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!