in Greek by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the second half of the 2nd century CE might be the earliest recorded writing displaying many aspects of a diary. The earliest surviving diary that most resembles a modern diary was that of the Moroccan mathematician and scholar Ibn al-Banna’ al-Marrakushi in the 11th century. Needless to say, these were not pre-printed!
At one point, five-year diaries were very popular. They range in size from 2” x 3” up to 8.5’ x 11” and are still for sale today, priced from $5.59 to $72.00, though the price is not necessarily related to size. The major advantage of a five-year diary, in my opinion, is that it allows easy tracking of events (visits from relatives, weather, flower blooms) across years and seasons. The major disadvantage is the (usually) severely circumscribed space for each entry.
Today one can have a paper diary and/or a digital diary. Digital diaries are often tailored towards shorter-form, in-the-moment writing, similar to what might be posted on social media, but they avoid character limits that have the same effect as the space restrictions noted above.
In its original (French) meaning, the word journal (from the Latin diurnis or diurnalis)refers to a daily record of activities, but the term has evolved to mean any record, regardless of time elapsed between entries. More importantly, it is a record of significant experiences, as well as documenting thoughts, feelings, reflections, emotions, problems, and self-evaluations. In short, a journal is much more personal than a diary. Per Robert Gottlieb, journals have no deliberate shape, they simply accrete.
In writers’ terms, a diary is a fly-on-the-wall POV; a journal is a first person POV, showing everything through the eyes and heart of the writer.
If you want to buy a journal, you are not likely to find books labeled “Journal.” Instead, you buy a blank book. Your first decision is totally blank or lined. It’s a very personal decision. For an artist, this would be totally blank, a sketchbook. But some journal writers also want a totally blank page,feeling freer—unconfined, not squished between lines. Others—somehow more restricted?—prefer lines, perhaps to keep them focused, perhaps to keep their words legible.
Journals can be broad ranging or focused—for example, dream journals, travel journals, gardening journals. In my experience, the more broad ranging, the more likely the writer will choose an aesthetically pleasing blank book.
For the most part, both diaries and journals are presumed to be personal, shared with no one or only a select few. But many of both have been published. Online, international lists of published journals and diaries are readily available.
Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks—numerous, informal, and not terribly organized—have been perused and edited by John Curran. He quotes lavishly from the originals but also comments and relates the notebook entries to Christie’s published works.
Among published diaries, notebooks, and journals, one of my favorites is Hawthorne’s Lost Notebook 1835-1841. I love this book because it has reproductions of the original hand-written notes side-by-side with readable printed versions of his words.
Another favorite is The Journals of John Cheever. Cheever wrote his inner life, day after day, year after year. His writings span a period from the early 1940s to a few days before his death on June 18, 1982, encompassing some three to four million words. The original journals are small, loose-leaf note books, approximately one per year, usually typed but sometimes written out in longhand, undated. The published version of his journals is, necessarily, a selection. Entries are identified by year, and each is reprinted in its entirety.
This printed version of his journals doesn’t draw punches, even when he made negative comments about his children or himself.
And now I would draw your attention to the similarities between the Hawthorne notebook entry and the Cheever journal entries. They are both open-ended and extremely personal.
Bottom line for writers: a rose by any other name! Call it a notebook, a diary, or a journal, record your days.
I wrote about road trips back in 2010, advising writers to note the names of roads, businesses, schools–whatever–as they traveled. Venture off the congested interstate to the byways and small towns where the names really get good. Sometimes a compelling name is enough to spark a story. Consider Bone Yard Road or Fresh Fire Church of God as possible settings.
Leave space in your itinerary and in your mindset to come upon the unexpected, e.g. an African/Mediterranean vegan cafe in Santa Fe or a salt mine in Warsaw, Poland, that’s been carved into a salt cathedral. Those locations might stimulate a scene or add a quirk to your story.
Workaholics Day is an unofficial holiday that rolls around every July 5, meant to raise awareness that all work and no play can be harmful to workers’ mental and physical health.
“Workaholic” is a portmanteau word, created by combining “work” and “alcoholic”—in case that isn’t obvious! It’s been part of the lingo since the late 1960s as a label for people who work excessively and compulsively—i.e., addictively. And as with other addictions, a work addiction is a bad thing. And as with many bad things, it’s a boon to writers. Workaholism creates problems for the character and for others around him or her.
Malissa Clark, Ph.D., studies workaholism for a living. She’s identified four leading components of overwork: motivational, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral.
Motivation is essentially why one does what one does. Workaholics work because of internal pressures—feeling that they should or ought to be working.
Cognitively, workaholics think obsessively about work, even when they aren’t working. They can’t mentally disengage.
When not working, workaholics experience negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, disappointment and guilt.
And their work behavior goes beyond what is reasonable or even expected by their employers in terms of long hours and not taking time off.
But how do workaholics get that way?
Here’s a list of possible roots for your workaholic character.
—a need to feel competent, especially if incompetent in other areas of their lives
—reliving patterns from their past, or family of origin
—a means to relieve, ignore, or deny emotional issues or trauma
—your character’s basic personality: having a Type A personality, high in need for achievement, perfectionism, and/or narcissism
How bad is it?
What is your workaholic character likely to experience? Workaholism is related to:
—lower job, family, and life satisfaction
—worse physical health, including higher systolic blood pressure
—higher levels of mental distress over time
—increased job stress and burnout
And here’s the kicker: workaholics do NOT enjoy greater job success or productivity than others.
Working long hours doesn’t make one a workaholic.
Someone who loves his/her job—finds it fulfilling and satisfying—probably isn’t a workaholic. Highly engaged workers feel more jovial, attentive, and self-assured both at work and at home.
Workaholics Day encourages workers to make lifestyle changes to give other aspects of their lives as much importance as their work. Bottom Line for writers: if you want to redeem your workaholic character, rebalancing is absolutely necessary.
Yesterday was the beginning of the spring semester fiction class at the Virginia Museum Studio School—and I was there! Why? I might say “Because I am a perennial student.” Depending on the dictionary, the definition of perennial is some form of lasting for an indefinitely long time: extending over several years, persistent, recurrent, etc. But that is a label, not a reason.
It’s practically a cliché that writing is a lone activity. I find classes add the social dimension to writing. I never met a boring writer! I meet interesting people with similar interests and (usually) similar world views. Thus there is the potential to develop friendships.
Classes stimulate me to write in new directions. Yes, I write when I’m not in class, but it tends to get habitual, not to mention sporadic. In the last few weeks I have had three stories accepted for publication in 2019.
“Culture of Complaint and Commiseration” will appear in Big Muddy, the literary journal of the Mississippi River Valley. It is a story of women bonding over the struggles they face.
“Rambling On About Uncle Leonard” will appear in Pretty Owl Poetry. This is a single sentence of 688 words that describes an old man and his context.
“The Doll” will appear in SLAB. It borders on horror, beginning when a woman finds an empty baby stroller in the middle of the sidewalk, in the middle of winter, in the middle of the night.
Besides celebrating these acceptances, I mention them for two reasons: they arethree very different pieces of writing, and each began with a prompt or assignment in a writing class.
Classes are structured to make me write regularly.The VMFA studio classes meet three hours per week for twelve weeks in the fall and twelve weeks in the spring, with shorter offerings in the summer. Tuition is a real bargain, when one looks at dollars per hour of instruction! Just saying.
My teacher of choice for the last two years has been Amy Ritchie Johnson. Her in-class timed writing and assignments are tied to the basics of the craft. All three of the forthcoming publications mentioned above started in her classes.
When I write regularly, I also submit regularly, at least six times per year. This leads to lots of rejections, but without submissions there are no acceptances.
Most of my life has been spent in classrooms, as a student and/or teacher.Classes are my natural environment, the one in which I thrive. Classmates and/or teachers praising my writing is extremely gratifying. Every time I get something published, it’s like an A on my report card or a star on my forehead. With more than 50 publications in literary journals and anthologies, my writing life is sufficiently star-studded to make me smile.
VL: Today’s guest blog is by Teresa Inge, whose novella “Hounding the Pavement” is the opening work in the recently released To Fetch a Thief. Teresa has contributed to several anthologies both as author and as organizer. Today she will share her perspective on collaboration.
Just as writing is a lonely experience, collaboration is a group effort. As a short story author, I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with many authors on several writing projects.
