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Using Real Life in Fiction by Sherryl Clark

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Plotting and Planning
Sherryl Clark

Sherryl Clark

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There are a number of “rules” that writers are told, and one of the most common is “Write what you know”. To counter this, we are also told “Make things up – use your imagination”. Along with those is “Anything can be researched” and “There’s nothing that will help your novel more than actually visiting the place where it’s set”. I’m sure there are many science fiction and fantasy writers who are totally on the side of “make it up”, and there are as many others who insist you only write what you have experienced.

Hardly surprising then that there is a middle ground! If we only wrote what we knew about, what is the point of having imagination? But it’s also true that writing about what you have experienced yourself does bring a vividness to your writing, often through sensory details that you can’t get by looking at a photo. So what are some pointers for the middle ground – taking the best of both?

When I was about five, I had a fear of spiders (still do but now I’m bigger and I have large cans of fly spray and a broom). However, my grandmother was quite concerned about this and one day she took me out to the woodpile and found a large hairy wolf spider. She picked it up and tried to persuade me to hold it. You know how it goes – the assurances that the spider won’t bite, that it’ll feel cute and tickly, you’re bigger than it is, etc. Sorry, Nana, but no way was I going anywhere near that thing. I probably went and tattled to Mum about what she’d done!

Many years later, I can still remember the setting and my nana, the brown spider in her hand, and my fear. In fact, every time I see a large hairy spider, the feeling returns. I can use any or all of that, and I can use it over and over. Not that I want to write about hairy spiders all the time, but the emotions, the setting and the conversation can be re-created in different ways to add veracity to my writing.

For my novel, Trust Me, I’m Dead, the idea came from an article that mentioned an audio tape someone had left for their family to find – it contained information that changed many things for them. Family secrets and long-hidden secrets are potential goldmines for story ideas, but so are the high-level emotions of family conflict, the guilt and blame, and deeply-held angers. It doesn’t need to be your family – simple conversations with friends or even snippets overheard can fuel plot ideas and stir up emotions you can capture on the page.

The background to the novel is the remnants of Melbourne’s gangland wars. The constant murders and paybacks filled our newspapers over a four-year period, and the reverberations are still going on. I haven’t used any real gangsters in my novel, but the concept of payback and revenge is a strong motivation that propels the “villains” in a realistic way because it’s based on what really happened.

For my writing students, I tell them: rather than just write what you remember, think about the particular sensory details of the event – the setting with its smells, sounds and what the important small things looked like. Revive the emotions you felt, either through free writing or by imagining your character going through this. How did you react? Will your character react the same way? If not, why not? What then will he/she do? (One day I’m going to write about a character that smashes that spider out of Nana’s hand and steps on it.)

I also tell them the problem with “write what you know” is that real events often don’t make a compelling story. In your attempts to re-tell, you forget about the need for tension, for character depth, for something important to happen. You just tell it like it was, which is only reporting, instead of getting inside the event. You need to stand back from the event and see where the plot lies. And see what you will have to change to make it a story.

If you write yourself, the key is to keep writing about all kinds of memories, even if you keep it as a journaling or free writing exercise. The more you get that material onto the page, the more skilled you will become at seeing what might work as a story. Eventually, you’ll be able to slip all kinds of fragments, anecdotes and experiences from your own life into your character’s lives – and they’ll hardly know it didn’t happen to them!

(c) Sherryl Clark

About Trust Me, I’m Dead:

She hasn’t seen her brother in years. Now, he’s dead.

When Judi Westerholme finds out her estranged brother has been murdered, she assumes it’s connected to his long term drug addiction. Returning home, she is shocked to discover he had been clean for years, had a wife – now missing – a child and led a respectable life. But if he had turned his life around, why was he killed in a drug deal shooting? And where is his wife?

Desperate to know what really happened, Judi sets out to uncover the truth, even though it means confronting her own traumatic past. But she’s not the only one looking for answers…

With a gutsy, unapologetic protagonist, Trust Me, I’m Dead is a gritty and bold crime thriller that explores the sacrifices people will make for their families.

Order your copy online here.


About the author

Sherryl Clark has had 40 children’s and YA books published in Australia, and several in the US and UK, plus collections of poetry and four verse novels. She has taught writing at Holmesglen TAFE and Victoria University. She recently completed a Master of Fine Arts program at Hamline University, Minnesota, and is now studying for a PhD in creative writing.

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