Monday, February 9, 2009

Turning Reality into Fiction

I read a story today that broke my heart. I belong to Curves gym and every year around Valentine’s Day the gym invites members to write stories about their most romantic moment. The stories are usually funny and sweet and make me say “Ah, isn’t that cute.”

Today’s story started out sweet. The writer told of meeting the love of her life at a party. By the time the evening ended and she gave him her telephone number she knew she’d never give her number to any other man. She felt like they’d known each other for years. When he proposed he gave her a silk rose and said he wouldn’t stop loving her until that rose died.

They married and had a child a year later and were incredibly happy. That should have been the end of the story.

But two years after their daughter’s birth the cancer that he had successfully beaten several years earlier returned. She thought he’d beat it again but unfortunately he passed away, leaving her to raise their child alone. She ended the story by saying “He was perfect, our love was perfect, our daughter is perfect. I’ll never be with another man.”

It was more than what I had expected from my afternoon workout. I felt deep sympathy for this young woman and admiration for her courage in sharing her story.

And then the writer in me thought about her last words: “I’ll never be with another man.” If I had a heroine with a similar experience, what kind of hero could make her change her mind? What would he have to do to make her love again?

Real life stories are sometimes more incredible then the stuff we writers make up. Like the story of the young woman at the gym, they often inspire me and give me motivation for my characters. I’ve also used real events and made them my own. I once heard a story on the radio about a fellow who helped a woman on a city bus when another man began harassing her. The storyteller knew he wasn’t the type to intimidate anyone, so instead of flexing his muscles and going all macho, he pretended to be a little mentally unhinged. He focused on the creep and even made something of a pass at him. The creep was so spooked he jumped off the bus at the next stop. This story became the opening of my book “Rescue Me”. I don’t remember how the real life woman reacted, but in my story, the heroine is as afraid of the hero as she is of the creep!

Sometimes real life tragedies can provide backstory for our characters. When I was a child I remember a horrific murder of an entire family. The mother and father and eight or nine children were shot – everyone except for a four year old girl. She had been sleeping in the same bed as her sisters but somehow the bullets spared her. If I were to create a character with this backstory what would she be like? Would she become mentally ill? Would she retreat from the world, or would the murder motivate her to go into law enforcement to protect defenseless families like hers? Would the fact that she survived while the rest of her family perished haunt her for the rest of her life?

In her book “How to Write Short-Short Stories” (Allison & Busby Ltd. ISBN 074900 209) author Stella Whitelaw talks about how she's turned real life incidents into short stories:

- She saw a girl on the Underground (she lives in London), frantically writing on a pad of paper. Ms. Whitelaw turned that encounter into a story about a girl who was writing a novel. The only place she could find the required peace and quiet was on the subway. She bought a ticket and just kept going around and around.

- Ms. Whitelaw dropped her scarf and as she bent to pick it up, she collided with a gorgeous young man who picked up the scarf for her. That incident became a short story about reincarnation and meeting someone from the past.

- After seeing a beautiful green hat in a shop window, Ms. Whitelaw created a short story about how this hat affected the woman who wore it. Each time she put it on she became a different person.

Even the smallest real life incident can spark a story idea. Ms. Whitelaw recommends keeping a notepad in your purse or briefcase, and pen and paper handy whenever watching television. She says it is best to write the story immediately, while it’s still hot.

Have you ever used a real life story or encounter as the basis for a story? Are there some real life stories you would never use? Why?


Captain Hook said...

I have used real life events for a couple of my stories.

1) A cave I used to play in as a child had a wall of crystals that gleamed with rainbow colors. That cave became the place where the MC and her twin sister find the body of an evil witch that has rested there since the 1600s.

2) I combined the stories of mine and some other people's adoptions and searches for their biological parents in my YA Who Am I?

To me, the real life tidbits tend to make a story more believable.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Captain Hook,
Those are great examples of real life stories used as inspiration for your fiction. I love the idea about the evil witch from the 1600s. What a fascinating concept!

The great thing about real life stories is that they are so wide ranging. Some stories are pure fantasy, but many, like your story about searching for your biological parents, affect many people in a very real way. The truth that you bring to such a story is something many people will be able to relate to.


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Jana, very interesting post.

I remember the story about the shooting with the family of kids. It's what makes me check my door at night because the shooter had walked right into their unlocked farmhouse and shot them all. My mom read us the account from the newspaper. (She was from a large family and had slept 3 girls to a bed.) She said in the story, there were 4 or 5 girls in the same bed and the shooter went along and shot them one by one. Mom said the little one was probably tucked down between her sisters and the shooter didn't take time to count the legs.

You asked if there were some stories I'd never use... Well, yeah! A girl has to keep some secrets. :)

In the wip I started writing during BIAW, the hero is a retired football player, now goat farmer. In an effort to show his compassion, I have a scene where he takes a newborn kid into his house and has to tube feed it because it's mother dropped it and walked away. This is based on our experiences here on the farm. But no one will recognize it unless I add in that we had 2 playpens with a total of 11 kids between them one New Year's Day. Friends and family will remember walking into our house to that ruckus! I'd still like to use that scene - maybe in the epilogue. It just didn't fit the pacing at the beginning.

