The tidy endings you find in fiction often bear little resemblance to real life.
Fortunately, even when reality doesn’t seem to have much of a cohesive plotline, it’s still filled with raw materials that can feed your fiction.
Everything you’ve ever seen, heard, read, thought or done is simmering away in your brain. Like the spell-brewing witches of Macbeth, you, too, can make a little magic from all that toil and trouble. To cook up something completely new using your stew of experiences as inspiration, consider adding the following ingredients—imbued, of course, with your own personal flavor.
This guest post is by Audrey Stallsmith. Stallsmith is the author of the Thyme Will Tell mysteries, The Body They May Kill and the e-book Love and Other Lunacies.
1. Embarrassing incidents
Instead of trying to forget the blush-inspiring things that happen to you, try imagining that the consequences were more dire. Ask yourself: What character would be especially discombobulated by this experience? Or, In what scenario would that have been even worse?
For instance, on our way to the front of the church at a funeral for the final viewing, a few family members and I agreed we would slip out of a side door afterward instead of staying to reminisce. As it turned out, the door was locked, and our frantic clicking of the latch was anything but discreet. Later, I refashioned that incident for a scene in my book Love and Other Lunacies, in which the heroine attempts to sneak in and out of the funeral of her ex-fiance’s aunt without coming face-to-face with her former beau.
We all go through cycles in life, as the events that go on around us influence how we feel, for better or worse. As I’m currently in a midlife what-if-I-am-never-successful phase, I tend to put characters in similar circumstances—because then even if their experiences are different from mine, I can connect with them. For instance, in one of my mystery novellas, two people get trapped on an isolated island: a middle-aged off-Broadway actress and a veteran who was forced into early retirement. Even though I'm no actress and have never served in the military, I can emotionally relate to their plights. When characterizing your own fictional players, take a step back and consider their outlook based on where they are in their lives. You’ll find that it can deeply influence their motivations—and the plot.
As a rule, we tend to identify with other people’s frailties more than with their strengths. Consider how the title character from the TV show “Monk” manages to be relatable despite his neuroses, or how Sherlock Holmes’s tendency to get obsessed with the task at hand impedes his social skills. Vulnerability can ground a character
in reality. In my novel Rosemary for Remembrance, the resentment between the protagonist and her half-sisters is exacerbated by her passive aggression—a character quirk that may have been informed by my own tendency to avoid direct conflict. How might you plunder your own weaknesses for story fodder?
4. Others’ experiences
The anecdotes you hear at a dinner party may hold currency beyond just idle chitchat. If properly masked, the stories and knowledge you absorb can be filed away to use in your narrative. What your friends and family do for work may be a benefit to you as well. Through an acquaintance of my sister’s, I was able to spend time on the job with a wildlife rehabilitator in researching the protagonist of my novel Roses for Regret. What I learned went beyond the basics of how a wildlife rehabilitator might spend her day. She was frank about never having enough money—which inspired much of the conflict in the book.
5. Obscure news
Keep an eye out for those odd little stories that occasionally turn up as filler in your newspaper or on local TV stations, but don’t make the national newscasts. They’re often more plot-inspiring (and less familiar) than the overhyped headlines. A report about teenagers slaughtering pets at an animal shelter first horrified me, and then suggested an equally horrifying fictional scene in which the wildlife rehabilitator’s animals are killed.
For particularly difficult scenes, you may have to portray intense emotions you haven’t actually experienced—the terror of hiding from a home intruder, the despair of being stuck in an abusive relationship. In such instances, it can be beneficial to read the real-life stories
of others and transpose what you learn into your novel. But in other cases, you can opt to crank up the volume on your own milder experiences.
For example, one day I found that a dozen baby turkeys I’d raised from incubation had been slaughtered by a tomcat that had broken into their pen. The experience made it easier to imagine how much more helpless and angry my character in Roses for Regret must have felt when her beloved animals were massacred by another person.
You can depict emotions with more authenticity if the physical sensations that accompany them ring true. For instance, anyone who has ever received bad news in the middle of the night—the unexpected loss of a loved one, word of a terrible accident—can recall the burst of panic that burns in your chest when the phone buzzes at 2 a.m.
Even more simple sensations can be useful. While I’ve never hid from a killer in a garden as my character does in Rosemary for Remembrance, I've been snared by a rosebush as she was in that scene. Thus I could effectively describe the painful pricks and jabs that served to exacerbate her anxiety.
Look to fables, fairy tales and classic literature, all of which contain themes that can tug at the hearts of your readers. I loosely based my Thyme Will Tell mysteries on fairy tales: Rosemary for Remembrance on “Cinderella,” Marigolds for Mourning on “Sleeping Beauty” and Roses for Regret on “Beauty and the Beast.”
I also employed a Shakespearean quote at the beginning of each chapter in the series to foreshadow ominous events. In Rosemary for Remembrance, the following, from Hamlet, both acknowledges a death that already has occurred and threatens another:
No, no, he is dead:
Go to thy deathbed:
He never will come again.
In the end, when it comes to your writing, real-life experiences don’t have to be relegated to memoir. Use these experiences to fuel your fiction, and you’ll add authenticity to your prose.
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