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!
I mentioned that tomato juice is the official state drink of Ohio. While having a character mention that fact might bring a smile or a raised brow, a writer could milk that tidbit for a whole story—such as a Buckeye living in a famous tomato growing county in Virginia alienating everyone at the annual tomato festival by bad-mouthing the local product, and someone ends up dead.
If your genre includes historical fiction. . .
Then this is the book for you. It includes an alphabetical listing of firsts, covering everything from the first abdominal operation and the first importation of Aberdeen-Angus cattle to the first zoological laboratory to the first zoom lens—thousands of story ideas just waiting to be exploited. For example, the first coeducational medical school in the world was the Boston University School of Medicine, founded in 1873. Imagine that first co-ed class—and the classes they would have had, such as anatomy in the days of grave robbers.
If you are obsessed with money. . .
Then delve into Charles Reichblum’s collection.
Suppose your character is in a bar and another drinker says, “Okay, mate, here’s the deal. I’ve won the lottery, and I want to share the wealth. I’ll give you $1000 a day for a month, or one penny doubled each day for a month.” What would the character choose? Why? And then what happens?
If your genre is magical realism. . .
There’s no better place to look than science.
Genetic mosaics are not so rare, formed by fusing two gametes in utero or a placenta shared between fraternal twins or by the mother’s cells crossing the placental barrier and continuing in her child. Imagine that a woman had children with all of her genetics, so the cell lines were thoroughly mixed.
But it isn’t necessary to turn to hard-core science texts. Bits of science turn up everywhere.
Each newly conceived human has approximately 300 harmful genetic mutations. The life expectancy of professional cyclists is approximately 50. The closest living relative of tyrannosaurus rex is the chicken. And people are genetically one-third daffodil. Create a plot relating any two of these facts and voila, you’re launched.
Whatever your genre, books of little-known information are great sources of ideas.
All sorts of genre’s could generate stories based on which big cats can interbreed, in the wild and in captivity. (Lions with tigers and leopards. Leopards with lions, tigers, jaguars, and pumas. Jaguars with pumas. Servals with caracals.) It could revolve around an animal rights conflict, a new breed going out of control, zoo politics, or love in the workplace—or whatever your brain produces.
This volume includes topics from consumer products to sports. You can read about a boat race in which two-member crews inside bottomless boats grip the gunwales and run a foot race along a dry river bed—which certainly be fodder for humor. And if you want to tie in to current events, base a character on Victoria Woodhull, who endorsed short skirts, an end to capital punishment, legalized prostitution, birth control, free love, and vegetarianism. On April 2, 1870, she became a candidate for president, running on the National Radical Reformers ticket.
Readers like to learn something new, especially when it pertains to the plot.
Takeaway for writers
Whether you start with an idea and look for off-beat information to support it or welcome inspiration for novel ideas, off-beat information is the way to go.