Capturing Emotions by Using Personal Experiences

Hey, SE Readers. Joan with you today. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about ways to capture character emotions. I briefly touched on using personal experiences. Little did I know I would soon face a situation that left me (and several of my neighbors) more than a little “uncomfortable.” Hope you don’t mind a brief story.

In early March, a man shot a woman in her home, then fled the scene. This happened within a mile of my house. What followed was a four-day man hunt involving multiple local, county, and state law enforcement agencies.

Typical of the twenty-first century, most of us turned to social media to keep up with the situation. A neighborhood watch Facebook page got a lot of activity. People reported numerous “sightings,” some likely valid, others not. But when he walked in on another homeowner, things got interesting. Fortunately, when the homeowner flashed his gun, the man fled without harming anyone.

The area where I live has lots of woods, so he could easily hide. My husband works evenings, so I was at the house alone. It’s scary to hear a DPS helicopter circling your house or see law enforcement officers in various places when you drive to work.

What was I feeling? Fear? Apprehension? A little of both?

There’s a fine line between fear and apprehension. Dictionary (dot) com defines fear as “A distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.”

The definition of apprehension is “Anticipation of adversity or misfortune; suspicion or fear of future trouble or evil.”

I didn’t experience a gut-wrenching fear, but I was very much aware of what could happen. I took extra precautions when I went to bed that night. It was still dark when I left for work the following morning, so I asked my husband to walk outside with me until I got in the car.

A few days later, I had another experience that caused another emotion—anger. I had a meeting at work, so I left the house early. Most days I stop at my favorite fast-food restaurant for a sausage biscuit and iced tea. (Yes, I eat healthy. LOL). That morning, what should have taken five minutes max took over twenty. I asked them if they had to slaughter a hog for the sausage, but it turns out they had a new ordering system that no one could navigate.

Then, I swear every dimwit driver in the country took the interstate that day. They hugged the left lane, driving almost as slow as cars in the right lane (both well under the speed limit) making it almost impossible to pass. Truck drivers would try to pass others while ascending a hill.

When I finally arrived at work, I’m sure my blood pressure was over the top. My head hurt and my neck was stiff from tension.

I share these stories to illustrate a point. We experience a wide range of emotions. It isn’t often an escaped suspect is on the loose in my neighborhood, so I made notes of what I was feeling (internal and external sensations). A tingling spine, a queasy stomach, quickened pulse, etc.

During the driving incident, I pounded on the steering wheel, honked the horn a few times, and yes, said a few choice words. The next time I have a character stuck in traffic, I’ll remember how I felt. In addition to capturing the emotions, the incidents can lead to ideas for scenes in a story.

I’m happy to report authorities apprehended the suspect before he harmed anyone else and the victim’s wounds weren’t life-threatening. Your turn. Have you ever used a personal experience in your story? Do you think about personal experiences to capture a character’s emotions? Please share in the comments.

62 thoughts on “Capturing Emotions by Using Personal Experiences

  1. Pingback: Exulansis | rfljenksy – Practicing Simplicity

  2. Wonderful post… Joan. I read it to my heart’s content. Your observation, “there is a fine line between fear and apprehension” is splendid. I only feel tempted to add that fear is the ultimate outcome of apprehending something awful …In our place, people have nothing bad to apprehend, hence fearless. Your gripping narrative even drove me to think rather imagine that our brain and mind is in perfect corraboration ,which isn’t otherwise, when situations are challenging. The case is we are made to swallow a tough lesson on negative emotions by the formidable guys. As the dreadful emotions keep trailing back and forth we are rendered powerless.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Joan, I am sorry you had such a tough week. I have certainly included certain elements of personal experiences in my stories. I have been in two home invasions and had a cocked gun at my head. You don’t forget that ever. I have also sat in hospitals many, many times with both my children and you don’t ever forget that either. These emotions certainly find there way into my stories, maybe that is why I write horror and about war.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh my gosh, Robbie. The gun incident would have freaked me out. That’s real terror and fright.

      I do think we all tend to incorporate our personal experiences into our stories.


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  5. Sorry I’m late, Joan. Life has been a bit upside down here for the past couple of weeks, so I’m playing catch-up today. Wow, your experience with fear and apprehension must have been awful for you, and your descriptions made me shiver. And I’d never be able to face interstate highway traffic like that these days. I avoid them altogether now, but even when I was younger (and had better vision), I hated that kind of congestion. So sorry you have to face it on your daily commute. (Mark does, too.) Look–you’ve stirred up my emotions by recounting yours, exactly the way we all want to do in our novels.

    I’ve always been a very emotional person. (Mark says I cry at K-Mart openings! 😀 ) I laugh as easily as I cry, thought, and I try to draw on those things when I write. I also use a few real life experiences, too, especially when writing my Riverbend scenes that feature the river or wildlife. (The little turtle that fell out of the tree and into Maggie & Gunn’s canoe with a BANG like a gunshot actually happened to me, for instance. I nearly fell overboard, just like Gunn almost did.) So, funny or sad, I will pull on things I’ve seen or done when they are appropriate and delve into how I felt at the time. I would imagine most writers do, even if subconsciously.

    This was a super post, Joan, and I highly recommend chamomile tea instead of coffee in the morning, at least until you arrive safely at work. 😀 😀 😀

    Liked by 2 people

      • And you do it well, Joan! I like using them, too. I forgot you’re a tea drinker, too. I never touch coffee, myself. (By the time I’ve put enough sugar and cream in it, it has as many calories as coffee ice cream, only not quite as tasty.) I don’t add anything to my tea iced or hot, and tend to drink it pretty strong, so the caffeine really hits home. Can’t have any after lunch or I don’t sleep at night. And if I had a cup right before getting on the interstate, I’d be so hyper the stress of the traffic would push me right over the edge into a frenzy. 😯

        Liked by 2 people

  6. I know I have tapped into my emotion when I write. I’m an empath who is driven by emotion, so I frequently can put myself “in a scene” from experience. Of course, there are a lot of things I write about that I have never experienced, but emotion is emotion regardless of the circumstance.