These projects have included the coordination of joint mystery anthologies. Some years ago, I came up with the idea to create the Virginia is for Mysteries series, a collection of sixteen short stories set in and around Virginia. I first discussed the series with the Sisters in Crime Mysteries by the Sea chapter members and the Central Virginia chapter members. Once members were on board to move forward, I organized an anthology committee. This began the wonderful partnership of writers joining together to create great mysteries. Along the way, we teamed up to generate timelines, book titles, number of contributors, submissions guidelines, promotion, and securing a publisher.
VL: As a contributor, I can say Teresa did a great job!
We also learned that working with multiple authors can be challenging with schedules, editing, and finding time to promote the books.
VL: What Teresa may be too polite to say is that it was sometimes a real pain in the neck—or somewhere! For example, people missing deadlines, arguing over suggested edits, and/or never being available for talks or signings.
Next, I created 50 Shades of Cabernet, a mysterious wine anthology with authors I knew from Malice Domestic, a fan-based mystery writer’s conference. But I took a different approach and solicited authors who were established, had a following, and created well-crafted mysteries. I knew from experience that these authors would put in the time needed to make the book successful.
More recently, I collaborated with three authors on To Fetch a Thief, the first Mutt Mysteries collection, featuring four novellas that have “gone to the dogs.” In this howling good read, canine companions help their owners solve crimes and right wrongs. Since I’ve been in several books with this particular group, we now have the knowledge and experience to create well developed mysteries and a strategic marketing plan.
Collaborating with multiple authors combines efforts to develop great mysteries and create a strong network, since there is strength in numbers.
VL: Teresa, thank you for sharing your insights. From your closing remarks, it sounds as though collaboration—like so many other things—gets easier with practice. No doubt many authors would benefit from working with and learning from you!
Teresa Inge grew up reading Nancy Drew mysteries. Today, she doesn’t carry a rod like her idol, but she hotrods. She is president of Sister’s in Crime Mystery by the Sea Chapter and author of short mysteries in Virginia is for Mysteries and 50 Shades of Cabernet.
I go to Nimrod for the the summer arts program for writers. Hence, much of my appreciation is based on the writing time, the individual consultation, the group critique, the opportunity to read my work and hear others. Writers working with both Cathryn Hankla and Charlotte Morgan (this year’s writers in residence) gave rave reviews to everything related to the writing support and advice.
This year, there were two opportunities for writers to read plays (or parts thereof) by two fellow writers. Fun experiences, though I doubt they really did justice to the work being read.
But no matter how many hours are spent butt-in-chair, there is always time to experience the place. I took lots of pix of bits and pieces around the buildings and grounds that I find charming—many of which I’ve posted on Facebook during the past week, but not all by any means. E.g., these heads I call family.
And then some of my other indoor favorites:
Outside, I tend to focus on blooms—most of these pictures snapped along the roadside and mowed walkways.
There are fine o-l-d trees dotted around and about. They have a beauty all their own.
And then there is the allure of water. Here I’m sharing not only my pictures but also some taken by other writers. (I’m not the only person drawn to water. Note the picture of writers tubing down the Cowpasture River!)
Some people especially appreciate the big picture of our location, and atmosphere.
And then there is the fauna. Most years I see rabbits, but I didn’t get a picture this year. Think any size! (A few of these were taken on day trips near Nimrod)
And speaking of places near Nimrod:often people go off in twos, threes, or fours to enjoy a break with others who are free at the same time and of the same mind.This year, those off-site trips included kayaking at nearby state/national parks and my visit to a National Champion sycamore tree.
BOTTOM LINE: The writing program at Nimrod is incredible. It’s an opportunity to focus on writing in the midst of supportive writers and mentors. It allows for breaks to enjoy the surroundings and reset for refocusing. Incredible people. Incredible bonding. Incredible creativity. And some bonds will last beyond the time there.
So, I’m here at Nimrod for the week, and it is gorgeous as ever in spite of the daily showers and thunderstorms. I arrived with great optimism and enthusiasm for the days ahead. And then it all went to hell in a handcart.
First my printer wouldn’t print. It signaled low ink so I replaced the cartridge, and still it won’t print. Yesterday was my day to be “on”–i.e., have the conference with Cathy Hankla (writer in residence), followed by group critique, followed by reading to the group after dinner (not the work that had been critiqued). I was disgruntled about the printer, but I’d brought copies of all my work for critique and I figured I could do my evening reading from the screen.
