Friday, January 29, 2010

Writing from Life

A novel can be completely a work of the writer’s imagination, or it might include elements from real life experiences, or be based entirely on factual events. But wouldn’t that make it nonfiction? Not necessarily. According to Robin Hemley, it is possible to write very imaginative fiction that is based on real life occurrences, and yet be a fictional work. For that to happen successfully, there must be a transformation of facts into fiction. Hemley discusses all the ways that can happen in his book, Turning Life into Fiction.

Hemley mentions two assumptions people make about fiction that upset him. One is when he is asked whether he writes true fiction; he would rather be asked if it is autobiographical than to have it implied that what he writes is like true confessions. The second is the assumption that because something really happened, it makes good fiction. If the incident is irrelevant to the story, it may be totally unbelievable. Hemley believes that fiction is all about truth, though not necessarily about being true.

Authors often use autobiographical material in their first novel. That doesn’t make it a memoir. The reader doesn’t know which part of the novel is based on the author’s life, what may have come from an observed incident or a newspaper account, and what was pure invention. What is required of the novelist is that the material be transformed on the pages into a credible story.

Hemley discusses that transformation from real events to fiction, from anecdotes to scenes, providing examples from his own work and that of other novelists. He talks about searching your own journals for ideas that would add depth to your story. There is a chapter on the craft of writing, e.g. characterisation, plot, point of view, with advice on using these techniques to fictionalise life experiences.

Use of real people may be problematic. Readers may see you, or even themselves, in characters that you have created from a composite of several people. Or you may develop a character that is closely based on someone you know, but place that character in a situation that you have totally invented. Your readers may have a hard time believing that it did not really happen.

Including an incident from real life in a novel will usually lead to the realisation that imagination must be employed. It isn’t enough to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He quotes from the essay, “Becoming a Writer” by Gail Godwin, who writes:”Fact and fiction; fiction and fact. At what point does regurgitated autobiography graduate into memory shaped by art? How do you know when to stop telling it as it is, or was, and make it into what it ought to be – or what would make a better story?”

We are all influenced by the places we know, and he gives pointers on creating fictional settings from actual places. He provides writing exercises at the end of each chapter, and one of his suggestions for evoking a sense of place in your writing is to take a mental tour of the place where you grew up, or where you currently live. Get reacquainted with the map of your childhood, or seek out the stories that are lurking in the streets and alleys of your present neighbourhood through its sights and sounds.

Doing research lends authority to your scenes by injecting accurate descriptions of historical periods, or using particular speech patterns in the dialogue of a particular locale. Research enables you to write with authority on people and places that you have never experienced, by drawing on facts that will support your fiction.

He concludes with a chapter that deals with ethical and legal concerns that might arise from using material that is only thinly disguised as fiction, that provides tips on how to write disclaimers, and that cites some lawsuits that have been brought against writers. Some might have been justified, other instances are coincidental.

That chapter has a section called “Begging, Borrowing and Stealing.” Hemley writes: “It’s hard to be a writer and not alienate someone along the way ... Usually, I tell people to write their stories about their crazy aunts or insane friends and worry about it later. If your story means something to you, if it’s important to you, write it, transform it as much as possible, and decide what to do with it later. Sometimes we feel too much guilt about these things. If you write the story sensitively, if you care about the subject matter, maybe you’ll turn out something beautiful, a celebration and questioning of life in all its complexity, something that you and all your crazy friends can identify with.”

A reference you might find useful on this topic can be found here for an instance in which Victoria Patterson wonders if her book was worth the anguish she caused her parents. And a brief list of ways to use real life in your fiction is found in the article
How to Turn Real Life into Successful Fiction

How much do you use real life experiences in your work? Do they creep in even when you are attempting to write from your imagination? Do people sometimes think you have written about them when such a thing couldn’t be further from your mind? Have you written your autobiographical novel yet?


Janet said...

Interesting post, Helena! I haven't written my autobiography - not sure if anyone would be interested in the ramblings of this writer. Perhaps my blog is the start of that endeavor?

