by Julie Glover
When my husband read the first draft of the first novel I ever wrote, he asked about my protagonist, “Is this you?”
That’s hardly the only time that question has come up. How much of our real lives and personalities go into the characters and world we writers create? Our readers, including friends and family, may suspect we’re largely putting autobiographical stuff on the page.
After all, aren’t we supposed to write what we know?
No, It’s Not Me
I can assure you that Annie Lewis—whose story has yet to be published, but someday will be—is not me. Nor are any of the other characters I’ve constructed in more than 20 novel and short story manuscripts.
And I’m not alone. Other authors say similar things:
Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade.Philip Roth, Paris Review - The Art of Fiction No. 84 (theparisreview.org)
I write fiction because it is a beautiful place to hide.Jami Attenberg, Stop Reading My Fiction as the Story of My Life - The New York Times (nytimes.com)
Fudge is based on my son, Larry, when he was a toddler. A very interesting child.... But that wasn't a serious look at him.... Peter and Tootsie are from my imagination. At least, I think they are.Judy Blume, Judy Blume Interview Transcript | Scholastic
Make-believe and imagination are what fuels most of our characters, plots, and stories. That’s why it’s called fiction.
But Real Life Inspires
What we read, hear, experience, and do often provides the inspiration from which stories grow.
For instance, the idea for my young adult novel, Sharing Hunter, came from me thinking about the success of TV shows like Big Love and Sister Wives and my interactions with teenage girls (mostly through church youth groups). All that came together when I posed this question: What if two girls shared a guy in high school? And then I had to figure out how on earth to make that a believable scenario!
Not only that, one main character of that novel, Chloe Fox, began as a composite of three people I know in real life. Whenever I got stuck with What would Chloe do? I simply imagined what her real-life exemplars might do and went from there.
Cecily von Ziegesar, author of The Gossip Girl series, said it this way:
I use my experiences as a kind of foundation, and then I elaborate extensively on them. I'm always saying that my books are not autobiographical because they're not. I can't choose any one scene and say, "Oh, this is exactly what happened to me!" I just use little snippets of things as a starting point!Interview With Gossip Girl Author Cecily von Ziegesar - Cum Laude By Cecily von Ziegesar (seventeen.com)
Letting real life inspire and inform us helps us write believable, compelling stories.
Real Life Gives Perspective
Take any well-known story—from the fairy tale Cinderella to the legend of Bloody Mary—ask ten different writers to write their version, and you'll get ten different stories. Because our personal biographies influence how we see the world, what aspects of any story attract us most, what real-life ideas inspire us, and how we craft the words.
In that sense, fiction is autobiographical, in that we can’t help but bring who we are to what and how we write. Even what we imagine is different depending on our backgrounds, personalities, and more.
I like the way author Alice Munro said it:
The stories are not autobiographical, but they’re personal in that way. I seem to know only the things that I’ve learned. Probably some things through observation, but what I feel I know surely is personal.Go Ask Alice | The New Yorker
Surely, our best stories are personal. They represent who we are, what we value, and what we wish to share with others.
Mine Real Life for Story Gold
If an author wishes to write their own lives, autobiography and memoir sell well! Go for it.
For those of us writing fiction, we should know when and how to let real life creep into our stories. Here are four ways to mine your life for story gold.
- Let real-life people inspire characters.
Just as Judy Blume and I did in our books—oh my goodness, did I just equate me and Ms. Blume in some way!—someone you know in real life can be the launching point for your characters. But as you continue to write and knead the story, the character will likely come into their own.
For many writers, our creation ends up feeling almost as real as the live person who inspired them, with their own unique ways.
- Tap into your emotion.
Authors often hearken back to how they felt during a personal experience to write effectively. Maybe they didn’t lose a loved one in the exact way their character did, but they know what loss feels like and how grief takes its toll. Maybe they didn’t have the scathing breakup they describe in their novel, but they recall rejection and loneliness. Maybe they haven’t found The One yet, but they know what it is to desire and love.
Whatever the story situation, we write more compelling scenes when we let our true selves and emotion seep onto the page.
- Know your passion.
What moves you? What themes do you long to get across? Your personal passions can help you determine genre and characters and story ideas.
Plenty of authors become known for the type of novel they write, which comes from their personal passion or philosophy of life.
A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images…. This secret fusion between experiences and ideas, between life and reflection on the meaning of life, is what makes the great novelist.Albert Camus, Review of Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, in Alger Républicain (20 Oct 1938) | WIST
Even if you write in varied genres, you likely have themes that crop up again and again. For instance, every single work of fiction I’ve written has three takeaways:
- You are stronger than you think.
- Do the right thing, even when it’s hard.
- Embrace humor to get through life.
I’m moved by those messages, so they show up again and again in my books.
- Throw in interesting or quirky stuff from life.
Some writers set stories in a town where they lived or visited. Some include minor characters they knew, with different names. Some give their main character a habit they have themselves (looking at you, Christina Delay, with your coffee-swigging characters). Some include phrases they’ve heard from friends, family, or—as mystery author Leann Sweeney reported—from the teacher’s lounge. Some fold in a brief retelling of something that happened in their own life.
In my most recent release, a short story from our Muse Island series titled Gryla’s Gift, someone at the holiday carnival opens a kissing booth. In our day and age, I’d be surprised if that’s even a thing. But when I was in high school, a close friend worked that booth at our choir-sponsored carnival (and raised decent money). It was a detail, but a fun one to include that worked with my story.
Add some quirky details to your story, like literary Easter eggs. That’s a fun way to add a bit of autobiography while maintaining your story as fiction.
How do feel your writing is autobiographical or personal? How have you mined your real life for story ideas?
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Julie Glover is an award-winning author of mysteries and young adult fiction. She also writes supernatural suspense under the pen name Jules Lynn. Her most recent book is Curse of the Night, book four in the Muse Island series, and her most recent story is a holiday short, Gryla's Gift.
When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.