Thursday, January 24, 2013

8 Tips For Turning “Real Life” Into Fiction—Make-overs, personality transplants, plots, plot twists & a search for meaning

One of the questions writers hear most often is: Where do you get your ideas? We—certainly I—don’t always know but in the case of Decades, the story of a scandalous love affair, the idea came from real life.

Writing a novel based on a real life situation is a lot more than just regurgitating a story you happen to know—even if it’s a whizz-bang, humdinger of a story. The challenge is turning real people, real events and the messy confusion of real life into fiction.
Having no guidelines at the time I wrote Decades, I had to figure it out for myself. I made plenty of mistakes along the way but had several advantages I wasn’t aware of.
1) Know your craft—and how to use it.
It’s absolutely basic but bears repeating: compelling fiction needs conflict, structure, resolution. Decades, originally published in hard cover by Simon & Schuster, was my first “big book,” but prior to writing it, I had been writing professionally for over ten years—weekly articles for men’s and male adventure magazines and original paperbacks, mostly Gothic romances and romantic suspense, under a variety of pseudonyms.
In the process—and hardly intending to—I learned how to write action, conflict, character, emotion, and sex; how to grab a reader from the first sentence and how to create cliffhangers that would compel the reader to continue. That knowledge of the nuts and bolts of craft, inadvertently learned, would be the invaluable underpinning of the novel.
2) Be a good listener—and don’t gossip.
Coincidence—and real life—provided the inspiration for Decades. The coincidence was that I happened, quite by accident, to know each of the three main characters, two much better than the third. The three were:  a successful but restless husband at the Is-this-all-there-is? stage of life; his wife, the insecure, inexperienced rich girl he marries on his way up; and “the other woman,” younger and quite glam.
At the time the events in real life took place, I never thought to write about them. After all, a married man cheating on his wife is not exactly stop-the-presses news (unless the married man is a politician in which case all h*ll breaks loose!). Two of the people involved in the triangle confided details of “their” version because they knew they could trust me not to gossip. They didn’t know—nor did I—that years later, haunted by their stories, I would turn their drama into fiction.
3) Just because “it really happened” doesn’t mean it’s good fiction.
In writing a novel based on real life, I faced the same challenges a writer does with any novel—the need to create believable characters and a dramatic plot—with the added twist of having to structure the formlessness, confusion, and messiness of everyday life into the demands of a novel. Knowing the “real story” turned out to be both a blessing and a hurdle.
4) Protect the privacy of your “real life” characters.
Of course I changed names but, as I wrote, I realized it wasn’t enough to change John Doe into Jack Delaney. A radical name change—to Anthony McMartin, for example—helped guarantee JD’s privacy but, from a writer’s point of view, had the secondary effect of freeing me from unwanted reminders of the “real” John Doe.
In addition to the name change, I spent a lot of time and thought changing physical descriptions, biographical details, personality traits, and back story. 
5)  Help your reader relate to your story.
IRL the “other woman” was a stylish, never-married single girl with a high-profile job and social life to match. In the novel, I wanted a character more representative of wider experience so I left out the glitzy fashion-world details.
Instead, I portrayed a woman more characteristic of the era who marries young, has two kids, then, immersed in diapers and domesticity, questions her earlier decisions. She divorces the husband who was her college boy friend & learns (the hard way) how to conduct herself in a challenging and competitive business world newly-open to women.
Each of the other characters received a similar makeover. I made the husband handsomer and more successful than he really was. I gave the fictional wife a talent even she didn’t recognize—a talent that, in the end, rescues her.
6) Give your characters room to roam.
IRL the story took place mainly in Manhattan but, as I wrote, I found the setting too confining. In the novel, the characters do live in New York, but I added completely imaginary scenes in Florida, Nantucket and the Caribbean. Using different settings helped me show how the characters behaved in different geographies and in different social milieu.
Trust me, a week in the Caribbean with a wife is much different from a week in the Caribbean with a girlfriend in the middle of a steamy affair!  For the novelist, pure gold!
7) Expand the scope of your story.
Almost any “real life” story by its nature, tends to be limited to the people involved. (Unless your story is about someone who happens to be President of the United States and has the worries of the world on his/her shoulders.) As I drafted the novel and its plot and characters gradually took shape, I wanted to explore how the unintended consequences of an illicit love affair affected people not directly involved.
I ultimately created a teen-aged daughter torn three ways—between her charming, straying father, her loyal, devastated mother, and the come-hither lure of contemporary culture, in this case, the go-go Sixties.
8)  Look for the larger significance of your story.
I don’t mean you should hit your reader over the head with The Meaning Of Life. The final element that transformed real life into fiction came to me as I was halfway through the draft and realized that the age differences between the married couple, the younger “other woman” and the teen-aged daughter led naturally to portraits of three transformational, mid-20th Century decades—and to the title.
By the time I was finished with name and personality changes, biographical transformations, plot twists, and historical research, the characters had taken on their own, fictional lives. The plot moved with its own energy to a far different conclusion from the one in real life, and I was able to portray massive personal, cultural and social transformations in an way critics would call “absolutely perfect,” "powerful" and “gripping.”
The rewards were beyond anything I’d imagined but, trust me, it did not come quickly or easily.
Decades—which I have revised and edited for today’s reader—is available in Kindle and Nook editions. 
So, readers, did this help answer your question about where writers get their ideas? And, writers, have you ever used real life experiences in fiction and what tips can you share?
Coming Attractions:  
On Saturday, January 26, I’ll be at WG2E with a new report on Formatters and Formatting—important info for writers and essential for our readers who deserve an elegant, high-quality presentation.
On Sunday, January 27, you’ll find me at Anne R. Allen’s. My subject? Danger: Writer At Work. Meanwhile, right now Anne is dispensing her usual excellent advice, this week on blogging: 5 Blogging Rules Authors Can Ignore…and 5 You Can’t