I spent yesterday morning reworking my 1,000-word piece. My computer started frustrating me. I’d have the document up and all of a sudden– and frequently– the screen image would go from 125% to 100%, 73%, 50%, 27%… but I persevered and was pleased with the results. I saved it before going to lunch. And after lunch, the document wouldn’t open. I got a message that the required index.xml was missing– whatever the h*ll that means! So I tried to get online help, ended up spending more than an hour and $44 with no apparent effect, so I cut that off and pondered what in the world I’d do about my reading.
I ended up reading a timed writing. I had done that for my fiction class earlier this summer. It wasn’t great, but it was well-received.
So last night, I was reviewing the day and decided that whatever else, my conference and workshop had been great! I’d submitted “The Doll’ and the first draft of a short story murder mystery set during the Civil War at Chimborazo Hospital. Cathy concluded that both pieces shared the same strengths and weaknesses. And BTW, both dealt with amputations and body integrity– which was not a thought that had crossed my mind! The group’s appreciations, trouble spots, and suggestions are going to be extremely helpful with re-writes.
Participants send work to Cathy ahead of time and one of the things she does is bring in books with marked passages she thinks will be helpful to each participant. She recommended a section of Steering the Craft for me. Coincidentally, I’d brought that book with me, having bought it on the recommendation of Amy Ritchie Johnson, my VMFA Studio School teacher. So if you are a writer, get thee a copy. And more importantly, read it. (Do as I say, not as I did.)
Last night I concluded that boiling frustration and irritation are not good. (Duh! You heard it here first.) As soon as I return home I’ll take my computer to the Apple Store Genius Bar. In the meantime, I’ll just go back to yellow pad and pencil and make the best of it. (Those of you who’ve read my blog on old writing technology will know how difficult this will be for me. But I shall persevere!) I’ll take copious notes on work to be revised after my word processing function has been restored. I’ll read Le Guin and Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) to improve my writing and other books for pleasure.
Technology will not ruin Nimrod for me! I’ll still enjoy soaking up Nimrod’s atmosphere as well as the enthusiasm and wisdom of all the writers.
Sometimes life gets on top of you. You aren’t dead, just buried. And accidents happen. Such was the case for me once upon a time. When two on-line journals went live nearly simultaneously, I realized that I had granted first rights to both of them. My attempt to set things right follows.
I am embarrassed and extremely regretful to have to tell you that I inadvertently granted publication rights to two literary journals. On May 8, 2015, when I granted OxMag rights to my short story “Trust,” I did not recall that I had previously (on March 27) granted publication to Diverse Arts Project Journal. All I can say in my defense is that over the last several months I’ve been distracted by two surgeries, daily hospital care for a persistent non-healing wound, various other health complications, family issues, and a flurry of short story acceptances. Once I discovered my error, notifying you seemed the only honorable thing to do.
As an on-line publication, I suppose that you can—and may wish to—remove my story from this issue. Alternatively, should you choose to allow the double publication to stand, please add an appropriate footnote acknowledging the Diverse Arts Project Journal.
Again, my apologies for the error. Please let me know how you decide to handle this. And thank you for your time and efforts on my behalf.
A little more than three weeks later, I received the following response:
Thank you so much for coming forward with this issue, we appreciate it.
Because it is our policy generally to only publish previously unpublished work, we will remove your story “Trust” from our Spring 2015 issue. We did enjoy your story, and re-reading it gives us time to again appreciate why we chose to publish it initially. We encourage you to continue submitting work to OxMag, but also remind you to in the future keep us informed of the status of any simultaneous submissions. (Submittable actually has an option to withddraw stories from consideration once they’ve been accepted without you having to notify everyone.)
We wish you good health, and also congratulations on the other short story acceptances—that’s very exciting!
Avoid First Rights Blunders
There are several take-aways for writers. One, with e-publishing, this sort of error can be corrected. Unlike a print journal, where making changes of this sort would be prohibitively expensive, it’s a relatively easy fix. Two, if you screw-up—regardless of the medium—admit it. Besides easing your conscience, doing so reflects well on you. In this case, OxMag thanked me and invited future submissions. And, three, take care of the paperwork (either yourself, or through a third party). It’s much better to avoid this sort of situation than to try to repair it!