    And I’ve been in the middle of a manhunt. In my case, the helicopter was hovering over the pool my husband and I were in at night (the only two people in the pool), shining a spotlight on us. After that, when we went to our hotel room the cops were searching below our balcony of a suspect who had robbed a store and shot the clerk. I think the clerk was only injured, but we were told to stay indoors. I’ve yet to use that in a story, but someday.

    Great post, Joan!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Being an empath would certainly help in capturing a character’s emotions, and you do it so well in your writing, Mae.

      Wow! I can’t imagine being in that pool. At least I was safe inside my house. I’d say that experience has the making of a great story. So many possibilities.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Well, a month ago I saw a strange dream. It was no way connected to my personal experiences. But maybe, I saw or read same scenario somewhere in the news.
    Guess what, I am converting that dream into a novella.
    7 episodes are completed. It will be ready soon InshaAllah.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Wow, what a nail-biting experience, Joan. I definitely can verify I pull from personal experiences when I’m writing things my characters are going through. In my most recent finished WIP, I have a soldier who experiences PTSD. I can draw from incidents that happened with my husband, where that irrational crippling emotion would take over. What a great post! Only a writer would have the presence of mind to take note of feelings in a high-stress situation. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • It certainly helps to know someone who has had an experience. I’m currently brainstorming my next WIP and have given thought to a character having PTSD. He’s a minor character in my soon to be published novel and I hint that he has some issues.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. It’s always good when you can pass off a bad commute as “conducting research.” I hate when the truck going 65.5 decides to pass the truck going 65. I have to have a different kind of story in mind to include those emotions. It is good to keep track of the way we feel in situations, particularly the ones that we may want to include in a story. Thanks for the good advice.

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    • I’m laughing now but research was the last thing on my mind that morning. Later, I contrasted the difference from my experience a few days earlier. And I encounter those 65 mph trucks almost every day.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve never taken notes but I sure tap into emotions I’ve had when I write. That’s how writers make scenes real. What an experience having a guy on the run hiding in your community, though. Glad they caught him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That had to be scary, Joan, and too close! Good idea to jot down those emotions and physical sensations you were feeling. It does help to tap into past experiences and how they made you feel in stories. I’ve used many situations that I’ve fictionalized and the feelings at the time weaved in. We had a lockdown here years ago when a man, who couldn’t get an appointment in the mental health clinic, went on a shooting rampage in at least two places, killing three. I was terrified and all my kids were in school in lockdown and they weren’t going to run the buses because he was on the loose. But not being able to get to my kids to know they were safe, was a feeling I’ll never forget, and like you said the helicopter circling around is unnerving. It’s a completely helpless feeling that can carry over into a story. Great post and point how much tapping into real feelings really adds that depth into a story.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. I lost a best friend to suicide in 2017; he appears in my book as a version of himself whose life has followed the same path – but this time thing are going to end differently after his tragic end.

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  12. I was woken by something in the early hours of the morning a few weeks ago. As I listened, there was the sound of papers being rustled downstairs and I was sure I heard the printer make a noise. I crept down cautiously and it turned out to be nothing more sinister than our combi-printer deciding to make contact with the mother ship. It’s happened a couple of times since. No threat, nothing sinister, but the feelings I felt are there ready to be applied when I need them. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I draw on personal experiences in every book I write. Most of what I write starts from something personal and grows from there. And I have a series outlined (that I’ll probably never write) based on a very personal experience. I don’t think I could write an authentic character if I didn’t draw from my own life.

    Great post, Joan. (And I’m glad you and all in your town are safe.)

    Liked by 3 people

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  15. Great post, and excellent advice about making notes of real life reactions/experiences. I don’t have children, but I made use of my experiences of emotions of worry and grief and love to write my MC in The Vanished Boy. From reader reactions so far, I got it right. Thanks for sharing, Joan 🙂

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  16. Yesterday a CENTIPEDE dropped off the ceiling and onto my chest. The frantic flailing, the prickly sweat, items flying and feet hopping from one foot to the other . . . oh, you bet I’m gonna use that experience in a future story!

    Liked by 4 people

  17. What a great post, Joan. I try to use emotions from personal experiences in my stories. The situation might be quite different, but if the evoked feelings are similar, I pay attention to them. I’ve never had an escaped convict nearby, but I know what terror feels like from other situations. You’ve offered some great examples and needed reminders. Thank you!

    Liked by 4 people

    • It’s certainly not something I experience every day (nor do I wish to). Most of the time I go about my daily routine without stopping to think about how I feel in certain situations, but ones like these stand out. Always good to jot down notes.

      Liked by 2 people

  18. As writers, drawing from our personal experiences is a great way to make our characters more authentic to the reader. I do this often in my book. I like how you sprinkle in a little humor with the breakfast comment. 🙂 Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Had to throw in a little humor, Jill. 🙂 Some things we don’t experience every day (thank goodness), so it’s a good idea to jot down notes as they happen. Much easier than going back months of years later, then try to remember.

      Liked by 2 people

  19. I have used some personal experiences in my fiction. If an emotion-generating experience fits into a story, it’s a perfect way to introduce authenticity. I like the way you observed and your physical reactions to emotions for future use in writing. Great suggestion!

    Liked by 4 people

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