Write It Sideways

5 Tips for Turning Real Life into Fiction

Today’s post is written by Claudia Cruttwell.

“How much of myself should I put into my writing?”

If I’m writing for my own personal consumption, nothing else matters. I can put as much of myself as I like into my story, then sit back, read it, and think how wonderful/happy/stupid/suicidal am I.

If I’m writing to impress people who know me, I’d better go easy on those unsavoury confessions, lest I end up unloved and friendless.

If I’m writing for those who know nothing about me at all, I must remember that they don’t care what’s fact and what’s fiction, so long as it makes for a good story.

I used to pour quite a lot of myself into my fiction. I was once greatly encouraged by an interview with Beryl Bainbridge, who said that she drew on personal experiences in much of her work because she didn’t have an imagination.

“Thank God,” I thought; neither do I.

However, the more I wrote from an autobiographical perspective, the more problems I encountered.

Be Careful When Fictionalizing Real Events

Tips for Drawing on Autobiographical Material

Here are a handful of things to think about when drawing on autobiographical material:

  1. Make some changes. If you want to include yourself as a character, try changing some essential element, such as gender, to help distance yourself and unleash narrative possibilities.
  2. Check that your story has legs. When writing a novel, make sure the material has enough depth to sustain interest from beginning to end.
  3. Your protagonist must be credible. If you want to dramatize what actually happened by adding some fictional spice, don’t lose sight of your protagonist’s credibility.
  4. Maintain narrative structure. Try to think about the narrative structure from the outset, rather than clocking up a string of memories and then imposing an artificial structure over the top.
  5. There are no hard-and-fast rules. As with all writing rules, consider throwing the whole lot out of the window—just so long as you know that’s what you’re doing.

The whole issue is rather akin to the choice between extending a house and building a new one. The former might seem the easier option, but actually it can be much more straightforward to start from scratch, with a completely blank sheet.

Of course, there will always be elements of yourself, or people you know, in any character, but the more they spring from your imagination, the more fully realised they will prove as individuals in their own right, speaking and thinking for themselves.

(And, by the by, the more interesting they will be to write about).

Many writers have successfully drawn on themselves in their fiction. Beryl Bainbridge is one, although she also wrote books like Every Man For Himself, about a group of fictitious passengers on the Titanic, which had no basis in her own life.

Turns out she had an imagination after all!

Have you ever fictionalized real-life events in your writing? How did you maintain a safe distance from those events to make your story credible and readable?

Claudia Cruttwell is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Brunel University and writing a psychological thriller. She blogs at http://www.claudiacruttwell.com.