Writers are often asked how much of themselves and their own experiences end up in their writing.
For my part, I’d say I’ve found it almost impossible to avoid including my own feelings, experiences, and opinions in what I write. However, while I’ve often used something real as the starting point for a scene or story, it will usually be just that—a starting point. For instance, my time spent working as a taxi driver in the early 1990s went a long way towards creating my Terry Bell Mysteries series (about a cabbie who solves murders in his spare time). Even now, thirty years on, I can still recall how I felt in certain situations, like the first time I met the person who inspired the character of Judy the Spanx Queen. While the real individual bore little relation to the fictional one, some of her characteristics helped with the description. Similarly, a character in my children’s series The Christie McKinnon Adventures has a habit of avoiding eye contact with the person he’s talking to. A university lecturer I knew who did exactly that, allowed me to add an interesting quirk to the character.
In terms of opinions, I have plenty of those, and one thing I’ve noticed about my historical novels, is an inability to create a character who believes in God. In my horror novel Black Witch Moon, Doctor Winter does go to church, but both he and his housekeeper are staunch unbelievers, a position that would have been untenable in real life (anyone who didn’t go to church during the 1600s could be fined or even imprisoned). In the book, both characters do attend church but only to avoid getting into trouble. Since Doctor Winter spends much of the book trying to come to terms with the reality of a witch who can seemingly bring about supernatural acts, he finds himself torn between good and evil.
I’ve also used experiences from my own life which, even allowing for artistic license, are based largely on real events. A stage play I co-wrote, called No Phones on Planet Pluto, inspired by conversations with people recovering from mental illness, included a monologue based on my experience of depression. In it, I wrote what I thought was a sanitised version of what actually happened to me, but later realised it was almost exactly how I’d felt at the time. Of course, there were a few comic lines in there, like:
When you go into a room, it all goes quiet,
Like you’ve just walked into the Slaughtered Lamb on Werewolf Night.
But for the most part, it reflected the reality of dealing with depression.
A short story I wrote a few years ago, called At My Table, came about when a new neighbour moved into the flat below me (this was back in the early nineteen eighties, when I was still young and impressionable). Within hours of moving in, she came round asking to borrow milk etc and very soon I found myself helping her to build a table. We went out for drinks regularly, and I counted her as a good friend, but when one of her work colleagues appeared one night and it turned out they were in a relationship, I remember that feeling of being pushed aside. Taking that feeling, I created a story that gave my snubbed hero the chance to get his own back.
In general, I try to create characters and stories that are nothing like my real life, but it’s difficult to avoid using real experiences when they can add colour and realism to my writing and make it more believable.
NB A version of this post first appeared on the blog B is for Bookreview.
A great post, Colin, I really enjoyed it. I think it is impossible to not include experiences and impressions from your own life in a book. That is what makes it your own book and writing and also what makes it relatable and have a ring of truth.
Well said – cheers, Robbie 😉