Dos and don’ts of incorporating real life into your stories

In loving memory of Curly Howard (Jerome Lester Horwitz), who left the material world 69 years ago today.

Part of my development as a writer was the realisation I couldn’t keep dumping in incidents from my own life, sometimes almost play-by-play. Just as a good character shouldn’t be a cipher of yourself, a good overall story also shouldn’t be a thinly fictionalised version of your own life.

I’ve previously mentioned the dreadful novel in verse Purple Daze, which I disliked even more after a friend of the author responded to my Amazon review to explain it was the real story of their buddies in the Sixties. No wonder I didn’t connect with the characters or their stories! Why didn’t the author just write a memoir then? She was way too close to the subject to make any attempt to go in original directions.

I was really embarrassed to reread the third grade graduation scene from the first two drafts of the book formerly known as The Very Last, since it was my junior high graduation with a few details changed. Nothing about it felt right with my characters or the overall story. I later based Adicia’s elementary school graduation in Little Ragdoll on this as well, but the key word is based. Not a blow-by-blow recreation.

Still, I don’t regret immortalising that awful judge who gave our graduation speech. He thought it was relevant and appropriate to bring up the recent O.J. Simpson Bronco chase, and point-blank said “The person you’re sitting next to might not be there in four years” because they were lazy, ignorant, didn’t care about education, used drugs, joined a gang. I’m proud to report most of my classmates did indeed graduate high school!

Many of the happenings at school in the first draft of Saga I of Cinnimin and many of the Max’s House books (which I’ve renamed The Saga of the Sewards) are also quite strongly based on things that happened to me in my ninth grade Studio Art class; my junior high tech ed, music, and health classes; my ninth grade Spanish class; goings-on in the hallways and stairwells between classes at junior high; the junior high bus; and a couple of things from upper elementary school.

It’s not that those incidents aren’t funny, well-written, or well-incorporated with the rest of their respective books. It’s about them not feeling right with these characters and the ultimate direction I decided to take these books in. The stuff from Spanish class (transmogrified into French class) was also just a petty, rather disturbing way to get revenge on a teacher I was increasingly annoyed by.

There was also the real story of my seventh grade social-studies teacher finding a little baggy of pot in her locker room, and burning it with matches from her desk to see if it were real. Right there in class. Many of the other people who were there also still vividly remember this. But why did that have a place in any story of mine? Just because it was wild and funny?

Instead, what you want to do is use real people and events as a jumping-off point. Maybe have a fifth grade teacher similar to your own, but change it up with a few differences, and let storylines and personality naturally develop from there. Making an exact carbon copy is just you forcing your own life, down to the last detail, into your story and pretending it’s fiction.

You never want to use a real name for such a character either, unless you have full permission from the person and s/he’s seen the entire book. Even if this is a sympathetic character, someone could still take offence.

I based many of my original Atlantic City characters on people I knew in elementary school. Some were only loosely based, with similar appearances and general personalities. Others were much more strongly based, but eventually developed into their own unique characters.

Think about who your characters are, really are, and what your intentions with the story are. Those real-life people and events might read really well in a memoir or published journals, but odds are, when you just blindly plunk them down into a purportedly fictional story and have your characters doing and saying these things in place of you and your friends, it’ll feel flat, unnatural, out of place.

Your characters will tell you who they are and what they ought to be doing if you grow to know them well enough. That doesn’t include acting out your own life.

WeWriWa—The Smarts introduce themselves

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing snippets from the book formerly known as The Very Next, the chronological second of my Atlantic City books, set from March 1939 to the dawn of 1940. It underwent a radical rewrite in 2015, and I recently completed the fourth and final version. I plan on a late February or early March release. The new title will be revealed then.

Best friends Cinnimin and Sparky (real name Katherine) were baking cookies when two strangers entered the kitchen. Cinni just volunteered to help them find the address they’re looking for.

“I’m Samantha Smart,” the blonde said. She spoke with a slight Southern lilt, but not the full-out Southern drawl of the hated Adeline’s parents. “We’re from Washington, D.C.”

“I’m Urma Smart, Samantha’s mother,” the brunette said in an even stronger Southern lilt. “I insist you call me Urma. I’m too young to be called Mrs. Smart, no matter what traditional etiquette dictates.”

“Fine by me.” Cinni pulled a piece of grape rock candy out of her right pocket and popped it into her mouth. “I go to school with a girl who’s also named Urma, but she goes by her full initials, U.C.L.A. How can I help you?”

The ten lines end here. A few more to complete the scene follow.

“We’re looking for Mr. Holden G. Filliard. My husband told me this is his address, 11 Maxwell, a three-story Georgian ashlar stone house. He also said there’s a barn on the property and that it’s next to a huge mansion.”