  1. This is a perfect formula for writing a novel based on fact--which can be top-notch fiction, or a mess--depending on how well people follow these rules. I don't know how many times I've heard newbies defend unbelievable situations in novels saying "but that's the way it really happened." It has to work within the logic of the world you have created--not just in the goofy, random world of real life.

  2. Anne—Thank you! The post was running long but Take Your Time is also crucial when turning "real life" into fiction. It takes time (in the case of Decades, years) to process and comprehend what has actually happened in real life. Without perspective which comes only with time, a writer can't make the necessary choices involved in creating fiction.

  3. Ruth, I loved this step-by-step accounting of how to craft a compelling novel. I particularly appreciated the way you found a central theme that bound your characters into the fabric of the story, and how this is reflected in your title.

    A great story isn't just a linear telling but a vast tapestry of viewpoints and connections that graft together into something meaningful, mirroring the many spiraling branches of our own lives.

    Thank you for sharing your expertise!

  4. Melissa—Thanks so much! I've always thought that cultural shifts have a powerful affect on people & their choices. The period during which someone comes of age is a powerful—and not always well understood—influence. Along with individual psychology & experience, of course. As you say, lots of threads come together to create the tapestry & make us who we are.

    Just think of the difference between someone who got out of college in the prosperous Reagan 80's & the can't-get-a-job post financial meltdown of the 2010's.

  5. Ruth, I don't plan to ever write fiction about real people (Once I move from memoir to fiction, I hope to make it a clean break), but these sound like great tips for anyone writing fiction. I will share the link!

  6. Meghan—Thanks & thanks for link-sharing. Maybe you don't plan to, but you never know when real life is going to hand you a great story! ;-)

    Seriously, After Decades I never wrote fiction based on real people again. Once was enough. Turns out, contrary to what most think, it's MORE work because you have to mentally delete all the "real" stuff you know and/or remember. Much easier & quicker just to make it up.

  7. Thank you for this post! It has given me some direction and things to consider as I write the novel I am now working on, which is based on a true story. It's very tricky, I am finding!

  8. Lindsay—Thanks! You're right--writing fiction based on "real life" is a lot of work. Glad I could help at least a little.

  9. Wonderful post. I loved "Decades" and all of the books in your Park Avenue series. I'm sharing this on RU's FB page. Thanks!

  10. Jen—Thank you! What a great ego boost!

    Fact is, tho, that writing Decades was a steep learning curve involving lots of trial & error. When it comes to fiction, making it up is easier and quicker!