Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 9, 2016

Sprinkling “real” into your fiction

I’m always amused when friends or family read my work and try to piece together who a certain character is modeled after. My standard answer is, “no one and everyone.”

Whether it’s characters or locations, situations or details, there’s always a hint of my life in every book I write.

I'm going to put it out there front and center -- none of my characters are carbon copies of real people. Hey, I don’t want to get sued or lose friends and family.

But I enjoy giving a nod to people I care about in some form. For example, in one book, there’s a feisty older lady who volunteers her time at a coffee kiosk in the retirement home where she lives. I named her after a good friend who is absolutely not of retirement age but shares my love for coffee and has a wicked personality like the character in the book.

In The Memory of Hoofbeats, coming out in 2017 from Forge, I have a young male rider named for my son. Because he asked, he loves horses, and I how could I possibly say no? There’s another young rider named after a friend’s daughter because the young lady rides and her mom has been an amazing supporter and friend throughout my downs and ups in the writing process.

It's always fun to read a book where I know the location the story takes place. But interestingly enough, when I write, the pictures in my brain are mish-mashes of multiple places.

The Memory of Hoofbeats takes place in a fictional town in Maryland and the stable is a combination of a couple of barns where I’ve had the pleasure of riding. Each “visit” to the stable when I sat to write was a trip to a happy place. I didn’t have many opportunities to visit the stable during the period I wrote this book, but my fingers and imagination could beam me up at any moment.

Another book takes place in a Delaware beach town that was inspired by Rehoboth. It’s not exact, but there are restaurants and the boardwalk and a couple of houses that I fell in love with and had to work into the story.  One house in particular caught my attention. It’s ocean front and has a deck on the second level, beautiful French doors, and inviting wood furniture. Every morning on our vacation, I’d get a cup of coffee at a nearby coffee shop then walk the beach and stop not far from this house. The main character in my book imagines what it would be like to be the person living in that house.

This is a wee bit more complicated. Last year I wrote a post about using my fiction to explore how I feel about things, people, me. I’ve never gone through what my characters go through, at least to the extent they go through it, but some of those situations stem from real life experiences.

In The Memory of Hoofbeats, the main character Emma has to face her childhood best friend who betrayed her and turned her back on her. Thankfully, I’ve never had a friend be this awful but I’ve had to sort through hurt feelings when a friend I thought was close turned away from our friendship for reasons I didn’t understand. Through Emma, I could say the things I wish I could have told that so called friend.

One of my favorite characters is an old carousel builder who has Alzheimer’s. My grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s and Hank became my emotional outlet and connection to someone I lost. Writing his thoughts, I heard her voice.

These are the little things that make your characters and settings come to life. In my work in progress, for example, the main character uses the Star Wars theme song as her ring tone for her best friend. Yup, you guessed it, I have that same ring tone.

In every book at least one character ends up with curly hair. That’s usually where the physical likeness stops though since most of my characters are fit and athletic, two things I’m still wondering if I can regain. 🙂

In one book, the main character shares my love for Chris Botti. In my WIP, the grandmother listens to the same opera over and over. My mom loves opera although she doesn’t listen to the same as obsessively. It was with her that I saw La Boheme (the opera Grams in the book has on autoplay) for the first time.

In The Memory of Hoofbeats, my main character has a thing for hazelnut lattes and discovers the zen in crocheting. Anyone need a scarf or hat (I've been searching for that zen a lot lately)?

Now you … do you write in personal tidbits into your books? Give a nod to a friend or relative? Kill off a friend or relative (no names please! 🙂 )?

About Orly

orly1.jpgAfter years of pushing the creativity boundary in corporate communications, Orly decided it was time for a new challenge. Three women’s fiction manuscripts later (plus a handful of picture books), it’s safe to say she’s found her creative outlet. When she’s not talking to her imaginary friends, she’s reading or at least trying to ignore everyone around her long enough to finish “just one more paragraph.” Orly is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She is rep’d by Marlene Stringer, Stringer Literary Agency LLC.

Orly’s debut, The Memory of Hoofbeats, will be released by Forge in 2017.

