A comment on a recent blog post asked me if I had any advice for fictionalising one’s own experiences to be able to share them as stories a little more detached from oneself. So, I thought as I have done this quite a lot in many of my short stories I would share a little on how that process works for me, hopefully it will be helpful to others attempting to do this.
There are lot’s of examples of writers who use real experience to write fiction. Kathy Reichs is a professor of forensic anthropology, and her crime book series turned TV show ‘Bones’ features a forensic anthropologist. John Grisham is an attorney who writes legal thrillers. To name but two examples.
Fictionalising personal experiences can add authenticity to your writing, if it comes from a true event it can be more believable for the reader. It can be a therapeutic release to externalise what has happened and remove yourself from the situation.
However, writing from experience can also be very difficult, even triggering as you may find yourself re-engaging with a traumatic experience.
I saw a quote recently that resounded with me, and I used it in my creative writing for mental health workshop when we were looking at writing from experience:
John Ashbery, American poet: I write with experiences in mind, but I don’t write about them, I write out of them
I think that is quite a handy piece of advice for fictionalising your own experiences. and I used it to develop the following exercise for my group, which followed on from an exercise in writing about emotions:
Exercise: Using what you have learnt from the emotions and ‘show, don’t tell’ exercise. Think about an experience you have had (good or bad) e.g. first day at school/new job; don’t describe your experience but use it to write your character’s experience in that situation – what are they thinking feeling, doing and saying.
So, how do you fictionalise your experiences, moving on from the above exercise? Well, there are a number of things you can do to translate your experience into fiction. Firstly, I’m not going to focus on anything too traumatic here as I don’t want this to be triggering for anyone, so I’m going to stay with some safer experiences (as with the exercise above) Here’s a few things I do when I’m writing and using real events in my fiction:
- Change the person/ location/time: Put your character into the experience by making the experience about them, an example would be the true event is a female, attending a festival last year, who witnessed a fight. You could take the emotions, sights, sounds, smells etc and make your character a male, attending a gig back in the 80’s who was involved in the fight. Changing the gender, location or time of the event can put a little distance between you and the event, but you can still bring those real feelings into your writing.
- Write in the third person: If you write in the first person there is no distance between you and the event, you might as well write your autobiography. By writing in the third person it will become less personal, combine with the above, and the only thing real about it will be in your own mind and the original experience, but it should feel real enough for the reader without sounding like an autobiography.
- Embellish the facts: Remember this is fiction now, so the truth is not as important as making it good reading material. The actual event might not be something that readers would find interesting if you just wrote it as the bare bones of what actually happened, but add in some humour, tragedy, or even fantasy and you could create an impact that would not have existed in the real event. Add in an obstacle You just want to make sure the reader can’t see the joins between the real and the imaginary parts.
- Keep it relevant: Using real experiences can add credibility to your character, making them more whole and believable. But be careful not to use experiences just for the sake of it, or as padding. Make sure it matches up with other aspects of your character. Say you want to use a happy memory of your favourite aunty, would your character really have a reason to include this anecdote in their back story or current events? The action of your fictional story needs to match up with the character and your event.
- Change the order and dialogue: Start the story from an exciting point, the actual beginning of the event may not hold enough interest for a fiction reader, so drop it, or weave it in later if it is necessary. And, when it comes to dialogue the original conversation may have been littered with boring or irrelevant bits, like when we ‘Hmm’ and ‘ahh’ in conversation, or this might actually be important to leave in – showing a character is bored, or not paying attention to the conversation
- Just write it first, then edit, embellish and change after: The simplest yet most effective piece of advice I can offer about writing personal experiences into fiction is just to get it out. Put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), and let it flow. Don’t think about it, just spill out your heart and soul, every random thought, feeling, emotion and memory of the event. After it is out you can cut, paste, edit, insert, chop and change. Pull bits for one story, and others for another. But you have your building blocks from which to expand, you have captured the essence of the event.
Of course you also need to keep in mind other people involved in your experience if you are fictionalising it. You may need permission to use their likeness, especially if they would be recognised from what you write, you don’t want to be faced with a lawsuit from that former boss who recognises himself in your book!
If you are keeping closer to the real event, you could always say it is ‘based on a true story’ that way you are giving yourself the room to use the truth mixed in with some fiction or fantasy, of course using the based on a true story line will leave people guessing at which bits are true or not.
Hope this has been at least a little bit helpful?
Have you fictionalised personal experience before? How did you do it? Do you have any advice/ tips to add?