I'm not sure how a writer could NOT be influenced by her life events and past experiences. It colors your perceptions and view of people. Now whether or not you acknowledge (either consciously or subconsciously) is another matter. When I wrote The Last Wish (for our Christmas story week), the story came to me and I wrote it down. It was only after, when a friend read it and commented on my insight into a woman who desparately wants children, did I realize I had brought a lot of the emotions and feelings of another friend to the story. I immediately e-mailed her and told her about the story and my having written it without thinking, consciously, about her. I didn't want her to think that I had used her experience as a story starter. She fully understood - and loved the story.

So, my point is (long winded, as usual) we all bring something of ourselves to a story - fiction or non ;)

Great post!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
I think Janet is right; how could a writer not use real life to influence her writing, whether consciously or not? There are so many stories I hear in the news, or through friends that I think, "Wow, that would make a great story!" Sometimes I use bits of them in my fiction. I can't say I've ever consciously based a character on a real person. But I'm sure my characters and especially my heroines are little bits of people I know.

I read the link about the writer who wrote an fictionalized autobiography type story that threw her parents and friends into a tizzy. I'm not sure the fallout from such a book would be worth the grief.

Interesting post Helena!


Anita Mae Draper said...

Thanks for this post, Helena. I've always wondered how much 'you' can be put in a fictionalized book. I think it's funny that at the front of most books you see a disclaimer that the characters therein don't resemble live people blah blah blah...
and yet in an interview, the author will say he/she wrote it with Uncle Ned or granny Jones in mind, etc.

Good post, thanks again.

Helena said...

Hi, folks! Sorry I neglected to warn you I had a really busy morning, and wouldn't be around for those immediate chats. But now I'm back having attended a couple of meetings, delivered for Meals on Wheels, and spent more time than expected on some last minute travel arrangements. Whew! (Didn't think I'd be this late, but I see that you are not that far ahead of me today.)

You're right, Janet -- we probably unconsciously put a lot of our own experience into our writing. Even for historical writing, human emotions are pretty universal even over the centuries.

To me, "autobiographical" novel means a fictional account using all or part of the writer's own life as the basis for the plot. Think of all the adventures that have made your life exciting, Janet. You headed north, you found romance, never stopped roaming, etc. etc. According to Hemley, some people have to get that kind of novel off their agenda before they can move on to other things. Others don't give it a thought.

I enjoyed the background on your short story. I wrote a story once that came to me because of an incident in my sister's life, but it was just something to hang the story on. It was not about my sister at all, and the main character was a man. (I haven't showed it to her yet, but I know she will recognise its origin.)

Your blog does have some of the elements of a memoir -- an online journal in which you may find the voice that would be right for a memoir in the future.

(But now I'm rambling, my post was not about writing memoir. More about why I wrote it later.)

Helena said...

You're absolutely right, Jana. In the same vein as Janet, how could a writer not ... Otherwise, what's the point of carrying around that little notebook to scribble down things we see that we might use some day.

Do you think the most observant people make the best writers? I think the imagination has to rank pretty high, too, because the observations still have to be transformed into fiction, into a great story that holds together and is not just a collection of interesting 'facts' about human nature.

Yeah, Victoria Patterson's stories must have been pretty edgy for the kind of reaction she not only got, but expected. I'll be telling Anita more about why I'm so interested in this topic.

(To let you in on a secret, after checking quite early for comments, I then promptly forgot I had even posted today. What's this Friday thing, anyway?)

Helena said...

Hi, Anita. You and me both! But I have come to the conclusion that you can put as much real stuff in as you please. It still has to read like a novel, and can be twisted and altered in any way you like to make a better story. Don't like the way the real event ended? Change it!

There are some suggestions in Turning Life into Fiction for wordings of disclaimers. I collect all the variations I can find. Here is one from a movie, which could be altered for a book: "Inspired by a true story. Although many of the events referred to in this film are broadly based on events which actually took place, the depictions of all events and of the characters have been fictionalized and therefore are not to be viewed as factually accurate." - from Mrs. Henderson Presents. (2006, Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins)

My NaNo novel is a fictionalised account of a year in my life, and I toyed with writing it as a memoir for a long time, but it is about other people as well, so I decided to try to write it as a novel. Lots of transformation will be needed in the revising, altho it was surprising to me how much fiction (imagined scenes) has already crept in. I may still find that it is too close to real life for some people, but it may also just end up in a bottom drawer!

Thanks for stopping by today.