You can find her on Twitter at @OrlyKonig, on Facebook at OrlyKonigAuthor, or on her website, www.orlykonig.com.

38 comments on “Sprinkling “real” into your fiction”

  1. Oh my gosh yes! For me, it's especially locations. I write all my books set in the Western States, because that's where I've put on 200k on motorcycles! I do the same with characters...it's a mixture of real people.

    The details are THE most fun! I remember in my book, Twice in a Blue Moon, I used Pamela Hearon's signature move - where she uses a fingernail to slide her long, straight blonde hair off her shoulder. But I used it on the villain character (sorry, Pam).

    For the record, Pam is a LOVE!

  2. I think it is almost impossible not to include pieces of your own life into fiction. In my first novel, Accident, Esther, the Swedish grandmother is a combination of both of my grandmother and my own mother. And my grandmother's name is Esther.

    If I use real places, I try very hard to get the streets correct, the direction (are they east-west or north-south) so the sun shines on them correctly, and other small details like that.

    In my second novel, Town Without Mercy, I used a fictional town since the town is not shown in a very good light. But the location, a small town in Maryland outside of DC is still accurate on the roads leading into DC.

    1. You're right, it's almost impossible not to include something of ourselves in our writing.

      I need to read you second and see if I can figure out the town in question. 🙂

  3. I had a very dear friend pass away when she was way too young. I use her name in my books as a tribute to someone who meant a lot to me and I wish I could have helped. It helps me remember the wonderful, funny, amazing person she was.

  4. Absolutely. Can't be helped. Sometimes, though, I don't realize it until after the book is finished! That happens a lot with names - I'll think I chose a name out of thin air and then realize later that someone with that name was very much on my mind at the time - the name of my daughter's therapist and also her riding instructor at the time are the two main characters in I'm Not Her. I suppose I'm not as original as I thought. My book coming out this spring has three women/moms/friends who are pieces of me - each treads into water I'm afraid of, but writing them allowed me to test those waters. Much safer to do in fiction than real life. I did manage to work in the title of my college son's science fiction/fantasy book he self-published in high school just for kicks. I met an author who donates a name for fundraisers - he's pretty huge, so people bid and the winner's name is used in his next book. Oh - and I love Rehoboth, too (grew up going there every summer) and it's the setting for Girls' Weekend coming out this spring!

    1. This --> "My book coming out this spring has three women/moms/friends who are pieces of me – each treads into water I’m afraid of, but writing them allowed me to test those waters."

      I've seen a number of authors who do similar things with naming things in their books. I love that idea actually.

  5. Absolutely, I do. Though I change names and many physical identifiers, it's easier for me to capture personality in a character if I have a specific person in mind. The action in my WIP is set in a fictional town that is quite similar to a town I visited once, the buildings I saw there, and the emotions I felt as I walked those real streets. My first novel, Go Away Home, was set in the early 1900s. Several of the characters were loosely based on my ancestors, both in looks and actions.

    1. That's interesting about having a specific person in mind. I find that stumps me actually. Do you use pictures of people you know or celebrities when you write?

  6. Of course,me too. I was raised in Southwestern Louisiana on the Gulf. When my cousin read my latest book, she said it was like finding her friends all through the thing. Mostly it was just names and the characters are not at all like their namesakes. By the way, my cousin's first name turns up in almost every book I have ever written.

    1. What a lovely thing for her to say - isn't that what we all hope for when we write?! 🙂

    2. That's interesting, Olderwriter - I'm the opposite. If someone played a decent sized role in my life, I CAN'T use their name, or my character becomes them, and then they're not themselves. Which is a bizarre sentence that only writers would understand.

  7. I do. Not completely identical, but small tidbits, a deep emotional response. I agree that these things from my own life, family and friends adds that bit of truth that makes the story more real.

