Monday, March 19, 2012

Using Real Life

Most writers are familiar with the saying: Write what you know. It's tossed around all the time, almost religiously, really. While there does need to be some knowledge behind what we write, especially to make feelings and motivations authentic, I think it's impossible to know everything, no matter how many people call you a know-it-all. For example, if you're writing a novel about demons and angels, which happens to be ever-so popular right now, there isn't any way you can know what a demon or angel is thinking, what heaven is like or how it feels to have wings sprout on your back. Sure, you can imagine it, if you're creative enough, but you don't know.

That said, if you're writing a book about Gabriel, the Archangel who typically serves as a messenger to humans from God, then you better do some research. You want to get his basic details right. I mean, you don't want to come across as an uninformed sloth to your readers. There really is no excuse for laziness and, as any writer can tell you, penning a novel requires a certain amount of research. It's why authors have seven tabs open on their browser when they're writing a book. Okay, okay, two of those are Facebook and Twitter.

From my experience, people don't just decide to write about something they have no clue about. The truth is, we often create stories based off things that interest us, things we care about. Which leads me into what I want to talk about today. We draw from our own experiences. And, in truth, we draw from other people's experiences.

See, this is where I get a little bit lost. What isn't clear to me is how much of our own lives we can filter into our novels, and how much of other people's? I suppose what I am asking is, how much is too much? And where do we draw the line? Of course, I'm not an utter fool, I know enough to at least change the names.

But, all jokes aside, I've been thinking about this lately because I have an idea for a book that touches on a few things very personal to me. And, while they are in fact my experiences, they are also someone else's. Now, I don't plan on writing out our interactions verbatim. Actually, I don't plan on writing them out at all. It isn't the actual events I will be using, but the feelings, thoughts and motivations behind them. Still, I've been mulling over whether or not it is appropriate to use real life in our work.

While on one hand, I think it's inevitable. After all, we are inspired by the people around us and the things we witness. I also think it's a bit rude to do so. Then again, memoirs are very popular and, even though they are one person's account of their life, they also shed light on all the players in that person's life. What's the difference then? You can write a story about your life, detailing events from the people's lives around you, and call it a memoir, so why not base your novel off real life occurrences and call it fiction?

In some ways, writing about real things makes it more authentic. Then again, you're less likely to alter the scene or story because you think it has to be one certain way.

Here's the thing, I've known a few writers who have put specific moments from other people's lives into their book. And a couple of them have been very private and revealing, to the point where, if the person read the book, they'd know it was their very personal moments. Yes, a couple of these writers have informed the others involved, in an effort to give them a heads up, but one or two have simply gone ahead and done it without warning the person, or asking permission.

It's sort of a conundrum from where I sit. In some ways, it feels like plagiarising someone's life. I mean, it's important to take into consideration our friends, family, lovers, both present and past, and their feelings. In the end, it all comes down to respect and affording other people the same consideration you yourself would like. If we think they'd be upset, pissed off or annoyed over something we wrote, then we probably shouldn't put it in a novel that could potentially become a best seller. (A girl can dream)

So, in conclusion, drawing from real life cannot be avoided, but we should do it respectfully.

Oh, and if we don't know something but want to write about it, research. If no other reason than to appear less numpty-ish.

19 comments:

Jasmine Walt said...

Hmm, yes, I do understand your point. I think it depends on how detailed you want to get. I think if you're using specific scenarios you should ask, but that if you're just using emotions that you felt from that time period... I'm not sure.

This sort of reminds me of NCIS though, because one of the characters (Tim McGee) becomes a best-selling author by writing crime novels which have characters heavily based off his team mates. They aren't super thrilled about all of it, but in the end they accept it and some of them even start reading them, which I thought was funny. :)

Tyson said...

Yeah, like I said, a bit of a conundrum. I wouldn't want someone writing about my personal moments, unless we shared them, maybe. Even then, only if I came off not as a raving crazy person! :D

Nicole Pyles said...

I would say that the emotions from a personal experience can be great material to write from. I have used that in a short story I wrote to help develop a main character (inspired by someone I know), and I think it made the story better.

Real experiences are a bit iffy, but I would say try to use the feelings from that experience.

trailerbride said...

This piece kinda fed into something I was writing. My own personal opinion - which isn't much help - is that it's fine to do whatever you can live with so long as you don't clearly identify the other people involved.

Tyson said...

Interesting, TB.

And @nicole - I agree, the emotions can make it feel more real.

TwitterNovel said...

There's also the notion that unique experiences are extremely uncommon. We're all trained to think of our lives as special and unique, where in reality thousands or millions of people have gone through exactly what we have. It's part of the reason memoirs sell so well -- people identify with them.