“H.G. Filliard’s my father. This is technically our address, but you’re in the guesthouse.” Cinni indicated Sparky. “My best friend Sparky’s family lives here. There’s a door in the living room leading into the main house, if you want a shortcut.”

“What kind of name is Sparky for a human being?”

How to handle wraparound narrative segments

A wraparound narrative segment is often necessary to convey important information in a story. The key is in knowing when and how to use it properly.

Deliberately long books in particular depend upon such passages to keep the story rolling along without losing much forward momentum and not sprawling to twice its already doorstopping length. Though this type of narration is all about telling instead of showing, it’s a good, necessary kind of telling. If every single second in a story were shown in detail, the wordcount could easily balloon way past your intentions.

A prime example of when a wraparound narrative segment might be necessary is in regards to a storyline about a character having a long illness or injury, plus an equally-long recovery period. It’s important to know s/he’s sick or injured, but unless the entire focus of the book is that health crisis, readers probably don’t want to know about every day during this time. Just the most vital incidents will do.

Another example is a long journey. Say your characters are returning home or moving to a new place after a war, graduating from university, or leaving a longtime job. Do we really need to know what happens every single minute of this cross-country road trip or two-week train trek? Again, lots of details are fine if that’s the book’s focus, but there’s no point in spending 35,000 extra words illustrating the journey if the meat of the plot only begins afterwards.

You also might need to quickly catch the reader up on what happened between chapters or sections. E.g., your characters were last seen starting summer vacation at one beach, and now they’re at a private cottage some distance away. Or they were about to set out trick-or-treating, and now they’re coming home with lots of candy. Just a few lines to explain the interim will suffice.

What you don’t want to do is stop the story’s forward momentum to tell the reader exactly what’s happened to every character since we last saw them a few years ago at the end of Part II, Part III, etc. Even worse if you do this long infodump after starting a normal scene and don’t resume it till after the infodump concludes.

Instead, convey the most pertinent tidbits naturally, as part of the overall story. E.g., a matter-of-fact mention that Name is married now and lives somewhere else, or that Name now has a higher military rank. But don’t vomit forth page after page of pointless backstory. If it were that important, you wouldn’t have left a long gap between those parts of the book.

Consider what the point of the overall story is, what’s most vitally important for readers to see depicted actively and in detail vs. merely read a short summary of between major events and scenes. Part of me wishes I could do a complete rewrite of And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away, since it covers a bit over 5.5 years in just 128K words and condenses a lot of chunks of time. Had I written it as an adult novel, it would’ve easily been twice as long, with many more chapters, or longer chapters.

But I have to remember I deliberately wrote it as mature upper YA, and that the focus is on Jakob’s frustration at being kept away from resistance activity, finally making an escape, severely breaking his foot and ankle when he does escape and spending months recovering, joining the partisans, revenging his father’s murder, becoming an official soldier near the end of the war, his unexpected feelings for a mysterious girl, and his struggle to adapt to a world he no longer remembers how to live in.

I never intended it as a paint by numbers Shoah story. If I had, Jaap would’ve remained on that train. So many other memoirs and novels detail the Shoah in The Netherlands, but I was going for a lesser-portrayed angle. Spending 100 more pages on Westerbork or the first year of occupation would’ve dragged the focus away from the theme of resistance, and it’s really not important to detail the entirety of Jakob’s 20 months as a partisan. I carefully chose the episodes I did depict.

In my alternative history, I likewise skimmed over a lot of Aleksey’s time in Paris and the apprenticeship to the throne he gets after returning home. Had I chosen to make each of the four Parts into its own book, I would’ve detailed many more things, but I intended each to be successively longer, all building towards the dramatic climax of Part IV. How would it have advanced the forward momentum if there were 15–20 chapters showing Aleksey researching Russian history and government, doing humanitarian work for the Jewish community, and learning the ins and outs of ruling? I would’ve quickly bored of writing that!

If a book is set over years instead of months, weeks, or days, it would be madness to depict every single event. Always think about which episodes are most important to your main plotlines and advancing character development.

Hist-fic doesn’t require real characters!

It seems many younger hist-fic writers are under the presumption they need to write about real people. While there’s a long, rich tradition of historicals about or prominently featuring real people, as well as the entire subgenre of alternative history, there’s never been a requirement to draw your characters from real life.

Ask yourself why you want to write about this person, and why it needs to be fiction. If you’re so passionately interested in her/him, why not write a biography or a non-fiction book about a certain aspect or period of his/her life? As it is, many of these novels read like bios already.

