Saturday, October 12, 2013

How to turn "real life" into bestselling fiction.

I found out this week that this post, originally published at Anne R. Allen's blog, is being used as an academic resource in a Tennessee prep school. I was, of course, flattered but it also occurred to me that ideas that might help students might also be of interest to readers and to other writers.

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 and real events into compelling fiction. Having no guidelines at the time I wrote DECADES, I figured it out as I went along. I made plenty of mistakes along the way but had several advantages even I wasn’t aware of. 

Learn your craft

It’s basic but bears repeating: first of all, learn the nuts and bolts of creating fiction—story structure, characterization, dialogue. DECADES was my first major bestseller, but prior to writing it, I had been writing professionally for over ten years. I wrote weekly articles for men’s—and women's—magazines and original paperbacks, mostly Gothic romances and romantic suspense, under a variety of pseudonyms. 

Publishing salaries were as lousy then as they are now and I needed the money. In the process—and hardly intending to—I learned how to write action, emotion, and sex; how to grab a reader from the first sentence and how to create a cliffhanger. That knowledge of the craft would be the invaluable underpinning of the novel.

Be a good listener—and don’t gossip

Coincidence—and real life—provided me with the initial inspiration for what would become a novel about a marriage in crisis. The coincidence was that I happened, quite by accident, to know each of the three main characters, two much better than the third. They were:  a successful but restless husband, the shy, rather insecure, rich girl he marries on his way up, and a glam fashion editor who would become “the other woman.”

Over time, I heard separate versions of the adulterous relationship from the husband and the girl friend. They each told me “their” version of the affair because they knew they could trust me not to gossip. I knew the man’s wife only slightly and did not hear her version. None of them knew—nor did I at the time—that years later I would turn their real-life story into fiction.

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 indecision of everyday real life into the demands of a novel. Knowing the “real people” turned out to be both a blessing and a hurdle.

Protect the privacy of your “real life” characters

Of course I changed their names but, as I began to write, I went further and changed their initials, too.  I learned it wasn’t enough to change John Doe into Jack Dawson. A radical name change—to Mark Saint Clair, for example—guaranteed JD’s privacy and had the secondary effect of freeing me from any reminders of the real John Doe/Jack Dawson. I also changed the character’s physical appearance, details of his family and childhood, gave him military experience he never had, and invented a professional success story for him. 

 Help your reader relate to your story

In real life, my fashion editor friend was a stylish, Manhattan single girl who led a glam, high-profile social life.  For the novel, I wanted a character more in touch with everyday experience so I left out all the glitzy fashion-world details. Instead, I portrayed a woman more characteristic of the times who marries young, has two kids, goes thru a drab, depressed, is-this-all-there-is? period. 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.

Each of the other characters got a similar makeover. I made the husband taller, handsomer and more successful than he really was and gave the fictional wife a talent even she didn’t recognize—a talent that, in the end, rescues her. 

Give your characters room to roam

The "real" story took place mainly in Manhattan but, as I drafted the novel, I found the setting too confining and added 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 a lot different than a week in the Caribbean with a girlfriend in the middle of a steamy affair!  For the novelist, pure gold.

Expand the scope of your story

Almost any “real life” story by its nature, tends to be limited to a small circle of the people directly involved. (Unless your story is about a friend who happens to be President of the United States.) As I drafted the novel and its plot and characters took shape, I wanted to show that the unintended consequences of what started out as a casual affair affected people not directly involved. I ultimately created a teen-aged daughter torn between her charming, straying father, her loyal, devastated mother, and the come-hither lure of contemporary culture, in this case, the go-go Sixties. 

Look for the larger significance of your story

 I don’t mean hitting your reader over the head with The Meaning Of It All. The final element that transformed real life into fiction came to me as I was halfway through the draft and paused to write what passed for an outline to the end (outlines aren’t exactly my strong suit!). I realized that the age difference 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 my makeovers, fabrications, plot twists, and search for a more substantial framework for the story, 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 changes in an entertaining and story-appropriate way.

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  1. Great idea to expand and republish this. It's a fantastic resource!

    1. Thanks, Anne. Writing Decades was a learning experience for sure and I'm pleased the post is helpful to others.

  2. I read all your posts...skimming some and devouring others voraciously. This one struck home, not only with the subject, but with it's untimely arrival in my inbox.
    I did all the things you suggested, choosing to make my own story a novel instead of a memoir. I felt if I changed one aspect in any way, I had to make it fiction.
    My novel is controversial...a taboo subject...child sexual abuse. Even with the title page saying in print, A NOVEL BASED ON A TRUE STORY, I have a woman/INDIE AUTHOR on a slanderous and defaming crusade to have my book banned on Amazon.
    My book was edited by an Amazon employed editor. It has won 2 prestigious awards this summer, one of which was sponsored by Createspace, an Amazon company.
    I did all the things you mentioned, carefully constructing my real life drama into a psychological thriller and not a book report about my life. But in trying to protect myself and the people in my book, I have found myself in a very frightening conundrum.
    If this woman succeeds in getting my book banned, all authors will be at risk.

    As always Ruth...Fantastic post!

    Taylor Fulks~Author

    1. Taylor, thanks!

      So sorry you are going through this. Unfortunately, there are scary people out there and the internet with its anonymity seems to attract them. My blog partner, Anne R. Allen, was on the receiving end of terrifying death threats and wrote a post last week about how to stay safe on the internet. She includes links about how and where to report abuse. Here's the link:

      I hope her post will be of help.