Using Real Life Experiences in Fiction

Hey, SE Readers. Joan here today with more of my thoughts on writing.

“Truth is stranger than fiction.”

Probably everyone has heard this quote or some variation. If you google for who wrote it, you’re not likely to get a definitive answer. Some say it was Lord Byron, while others attribute the quote to Mark Twain.

Even Tom Clancy got in on the game when he said:

“The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.”

Clancy was right. Truth is often strange, and life doesn’t always make sense. There are some things we can’t make up.

I’ve been a people watcher for years—long before I became a writer. Sitting in a crowded shopping mall, airport, or restaurant is at the least entertaining. Last year, I wrote a post about how we can use observations for story ideas.

But we also have our own experiences. And yes, some are indeed strange and in many cases, inexplicable. So why not use them in our fiction?

In Unseen Motives, the first of my Driscoll Lake Series, I have a minor character that sees something she can’t explain. Because she is recovering from severe PTSD and has suffered hallucinations in the past, she fears people won’t believe her. However, she records the incident in her journal, which later is instrumental in helping solve a twenty-year-old crime.

The idea for this came from a real-life experience I had at the age of seventeen. I’ll not go into a lot of specifics, but both my mom and I saw this. Flashing lights of an ambulance in our neighbor’s driveway awakened my mom one warm spring night. She awakened me. Knowing Sam (not his real name) had a heart condition, we assumed EMS was there for him.

Shortly after the ambulance pulled away, we saw Sam walk into his house. He even stopped to pet the dog that was sitting on the porch wagging his tail. That meant the ambulance had been there for someone else, right?

Wrong! Paramedics had picked up Sam, took him to a local hospital, and doctors pronounced him dead on arrival. It couldn’t have been him we saw. So what was it? His ghost? A hallucination? I doubt it was the latter, since both saw it. (And before you ask, we were wide-awake.)

I used another experience in the opening scene of Unseen Motives. The main character learns of her father’s execpected death. Having lost my own father suddenly, I was able to capture the emotions of a young girl hearing such tragic news.

Several years ago, a series of church arsons occurred in this area. When brainstorming ideas for Unknown Reasons, I decided to bring in a serial arsonist. Although the fires didn’t affect me personally, the idea worked.

Family history stories are also intriguing. I once took a series of online writing courses. The final assignment of one of these classes required students to write a five-hundred-word short story. I decided to use an incident I’d been told about a great uncle.

I never met him as he died many years before I was born, but he had his own encounter with a ghost. I used this incident as an idea for a short story I posted on my blog a few years ago. You can read The Dare by clicking this link.

A word of caution. If using family, be sure to change enough of the details so no one would be able to recognize themselves, especially if you portray someone in a bad light.

The last thing you need is an irate family member, or worse, face a lawsuit. Always use fictitious names.

Have you ever used real-life experiences in your story? If you haven’t, why not give it a try?

32 thoughts on “Using Real Life Experiences in Fiction

  1. This post is right up my alley, since all four of my books are biographical fiction, meaning true stories told through fictitious characters. I will say that writing a true story is easier than pure fiction because you already have the plot and the outcome. But, yes, I would tend to think that many of our “real life” characters would show up in fiction work. Great post, Joan. And creepy cool about the ambulance and Sam. 🙂

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  2. I think most all of my books have some measure of personal experience–whether it be a memory I draw on, or a quirk of some kind. The male MC in Myth and Magic liked to eat his French fries with mustard instead of ketchup. That’s how I eat mine, so when a bar scene came up, I decided to toss that in. In Weathering Rock my female MC takes a group of students to Gettysburg. They visit the Pennsylvania monument (which has an upper and lower level) and two of the boys end up in trouble for trying to dump soda on one of the kids below. That’s drawn from a true life experience my husband and I witnessed when visiting the monument. I know if I really thought it through I’d probably find multiple instances in each of my books.

    And, wow, Joan—that experience with your neighbor gave me goosebumps!

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    • Mae, that experience is one I’ll never forget! I’m like you, I’ve used little quirks or incidents in my books also. I like to drink unsweet tea with lime. Most people in Texas and the south drink it super sweet with lemon, Yuck! So I’ve written a scene in which a character drinks it like I do. A restaurant scene in Unknown Reasons was something that happened to me. Trust me, you can’t make some things up!

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    • I think real life experiences certainly adds depth to our fiction. In my first book, there’s a scene in which a teenage character learns about her father’s death. I drew upon my own experience of when my father died to help capture her feelings and emotions.

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  3. Both of my completed series started from real life events. I mangled them into what I needed for fiction, but I see the truth beneath.

    I do believe truth is stranger than fiction. We once had three family members die back to back. At the reception for the first funeral, we were planning the second. And at the reception for the second, we got news about the third. It gets to the point where you’re so emotionally drained, you can’t even mourn. I always thought it would be an interesting exploration of character to write about it, but no one would ever believe three unrelated familial deaths in so short a span, so I never did.

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  4. I do this all the time. I wrote a fictitious story based upon an attempted murder my parents told me about once. It’s called Practical Geology and involves radioactive poisoning. I even weaved some of that passing of verbal history into my root monsters. A million little things go into our stories based upon personal observations. I listened to rain drizzling down upon a discarded plastic grocery bag, and wrote that into The Playground. I think (hope) most authors do that even if they’re not aware of it.

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  5. Oh, I swear, Joan, that if I put half of what I’ve experienced in my books, my readers would be screaming at me: just not possible! too much coincidence! etc. lol. I’d have to temper them down some. It’s like the time I downloaded a whole series on Sky. One of them failed to download. When I found the errant episode, it was called, …. The Glitch! … you can’t make this stuff up! Also, I live in a house where things frequently go missing for about three months and then show up in an obvious place that has been searched numerous times. I used to believe I was losing the plot, so I had two other people look for a couple of those items with me. Not one of us could find them. And then, months later … So much does go in my books, and well disguised to avoid any trouble in the real world, ha ha. Thanks for a great post. Reblogged this on:

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  6. Personal experiences have a way of sneaking inside our stories, even when we don’t want them to, so I think it’s impossible to erase your personal experiences completely from your writing. If you use them consciously or not, it’s another thing.
    In my stories I often use memories or details from my life, especially to create character’s background or those quirks that make them alive.
    Great post Joan! You always make me think about aspects of writing I take for granted but, in truth, aren’t.

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    • Orson Scott Card once said something about stories being all around us. We don’t have to look far to find them. One of my favorite things to do us people watching. Great way to come up with character traits.

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  7. I do all the time especially in Quarter Acre Block which I declare is not autobiographical but inspired by my family’s emigration to Australia. Your experience with the neighbour was good – a valid sighting of a ghost, I wonder did you ever tell the deceased man’s family what you saw?

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