One of my major problems with these books is that the authors often go off in a completely ahistorical direction. E.g., people who lived 100+ years ago are given very modern values, 100% fictional characters are given major roles in the MC’s life, storylines and events are invented without even the thinnest shred of proof.

Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln immediately comes to mind as such a story. There is so much detailed documentation on the Lincolns, and none of it supports the fantastical depictions of Robert as a cold-hearted villain from birth, Mary having an affair, Mary being sex-crazed, or Mary seducing her husband to force him to marry her!

Julie Orringer, the author of the dreadful snoozefest The Invisible Bridge, recently published her long-promised novel about journalist Varian Fry, one of only five Americans to date to be honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. Given the subject matter, you’d expect a gripping epic about a hero helping many artists, writers, musicians, and other intellectuals to escape Vichy France, right?

WRONG!

It’s all about his insipid gay romance with a made-up character! If you’re going to make a real historical figure gay, you’d better be prepared to prove it with irrefutable evidence instead of speculation. And to check more boxes, Ms. Orringer also made this fake lover biracial.

Just like her massively overrated first novel, this one too is wildly overwritten, with overlong, pointless descriptions of everything. Ms. Orringer also continues her pretentious habit of regularly having entire lines in untranslated French, German, Italian, and Latin, as well as liberally using million-dollar thesaurus words.

Other times a book is little more than a direct retelling of a memoir or autobiographical novel, only with another person in the main role. Nothing new is brought to the story. Caroline: Little House Revisited is a prime example of this. The author also plays into the inaccurate stereotype of Victorian women as dour, depressing, and prudish.

We also have a trend of books like Michelle Moran’s Nefertiti, with a first-person narrator who’s not the MC. This isn’t necessarily a badly-done gimmick, but there needs to be a compelling reason the story isn’t being told by the MC, and the narrator always needs to be in the same place as the MC or know all these details about the MC. Do young writers these days truly not understand the concept of third-person?

I’ve zero problems with sex scenes involving fictional characters, but sex scenes with real people cross a major line for me. Unless this is a person like Casanova, who made no secret of his sexual exploits, it seems a huge invasion of privacy. Do you really think they’d want total strangers 100+ years later to speculate about their most private, intimate moments for the entire world to read?

Even worse are scenes of people relieving themselves! Why did this ever become a thing in fiction?

I get the distinct feeling many of these writers aren’t motivated by respect, and have made little to no effort to understand these people in their full historical context. They just grabbed a familiar name and decided to spice his/her life up for modern readers.

Here’s a novel idea: If you like this historical figure so much but can’t bear to stick to just the facts, create your own character with similar circumstances! Then you can do whatever you want with her/him instead of being bound to following documented history.

WeWriWa—Surprise houseguests

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now starting snippets from the book formerly known as The Very Next, the chronological second of my Atlantic City books, set from March 1939 to the dawn of 1940. It underwent a radical rewrite in 2015, and I recently completed the fourth and final version. I plan on a late February  or early March release.

The book opens when best friends Cinnimin and Sparky (real name Katherine) are baking hamentaschen, three-cornered cookies stuffed with various fillings and traditionally eaten on the holiday of Purim. They’re quite surprised to see two strangers coming into the kitchen.

Cinni grabbed a dollop of chocolate chip cookie dough and snuck it into her mouth, then helped herself to some apricot jam. Sparky saw what her best friend was doing and shook her head as she continued to roll out cookie dough.

“You’re so lucky you ain’t bat mitzvah age yet,” Cinni said. “I can’t imagine fasting mosta the day. My stomach would be rumbling after the first missed meal. It really stinks that Gary has to fast on his birthday of all days. That should earn him a get out of fasting privilege.”

“It’s a holy obligation; Queen Esther fasted before she approached her husband to plead for the lives of her people, so we’re supposed to do it too. When I’m old enough, I’ll have to do all these fasts, both minor and major. You’re just not used to the idea ’cause your religion doesn’t do fasts.”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish this scene.

The girls stopped talking when a strange blonde girl, who looked about Cinni and Sparky’s age, and a brunette woman, who looked to be in her twenties, came into the kitchen through the open back door. The older one bore a surly expression and crossed her arms as soon as she dropped her heavy suitcases with a big thud, while the girl looked around in silence. Both wore wool dresses almost down to their ankles, with wrist-length sleeves and the highest collarbones possible. The brunette’s dress was a sickly, dour shade of green, and the blonde was in blue the color of dirty, stagnant dishwater.

“Are you lost?” Cinni asked. “Maybe I can help you find the address you’re looking for. I know a lot of people in this neighborhood, since I’m Most Popular Girl, and my family’s lived here for centuries. My name’s Cinnimin Filliard.”