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?