Sunday, August 5, 2012

Harvesting Writing Ideas from Real Life

Photo of harvest time obtained here
One of the best places to get writing ideas is in one's own life. That doesn't mean to only write about things you've experienced, though, or your books will get repetitive and boring pretty quickly. Still, if there's something you have done that's exciting or interesting or heart-wrenching, and you want the reader excited or interested or heart-wrenched, those experiences are good to tap into.

However, there is a way to go about it, for maximum effect.

Give it space. If it just happened yesterday, and you're still upset, you're going to have a hard time presenting any perspective but your own. Some of my most embarrassing writing is when I was frustrated about student loans and working two jobs and not getting ahead, and I wrote about it. Now, I think I might be able to write a story on that theme, but then, it was too much of a Message.

Mix and match. You don't have to write out the event verbatim. Take the most interesting things from one thing you remember, combine it with the funniest part of a whole other encounter, pare down the boring parts, and voila, you've made yourself a funny story. Later, you can take that same story, play up the less exciting parts and combine them with something sad, and elicit a feeling of heartache.

Add detail. Chances are good you don't remember the event exactly as it happened. Or, you're fuzzy on the exact play-by-play. Have you ever listened to someone relate a story, but get hung up on who was standing where, and it turns out it doesn't even matter? Don't be that guy. Instead, make up the parts that are important. Fill in sensory details, add people who need to be there for the story to work, add enough lighting for the characters to see what's going on, or add dialogue that never happened. Detail will make it seem more real.

Subtract irrelevance. As I mentioned in the last tip, the minutiae that didn't matter are irksome to hear in painstaking detail. Maybe all of this interesting tale happened when you were on your way to your favorite aunt's funeral, but the story is a funny one. Maybe it was midnight and you'd just closed up the store where you worked and it was an okay day, except for this one weird customer stayed fifteen minutes after closing and talked your ear off the whole time, but you want to tell about the cat you helped out of your tree and adopted when you got home. Those events may be tied together, and very skillful writers can blend two disparate events to serve a theme, but, if you're not doing that, leave it out.

Remember you're not writing nonfiction. If you are writing nonfiction, you'll want to interview people who were there, read written accounts, look through photographs, and dig up news articles. But, with fiction, you get to make it up as you go along.

Change names. People will see themselves in your fiction regardless of whether you put them there or not. I've listened to several authors talk about family and friends approaching them to say, "Y was me, wasn't he?" or "I see a lot of myself in Z." And, inevitably, they're wrong about which character was based on them. Don't make it a giveaway, unless that's the idea. Most people will not react well to a fictionalized version of themselves. People don't see themselves the way others do. Also, if you write anything really insulting, they may sue you. Obfuscate the use of real people as much as you can. With place names, think optimistically. If your story were to become immensely successful, would you want people visiting this place? If not, fictionalize it.

If you want to use real life to enhance your fiction, remember, truth is stranger than fiction. That's because fiction is supposed to have a theme and cohesion. Life has no such restrictions.

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