I have lived a relatively profound life. Some things “happened” to me, and were beyond my ability to control. Others were the result of poor choices, ignorance, or a secret desire to create drama when I felt things were a little boring. As I have matured as a woman and in my walk as a Christian, I have realized that each experience–every defeat, hurt, or challenge–has led me to a victory as well. Themes such as divorce, adultery, poverty, teen pregnancy, alcohol abuse, a sick child, financial challenges, etc. emanate from the nearly four decades I have walked this earth.
Some people who have faced similar challenges have decided to create good from them, while others choose to use them as an excuse for why they cannot succeed. Still others deny experiencing such things have affected them at all. As a writer, I have long felt the call to take my own personal experiences and turn them to the page in an effort to help others see and understand the purpose within their own lives. I desire to offer 1) encouragement to the mother lacking sleep because her little baby is sick and the doctors cannot tell her why; 2) hope to the young bride who just discovered she is pregnant in the same month her husband admits that he has been having an affair; 3) peace and rest to the harried stay-at-home mom who has everything the world could offer, yet still seeks happiness beyond a picture perfect life.
Whether you are an author or a reader, I hope you find some inspiration in my Top-10 list of ways I use real life to inspire my fiction stories.
1. ASK “WHAT IF?” I am sure I read this in something written by James Scott Bell, but I used this strategy long before I ever heard his name. What if one person, one choice you made in life was different? How would that influence your life today? Often, when I work through this question, I realize “what if” would ultimately lead to a more negative result, even if at the time it felt like the better option. Or, maybe it would make a much better novel than a real life choice…even if the characters faced tragedy or experienced success in a way that doesn’t seem possible today. One project I will be working on this year is about three sisters.What if each of my two sisters and I had made one single different choice regarding when to become mothers? Between us, we have a single mother, a working woman who married and started her family in her thirties, and one who started motherhood as a teenager. Though our real stories could also prove novel-worthy, this is a way to explore the possibilities.
2. PONDER STRANGERS Do you ever people watch? I confess this is something I am still working on doing without feeling as if I am being nosy. There are unlimited character sketches you can glean from a simple observation. Why exactly is that barista at Starbucks always smiling? Is it more than a simple job requirement? Is she masking a deeper pain? What about that personality-less person at the DMV? Is he single, still living with his mother? Okay–maybe try not to stereotype–and see what you come up with. Maybe he has a thyroid condition and has been the sole provider for his little sister since they were orphaned at the ages of 15 and 9. Maybe he saves his smiles for her at the end of the day while they share a bowl of popcorn seasoned in Parmesan and Brewer’s yeast and watch re-runs of Friends.
3. WATCH OR READ THE NEWS. Many years ago, police found a body buried in the back yard of a single elderly woman who had kept to herself for as long as her neighbors could remember… need I say more?
4. LIFE’S MAJOR EVENTS. This kind of goes along with observing strangers, but expands further into the setting and your personal feelings and thoughts. When my youngest child spent five days in the hospital over his first birthday, I wasn’t thinking I would use the experience for a future novel. However, I did write in my journal while he slept and as a result, have many vivid memories of the experience I may use if a WIP brings me to a place where a character is in the hospital. It is hard to imagine what standing in a hospital room on the pediatric floor at 3 a.m., watching your baby hooked up to tubes and machines feels, smells, and looks like–without actually having done so. I didn’t need a “What if?” for this one! (BTW, my little guy is now 10-years old and thriving. Read more about my real life experience on this topic at www.csidrecipes.com)
5. FIND MOTIVATION FROM MONOTONY. For less traumatic experiences, such as grocery shopping or watching your child’s soccer game (okay this might not be monotonous for some, but I liked the alliteration to make my point), have a notebook handy and jot down everything your senses observe. What did that dad just yell at his son from across the field? Quote him. Is the wet grass soaking into the toe of your sneaker? What does it feel like? While at the store, does the bad lighting make it hard for you to read the labels? Did you get that cart with the rebellious wheel–again? I know these are not exactly heart-pounding examples, but they can serve as excellent details to a current or future WIP.
6. RECOGNIZE KEY ELEMENTS IN YOUR PERSONAL OR WORK RELATIONSHIPS. What is it that makes you best friends with one sibling, but prevents you from connecting with another brother or sister? How do you and your BFF remain close after all these years even if you have lived hundreds of miles apart for most of your adult lives? How come, regardless of your efforts, you feel like an outcast at work? Your boss recognizes achievements by everyone else at the office besides you? (In case you are wondering, these are my real-life scenarios.) There could be potential character traits for individuals or between hero and heroine among any of these. On the other hand, by digging deeper, you could at least come to terms with the more negative experiences and search out the positives.
7. HOMETOWN POWER TOOLS. What better place to use as a setting for your story than a town or city you grew up in? When I moved back to California after 12 years in Idaho, I was amazed at how strongly visiting my hometown and old hangouts inspired me to write. Not only did memories wash over me like the Yuba River crashing across boulders, but they also inspired new ideas for my WIP–which took place in these settings a hundred years prior. I no longer had to go from memory while living 450 miles away. Now, living only an hour away, I could explore and observe the places I had not appreciated as a teenager–the places that actually inspired me unawares over twenty-five years ago. With keen senses, I spent a day walking the streets, thinking back and observing the present from every angle. The incline of the sidewalk holding the same cracks, the overgrown rose bushes covered in black bumblebees that nearly forced me onto the narrow street, the warm air that tingled my nose with the pollen of evergreens, the people who were different but somehow the same. What had I looked like to the passerby twenty-five years earlier–an ill-dressed teenager at the payphone with cigarette in her hand? This little town still served as a breeding ground for such seemingly lost souls. Besides having cell phones and slightly different attire (surprisingly not that different with the 90s coming back!), little had changed–accept for my perspective. Read more about my day in Grass Valley, CA HERE.
8. HOLIDAYS and BIRTHDAYS. Who doesn’t have that one eclectic relative that you only see on special occasions? What about the tension between in-laws that masquerades as a white elephant or always seems to erupt by means of sarcasm or opinions stated as facts? The relationships among my extended family could serve for the premise of a dozen novels–but this is shaky ground and where fiction must supersede fact to avoid offending anyone. On the other hand, you could leave out the people and relationships all together and simply use the planning, setting and the things running in your own mind as you prepare for an event. Do you have a main character preparing for a family gathering? If you don’t, maybe you should!
9. CREATE FICTION ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS. When I was 11-years-old, I began typing a story titled Hole in My Heart, shortly after my parents’ divorce. Regardless of if I ever finish this work, it helped me to work through the pain I was feeling about the choices my parents were making. Real feelings; fictional characters and setting. There is also safety here in exaggeration. Have you ever had intense feelings about a situation or circumstance that your logic could not justify? Well, your fictional characters can justify away! For me, it felt as if my father had abandoned us. Although in reality, he did not, the father of my protagonist did. I was able to justify my own feelings of abandonment by creating a situation where those feelings seemed more valid. If you are not a writer, this technique could also apply to journal entries.
10. REMIND YOURSELF WHY YOU WRITE. Wow! Coming up with ten points was harder than I thought! So this one is more of a combination of the above as well as a conclusion. Why do you write? Something about your real life, your truest nature, drives you. As you remember what that is, your life will always prove as a springboard for your greatest inspiration. Maybe you don’t write about your kids, but setting an example for them as they watch you achieve your dream as a writer is motivation enough. Do you desire to encourage people? Entertain them? Bring awareness? These real life reasons you write are just as important as the characters, settings, and situations that inspired their existence on the page.