    1. We put so much of our heart in each story we write. I think that's why I sometimes put the wackiest details from my life into a book. Those are the things that make a character stand out as someone you want to have coffee with - even if you're not a hazelnut fan. 🙂

  8. In my MS on submission, which has a lot to do with class and race and Detroit through the decades, I work through a lot of attitudes I've seen in others and in myself. When my father read the story he apparently said to my mother, "I'm not that guy. I don't want to be that guy." Well, he wasn't that guy, but he saw parts of himself there. And that's because I saw parts of myself there, and so much of who we are is formed by our parents. When one friend of mine read both that MS and my current WIP, she commented that the Detroit story felt "closer to the bone," and I guess she was right.

    However, my current WIP is set in a fictionalized version of my own hometown (which has been so fun to write) and explores a deep friendship between a girl and an older boy after a perceived betrayal, which happened to me, albeit on a smaller scale.

    The story I started at the last WFWA Retreat will hit the closest to home, however. Its characters are composites of friends (and enemies) in my own childhood and will involve working through some difficult situations, including abuse.

    I guess I have a tendency to write through the things in life that are complicated, the things I struggle to understand and form a clear opinion on. I see so many people out in the world who are so loud about their very entrenched positions, but I find I have few of those. I'm always working through the details of various situations, looking for the solution and never finding one without tension. I guess that's life. 🙂

    1. Isn't that why we write? To work through our thoughts and feelings? I always tease that writing is cheaper than therapy. But it's true. When I have something that's bothering me, I let those feelings out through my stories.

      I can't wait to see the story you started at the retreat last year!

  9. I didn't know you were a Chris Botti fan! Just another reason why we're friends.

    Also, I'm not sure a writer can totally ignore what is around her when writing a story. I love the idea of sprinkling them in. What's funny is that it tends to be those sprinkles that add the greatest authenticity to a work.

    1. Even had the pleasure of not just meeting him but getting a hug from him. Happy sigh. 🙂

      I love those little details that make stories come alive.

  10. Yes Orly, to me it is as if the past is revived. I hear my grandfather and sometimes I really have to restrain myself not to use my ideas at the wrong time. I'm pretty open and sometimes I think everyone is. Sometimes my mother in the foreground, I what she would say if she was alive. These are usually very emotional pieces but sometimes I think it happens quite a saw-like or pedantic.
    You know I am Flemish, sorry for my bad English

    1. Denise, what you wrote is perfect! 🙂
      You're right though, without the emotion that we as writers bring to our writing, the stories are very pedantic. And without the emotion, readers won't keep reading.

  11. I love that you wrote about this! I definitely do all three. One of my favorite details is giving an art teacher a name that rhymes with an artist friend I adore. My character is not the same personality, but it's a nod to my friend and her beautiful work nonetheless.

    1. To me at least, those little nods add a layer of love to the story that give me a boost each time I read it. And let's face it, when you're staring at draft number 93, you need every little boost of love you can get for it. 🙂

  12. I use all sorts of mannerisms of people I know, and then I take the character personality to a whole new level. They are never "the person" because where is the fun in discovery for that? The whole fun part of fiction writing is seeing who the characters become and what they do.

  13. I especially love to bring readers to places that are special to me, places they might not visit in real life. And, characters who I've crossed paths with are usually involved.

  14. One of my husband's patients is always asking when my books will be made into movies and can I get him a starring role. So, he shows up as a character in my next novel asking the lead character that question. He is almost satisfied with that nod. But, he is still waiting for the real movie.

  15. My sister has two best friends and all three have names that start with the same letter, are fairly unusual, and the four of us have been friends for over forty years. I have incorporated parts of them in every book I've written.

    But most fun is including funny saying my parents used to just throw out, not knowing how funny they were. One I haven't used yet, but is one my sister and i still laugh and use ourselves. When asked by a doctor whether a medicine had helped her, my Mother responded, "Well, if it helped at all, I'd have died without it."

  16. Hi from Australia. I feel places somehow manage to touch the lives of the characters in my writing. I am inspired by what is around me, where I have been and people I have encountered.

  17. Like Elaine, I grew up in Mchigan, albeit in the metro Detroit area. I used my youngest son's name, and took my WIP characters on the Circle Tour of the Great Lakes, with the usual camping trip mishaps.

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