Our June Round Robin topic: Has an event in your life, or one of someone you know, or one covered in
the news, ever worked its way into one of your stories?
The answer to this is yes to all three: events in my life, those of friends and family and things in the news. Every story needs to have a setting and often what’s going on in the news helps readers to relate since they experienced those events as well, or watched them unfold on the news. As writer's we're told to , “Write What You Know,” so of course my personal experiences find their way into my writing as well.
When one uses the events in others’ lives, it’s often not enough to “Change the names to protect the innocent” because if those events are people you know personally, you could hurt them by including them with little change if they recognize themselves, so we use the event, but bend many of the details. If it’s someone in the news, adhering too closely to exact details could get you sued for libel, unless it happens to be flattering and the person is eager for the notoriety. But even with details morphed to hide the origins, using real life events is what makes your novels come alive, because others have been there and your readers can relate.
When you use an event in the news, a big event that everyone was at least tangentially touched by, you reach emotions and reactions in a way totally made up events cannot. If your story took place on November twenty second in 1963 anyone over forty will immediately be sucked back to the emotions they felt on hearing of the assassination of President Kennedy. They will remember vividly the gut-wrenching disbelief and the way the world seemed to stop all around them. Include the horror of 9/11 and the twin towers falling in New York city and everyone over twenty-five feels that punch in the gut just as strongly as they did watching the replays over and over on television, and growing anger as the days stretched out looking for survivors. Before my time, I can only imagine what my parents felt hearing that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, or the jubilation on the day victory was ours, but most of us have studied enough history to understand them. We’ve seen photos of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima and the sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square and we can almost “feel” the determination of those men planting the flag or jubilation of a nation on the day of victory. Those are extreme events, but when they appear in a story, people feel sucked in emotionally, so it stands to reason that when you use real events for the basis of a plot line and you or someone you know personally experienced it, you have a good idea of the emotions that left the most lasting, meaningful memories for you that will affect your readers just as strongly.
Personal events and experiences used to create a world your reader can get lost in don’t have to be big ones either. Who hasn’t experienced the cool, distainful stare of a cat, or the eager affection of a dog? Or how about the frustration of choosing the wrong line in the grocery store, having a flight delayed, missing your train/bus, being reprimanded by a teacher you adored, or the feeling of warm rain on your face or the romance of a full moon? I’ve used all those in my stories because I know exactly how they felt, and most of humanity does too so they can relate personally to your characters. I’ve also used the experience of giving birth to a baby, and the sublime joy of falling in love, the wrench of saying goodbye to my child when I took her off to college knowing my life as a mom was forever changed, and the pain of burying my husband.
In my book THE CANDIDATE I used some of the experiences and memories that my brother shared with me of his year in Vietnam, being wounded, being surrounded and shot at by the enemy, holding a friend in his arms as the man drew his last breath. I didn’t experience any of that personally, but my brother’s willingness to share with me, and the tears he shed, made the story of Matt Steele come alive in ways it never would have without those real-life experiences. In WORRY STONE, I used my brother’s experiences on coming home, thankful to be on US soil only to discover his fellow citizens hated everything he stood for as a soldier. The downward spiral Nathan Cameron fought against was informed partly because of the experiences of any soldier who has experienced war and come home to try to fit themselves back into civilian life, but more specifically, by the personal experiences my brother Scotty lived through.
In my book IAIN’S PLAID, I used both personal and historic events. I didn't actually fall into an abandoned foundation or hit my head and wake up in another century, but I did sail out to explore a real island were some of that history took place and where my book began. Then I used the backdrop of the British retreat to Boston in 1775 after the first shots of the Revolutionary War happened in Concord and Lexington for one my scenes. Most readers today will not have read much about that event though they may remember “the shot heard round the world.” Having read several first-person accounts of that retreat; both the British just trying to get back to the city unmolested and the colonists doing everything to harass them along the way, I was able to create a very real experience for my imaginary characters.
I have not used some of the more devastating events of my life in my stories . . . yet. But, I know what it feels like to go through a divorce. I know what it’s like to lose a spouse to cancer. I know how awful it is to watch a parent lose themselves to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. And I know the devastation of losing a grandchild and the heartbreak of not being able to fix this awful loss for your own child. When one experiences things that suck the deepest emotions to the surface where you can’t hide from them, they stay with you forever and should any of your imaginary characters have a similar experience, you can pour all that emotion into the writing and your reader will feel it, too. So, yes, I do use real experiences in my writing – it’s how I make my characters real for my readers.
Why not hop over to these other bloggers and see how and why they’ve used real events in their imaginary stories:
Dr. Bob Rich
Rhobin L Courtright