Today I’m hosting another guest, the free-spirited Maggie Plummer. I’ve known Maggie (in an online sense) for a number of years and always found her bubbly and delightful. She’s going to talk about how writers can use their real-life experiences in their fiction. Over to Maggie.
Turning Life into Fiction
When You Can’t Trust Your Memory…
Authors hear this again and again: Write what you know.
For years I thought about that, wanting to write my travel stories from the 1970s. I imagined a collection of short stories that would be called Tales of a Volkswagen Gypsy or something similar. For some reason, I just couldn’t get going on the project. Then I considered writing a memoir about those years, but quickly realized that my memory is too befuddled to attempt a non-fiction book about my life.
Gradually I developed the idea of a novel loosely (and I mean LOOSELY!) based on my ‘70s wanderings. After working on it for several years, Bell-Bottom Gypsy: A Jessie Morgan Novel is finally published and available on Amazon.
The process of turning my stories into a novel has been a revelation. It’s true what they say: truth is stranger than fiction. The thing is, fiction has to be believable.
In other words, it’s not as easy as it sounds.
There are pitfalls to avoid when writing autobiographical fiction. I think the biggest problem is a tendency to be too attached to memories. A fiction writer has to let go of the reality, and let the drama fly. The needs of the fiction must come first, no matter how fond a writer is of his/her real stories. That means:
- Bending and stretching real people into credible fictional characters. This is especially important when the writer is the main character. Don’t forget, the novel’s protagonist has to be believable.
- Making events fit together in a way that’s satisfying for a reader. Things must happen for a reason in a novel, moving the story forward. Always look for the conflict. A string of cool but disconnected anecdotes does not a novel make. Plan fiction with the narrative structure in mind.
The process of writing my new novel has been strikingly different from that of my two previous novels, Spirited Away and Daring Passage—both of which are historical novels set in the 1650s. As I wrote the two earlier novels, historical research played a major role in developing the novels’ plots. Bell-Bottom Gypsy, however, required that I look deeper into my story to create a plot with tension and conflict.
I not only had to embellish, I had to lie.
When it comes to writing fiction, the more dramatic the lie, the better. The thing to do is deliberately change a major element in the story. Take Twisty, my “bad guy” in Bell-Bottom Gypsy. In real life, my boyfriend was nothing like crazy old Twisty. Some of the details were similar: like Twisty, my boyfriend played guitar, sang, loved black and white photography, and was tall and dark. But his core character was totally different. My boyfriend was gentle, quiet, and mellow (in fact, sometimes he was too mellow for me! But I digress…). In order to write a decent novel, I turned him into someone edgy and potentially dangerous. It made all the difference.
Here are more tips for turning life into fiction:
- Describe everything in detail. Too much detail can be edited out later. When writing what you know, it’s easy to forget that the reader knows nothing about you or your story.
- Point of view can be tricky. In Bell-Bottom Gypsy, I used third person point of view, because it flowed well and I wanted Jessie, the main character, to be included in the scenes. Some writers use first person point of view in their autobiographical fiction. It might be good to experiment with both.
- Define an enduring theme. What is the central message you want to get across? Find the story within your stories, making sure the narrative has enough depth to keep readers going.
- Create composites. Feel free to throw the best tidbits of real life into the novel’s scenes, regardless of when they really happened.
- Try to create a sense of distance from your experiences. I had an advantage as I wrote my new novel: the distance of time. My travel stories are from the early 1970s – almost fifty years ago! (That’s hard to believe, isn’t it?)
The main thing is, don’t be afraid to use real life in your fiction. Mine it like gold, but craft it carefully.
Then sit back and enjoy. To those who are horrified by the things that happen in your autobiographical fiction (like some might be by scenes in Bell-Bottom Gypsy), repeat after me, loudly and proudly: “It’s fiction! It’s fiction!”
Maggie Plummer is a multi-genre author based in northwest Montana. Along the winding trail, she has worked as a journalist, school bus driver, Good Humor ice cream girl, fishing boat mate, and race horse hot walker, among other things. Bell-Bottom Gypsy is her third published novel.
To connect with Maggie: