[After reading the post by guest blogger Caroline Clemmons on Saturday which talked about the rich source of ideas for novels that can be found in one’s own family or ancestral heritage, I thought it might be appropriate to pull a post from the Prairie Chicks archives for a second look.
First posted in January of this year, it relied very heavily on a book I keep handy on my book shelves. At the time, I was also still reeling from the experience of NaNoWriMo when I managed to write over 56,000 words in the month of November 2009. The relevance to my post was that my draft was a fictionalized account of a year in my own life, which for a long time I thought I would write as a memoir. My difficulty with that approach was it involved the lives of other people as well as my own. I was uncomfortable with that. Once I decided to use fiction as a vehicle, I felt free to let my imagination roam and I found myself writing fictional scenes -- that might have been. In doing so I am confident it will be a better story. Here, with some revision to the original, is the gist of why I think this way.]
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. Then wouldn't the latter be nonfiction? Not necessarily. According to Robin Hemley, it is possible to write very imaginative fiction based on real life occurrences, and yes, it is a fictional work. For that to happen successfully, there must be a transformation of facts into fictional form. Hemley discusses many ways that can happen in his book, Turning Life into Fiction.
Hemley gets upset by two assumptions people make about fiction. 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 will make 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. using the techniques of characterization, plot, point of view, to fictionalize 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.
Imagination must be employed when including an incident from real life in a novel. 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. 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.
Of course, the injection into fiction of real places, authentic dialogue of a particular locale, or historical elements can also be done through research. This enables you to draw on facts to write with authority on people and places that you have never experienced.
He concludes with a chapter dealing with ethical and legal concerns that might arise from using material that is only thinly disguised as fiction. He provides tips on how to write disclaimers, and cites some lawsuits that have been brought against writers. Some might have been justified, other instances are coincidental.
That final chapter also 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.
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? Or will you ever tell?