Whatever it is you want to write about hasn't happened to only that one person. And chances are very good that the other people it has happened to have reacted in the same way, or had similar feelings about what happened to them. So I think it's probably fine to write about whatever you want. Of course, all of the above is just my opinion, and I don't expect anyone to lend it any sort of credence. :)

Tyson said...

And everything is subjective. Me retelling something someone told me isn't going to be the same as the person who originally told it. :D

JM Kelley said...

I have a sticker on my laptop that says, "Anything you say can and will be used in my next novel." I draw a lot on my life, and life around me. But you're right about treading lightly. If I'm using something in my book it qualifies more as 'inspired by real life events' rather than 'ganked that total experience for my book'.

My second novel is about a woman coming home to care for her terminally ill father. It is, for all intents and purposes, a retelling of my experiences in caring for my father as he was dying of cancer. In the book, Joe is completely my father. Yet, he's not my father. I look at Joe and can pick out so much that embodies the spirit of my dad, but I made a huge point of not recreating my father.

Yeah, that makes no sense. I guess what I'm aiming at is that there needs to be a level of finesse achieved when drawing from life, so you're not violating another person's privacy.

I personally can identify with so much in that dang book, can point at so many plot points that didn't really happen but remind me of a real life event. But I hold my father's final days so sacred, that I refused to really truly recreate anything that happened to him in the story.

I guess, in a way, his death was my research for a story I didn't know I'd eventually write.... /ramble.

Everything czyli wszystko said...

And what if one of your literary characters takes over your buk somewhere in the middle (of now here) to finish it from his own POV - writing about you now and then? :o)

Tyson said...

@JM Kelley - I think I like the line "there needs to be a level of finesse achieved when drawing from life, so you're not violating another person's privacy" And that is what I agree with, 100%. I also think writing from real life, as a lot of people I know do, is so very brave. It adds a far bigger emotional value when writing about YOUR own experiences. It's when you write about others that I worry. :0) (not you, you, but us, you, or they you.) :-/

Tyson said...

@ Everything czyli wszystko - That happens all the time. And they never say nice things. ;)

Everything czyli wszystko said...

O rly? :o)

Morgan said...

Interesting... I've never given this topic much thought. I know for me, I *have* to draw from personal experience... otherwise it's going to feel forced--I'm not brilliant enough to step outside of myself and create emotions that are real if I haven't experienced it first hand...

Though I've never taken a story from someone else--one that would affect or be harmful to a relationship. Usually only humorous stories where I'm the person getting embarrassed :P

But what a great post. Thanks for this, Tyson ;)

Tyson said...

@Morgan - No prolem. Just the little things that keep me awake at night. ;)

Tyson said...

Let's pretend I didn't spell 'problem' wrong. O_o

Jessica Fortunato said...

I agree about the levels of finesse mentioned above. I also think it's easier to cloak specifics when your working in a fantasy/science fiction medium. I think if you're writing about your brother but you turn the character into a female elf...he may not put it together. However, I would be lying if I said that my real life experiences didn't color my characters, especially my main character. Her point of view is my point of view. Can you plagiarize yourself by accident?

Tyson said...

Mine colour mine too. Sometimes I don't even notice it. And I have to be careful not to filter myself in unintentionally. My characters usually tell me though.

Sean P. Farley said...

I think it's important to write uncensored - at first. Yes, I'm talking about the Shitty First Draft. If you censor yourself the first time out, what you've written will not be true to yourself. Am I saying to lay out on paper the lives of the people you're writing about? Absolutely. Am I saying it needs to STAY there? No. I don't think you're going to know what you do and don't want to say until you actually see it and read it to yourself. That's when you ask yourself the questions: Am I ruining someone's life with this? Can I tweak it in such a way that the story still means something to me yet no one will be able to recognize who I'm writing about? I'm not saying go out and pull a James Frey on everyone and fabricate the living hell out of it, but I certainly wouldn't want you to compromise your integrity as a writer. I probably just went off on an unnecessary tangent! :) I'm too opinionated sometimes. P.S. Thank you so much for following my blog, much appreciated. :)

Liz said...

I think it's a tough call to make. Someone's personal story might make a great work of fiction, but it might not be the best move for you to use it. I think one of the best ways to decide is to imagine that person reading your piece. If you think it would upset them if they read it, you should probably come up with something else. (And hey, at least it'll get the creative juices going.) If you think they'd be okay with it, the next step would be to kind of run it across them.

No amount of awards or recognition are worth hurting someone you love's feelings.

However, I think everything is game in a memoir -- if it is relevant to your own life. If your mother was an abusive drunk, include those details. But if she had a private affair with your father's brother, you should probably keep that one to yourself.