I'd love to hear whether other writers stay close to the actual events or just use the 'imagery' of them, so excellent question, Jana.

Suse said...

Hey Jana,

I too remember that story about the little girl that survived the shooting of her family. I can't even begin to imagine what her life would be like after that.

Did you hear on the news last night about two kids (7 & 8 years old) who had been kidnapped by their grandfather, and weren't found until 20 years later? They don't want to see their real parents; they've known their grandfather as their father for the past 20 years and they all have new names. That would make for an interesting character or two in a story.

I can't think of any specific incident that I've used in a story, but I've used the essence of probably lots of real life occurences, if that makes sense.

When I first started writing, a young man had been killed in a car accident. His name was the same as the one I had chosen for my hero. For some reason, I just couldn't go on with that story. I couldn't bring myself to rename the hero so that story died too. Knowing what I know now about writing, I imagine my conflict probably needed work any way, so it was probably okay to let that story go.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
I was about ten when those murders happened and I can still remember being terrified that the shooter would come to our farm, even though we were more than 400 miles away. I still wonder what happened to that little girl. Some things never leave you.

I love your story about the goats. It's so unexpected that a macho kind of guy like a football player would play nursemaid to a kid. I think when you use things that are familar to you and you care about, that love comes through your writing. And like Captain Hook said, those real life tidbits make the writing more believable.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Suse,
I didn't hear the story about the children who were kidnapped. If you suddenly discovered you weren't who you thought you were, how does that change you? Your whole life, even your name, is a lie. What an interesting backstory for a character. It would be exciting to take that backstory and build a character and a plot around it.

For me, I think a story I would never use would be one that involved a family member or someone close to me. If I felt I was exploiting someone's pain, I would not want to use that story either.


Captain Hook said...

There was a movie like that, a tv movie, back in the 80s. A boy was kidnapped and found when he was 17. He couldn't adjust at all. The movie was heartbreaking and based on a true story.

James Swezey said...

There are some powerful stories out there that are based on real life events and not fictional storylines and characters. I read 'In Cold Blood' this past summer and Truman Capote wrote a very moving book. An author though can write equally moving stories that are completely fictional, as long as all of the necessarly elements are present. I personally have written some completely fictitious stories with made up characters, but the core of the story and characters are derived from real life experiences.

Karen said...

Hey Jana,
I haven't used any real life events in my stories so far, that I know of, but who knows what triggers a backstory, character trait or plot idea. I not very good about recording interesting things I see or overhear so I hope they up there swirling around ready to jump forward when I need them.

I don't think there's any event I wouldn't use in a story.

FYI - I remember reading an article on the anniversary of the murders you mentioned. I'm pretty they went on to say the litte girl who survived ended up having a good life.

Janet said...

Great post, Jana. I, too, remember those murders - and they just did a follow up since it was a significant anniversary (30 years?). Must be a prairie story.

I've used real life in my short fiction. The first short I wrote for a contest was about a woman mourning the death of her husband - killed in an airplane accident. He leaves her a note - the newspiece I saw was this guy whose plane was in danger of going down and his only thought was to write a message to his wife and stuff it into his wallet, hoping that she would somehow get it. That moved me - and I wrote about it.

And don't we all bring something "real" to our writing?


Jana Richards said...

Hi James. Thanks for joining us.

Sometimes writers use a real event (like I did about the guy on the bus) and sometimes only elements of the real life event are used. That's the great thing about fiction; we can change it into whatever we want it to be. Real life can inspire us but we get to control events.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Karen,
I highly recommend writing down interesting stories. I've got a file of them. I'm not sure if I'll ever use them all but like you say, who knows what bits of reality creep in to your fiction.

I'm glad to hear that little girl had a good life. But it certainly was a different life from what she should have had.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
Yes, those murders were a prairie story and they were probably so shocking and memorable because stuff like that just didn't happen in Saskatchewan back then. And I'd say it was 40 years ago. I'm sure it was the 60s.

What a lovely story about the man writing his final words to his wife. Bittersweet I guess you'd say. I wonder if it gave her comfort to know his last thoughts were of her. Or did it make her angry, knowing she'd never see him again? There would be so many emotions to explore in a situation like that.

I think you're right about us bringing our reality to our writing. Even when we write fiction we bring our own emotions, personalities, values, and life experiences with us. A little piece of our lives, our histories, and our stories becomes a part of everything we write.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Jana, I used a story of my dad and his brother as kids for a high school assignment once, but haven't taken any direct experiences from my own life. A lot of elements of my childhood, growing up on the west coast, etc, have really worked themselves into the novel though.

I'm interested by your thoughts on how a traumatic childhood event could influence a character in a story, like your example. There are so many possible avenues. A book came in recently that looks at a lot of that psychological aspect of developing characters. It's really fascinating stuff, and I hope to blog on it soon. Will bring it to the next meeting as well.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
I didn't know you were raised on the West coast. I'm sure the ocean and mountains would figure prominently in your work just as the prairies figure prominently in mine. We write what we know and love, after all.

I'd be very interested in the book you mentioned. Let me know when you plan to blog on it.