Learn what to change—and what to keep—when incorporating your real-life experiences into your work of fiction.
By Emily Belden
You know those people who seem to always tell the craziest stories? The stories that make you think time and time again, “That could be a movie”? Well, I’m one of those people. And instead of a movie, I wrote a book.
My debut novel, Hot Mess, comes out on March 20, 2018 via Graydon House, an imprint of Harlequin. In the book, protagonist Allie Simon falls for bad-boy celebrity chef Benji Zane, and though her family and friends warn her about his questionable past (drugs and other bad decisions), Allie falls hard and even invests her life savings to help Benji launch the high-end restaurant of his dreams on Chicago’s Randolph Street.
When Benji relapses back into drug use and disappears, Allie is sucked into the world of high-end dining, and to save her investment, she has to sacrifice much to make the opening a success. With the help of a female mentor, Allie is able to take back control of her life and dominate her new career. Allie leaves readers ready to take on the world.
I’ve spoken on a handful of panels and been interviewed on a variety of podcasts. No matter the medium, the question I am always asked about Hot Mess is: how did you come up with the idea for that?
Like my protagonist, Allie, I, too, was once a twenty-something girl gallivanting around Chicago when I suddenly crossed paths with my very own high-drama top-chef. I dated this person for about a year, during which time I got to experience what being the “woman behind the man” in a high-end culinary world was all about. I ate multi-course, off-the-menu meals at the best restaurants in the city. I was written about in blogs and on social media. I watched as my main man was photographed shirtless in our apartment for a magazine spread that I saw on shelves in airports and at Barnes & Noble weeks later. It was all so very exciting.
But one other thing I had a front-row seat to was his addiction, which slowly creeped up through the entire time we were together, finally rearing its ugly head in full force and ultimately leading to our breakup.
In Hot Mess, Allie’s actions jeopardize her finances, safety, and relationships with friends and family. While I never personally did the things that Allie does in the book, I could certainly use the emotional authenticity of my own experiences and then approach the plot with a “what if” angle: What if someone in my situation had invested their life savings? What if they then had no choice but to open up a restaurant, with no experience in the industry? In fact, “what if” questions were on my mind the whole time I wrote, from the smallest details to the biggest plot twists. The words filled the page and the manuscript was completed much faster than anticipated, in about three months.
Writing this book was fun for me—but it also was somewhat cathartic. We’ve all had heartbreaks that hurt just a little more than all the rest and this was one of those. Putting words to page was a way for me to truly move on and—just like my protagonist, Allie—to reclaim the story and be my own hero.
But I had to learn some lessons along the way. For those looking to turn personal stories into a work of fiction, here are a few tips and pointers:
Don’t write in the moment.
If you’re witnessing something and thinking, “Oh my gosh, this could totally be a book!” don’t rush to put pen to paper. That’s the job of a journalist. Instead, let the whole episode unfold. Only after you’ve truly observed and reflected on what you’ve seen and heard will you really know what is usable and what is not for your novel.
Distance yourself from the story.
I had to remind myself several times during, and even after, the writing process that this was a work of fiction. It just felt so real, even though I knew the events I was writing about were completely made up. While that’s often the sign of a good novel, creating enough space between the true-to-life events and the fictional parts is key. If the story is too real, it’s probably better served as a memoir.
When you write fiction that’s based on true experiences, you’ll inevitably need to let go of some of the things that really did happen and instead focus on the necessary beats, fictional as they may be, for getting across emotion and moving along the plot.
Broaden the storyline.
While its characters and general concept are rooted in real-life experience, Hot Mess’s storyline is completely fictional. I chose to assemble a foundation based on how I would naturally react or respond to a certain set a stimuli so I could bring emotional authenticity to the page. However, by giving the characters a new landscape to play around in, the story comes alive in a way that “real life” would have limited. Choose a couple of elements that are true-to-life (inspiration for character, location, or prime conflict), but then set your brain free to create and illuminate a brand-new world. Remember, you are writing for an audience, not for yourself.
Change specific details that are too similar to reality.
When initially writing characters, for example, sometimes I’ll visualize a person I know or have met. But after I finish the manuscript, I make certain to go back into the work and change anything that is too true in order to protect the privacy of those individuals. That might mean a new name, new hair color, new profession, new backstory. Not only is this respectful to those who may not want to be the subject of your work, but it can help avoid potential legal conflicts.
When I wrote Hot Mess, I had no way of knowing that it would end up where it is today—a juicy debut novel receiving strong reviews and advance praise. So I challenge you to think about the real-life stories in your memory bank, and how they might—or perhaps already have—influenced your storytelling.
After all, stranger (than fiction) things have happened.
Emily Belden is a Chicago-based freelance food writer, storyteller, and author whose debut novel, HOT MESS, will be published in in March 2018. Her bestselling memoir, Eightysixed: A Memoir about Unforgettable Men, Mistakes, and Meals, was acquired for adaption into a digital comedy series called All of the Nope, on which she is the lead writer. Emily currently lives in the heart of the Chicago restaurant scene, the West Loop, and is hard at work on her second novel, HUSBAND MATERIAL, which will be released in 2019. Visit her website at www.EmilyBelden.com or connect with @EmilyBelden on Twitter and Instagram.
Short stories and personal essays have never been more popular—or more crucial for a successful writing career. Earning bylines in magazines and literary journals is a terrific way to get noticed and earn future opportunities for both short- and long-form writing. Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays capitalizes on the popularity of these genres by homing in on two key steps to publishing short works: crafting excellent pieces and successfully submitting them. Get it here.