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Blogging By the Sea
Saturday, June 22 2019

Our June Round Robin topic: Has an event in your life, or one of someone you know, or one covered in 
the news, ever worked its way into one of your stories?

The answer to this is yes to all three: events in my life, those of friends and family and things in the news. Every story needs to have a setting and often what’s going on in the news helps readers to relate since they experienced those events as well, or watched them unfold on the news. As writer's we're told to , “Write What You Know,” so of course my personal experiences find their way into my writing as well.  


When one uses the events in others’ lives, it’s often not enough to “Change the names to protect the innocent” because if those events are people you know personally, you could hurt them by including them with little change if they recognize themselves, so we use the event, but bend many of the details. If it’s someone in the news, adhering too closely to exact details could get you sued for libel, unless it happens to be flattering and the person is eager for the notoriety. But even with details morphed to hide the origins, using real life events is what makes your novels come alive, because others have been there and your readers can relate.


When you use an event in the news, a big event that everyone was at least tangentially touched by, you reach emotions and reactions in a way totally made up events cannot. If your story took place on November twenty second in 1963 anyone over forty will immediately be sucked back to the emotions they felt on hearing of the assassination of President Kennedy. They will remember vividly the gut-wrenching disbelief and the way the world seemed to stop all around them. Include the horror of 9/11 and the twin towers falling in New York city and everyone over twenty-five feels that punch in the gut just as strongly as they did watching the replays over and over on television, and growing anger as the days stretched out looking for survivors. Before my time, I can only imagine what my parents felt hearing that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, or the jubilation on the day victory was ours, but most of us have studied enough history to understand them. We’ve seen photos of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima and the sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square and we can almost “feel” the determination of those men planting the flag or jubilation of a nation on the day of victory. Those are extreme events, but when they appear in a story, people feel sucked in emotionally, so it stands to reason that when you use real events for the basis of a plot line and you or someone you know personally experienced it, you have a good idea of the emotions that left the most lasting, meaningful memories for you that will affect your readers just as strongly.


Personal events and experiences used to create a world your reader can get lost in don’t have to be big ones either. Who hasn’t experienced the cool, distainful stare of a cat, or the eager affection of a dog? Or how about the frustration of choosing the wrong line in the grocery store, having a flight delayed, missing your train/bus, being reprimanded by a teacher you adored, or the feeling of warm rain on your face or the romance of a full moon? I’ve used all those in my stories because I know exactly how they felt, and most of humanity does too so they can relate personally to your characters. I’ve also used the experience of giving birth to a baby, and the sublime joy of falling in love, the wrench of saying goodbye to my child when I took her off to college knowing my life as a mom was forever changed, and the pain of burying my husband.


In my book THE CANDIDATE I used some of the experiences and memories that my brother shared with me of his year in Vietnam, being wounded, being surrounded and shot at by the enemy, holding a friend in his arms as the man drew his last breath. I didn’t experience any of that personally, but my brother’s willingness to share with me, and the tears he shed, made the story of Matt Steele come alive in ways it never would have without those real-life experiences. In WORRY STONE, I used my brother’s experiences on coming home, thankful to be on US soil only to discover his fellow citizens hated everything he stood for as a soldier. The downward spiral Nathan Cameron fought against was informed partly because of the experiences of any soldier who has experienced war and come home to try to fit themselves back into civilian life, but more specifically, by the personal experiences my brother Scotty lived through.


In my book IAIN’S PLAID, I used both personal and historic events. I didn't actually fall into an abandoned foundation or hit my head and wake up in another century, but I did sail out to explore a real island were some of that history took place and where my book began. Then I used the backdrop of the British retreat to Boston in 1775 after the first shots of the Revolutionary War happened in Concord and Lexington for one my scenes. Most readers today will not have read much about that event though they may remember “the shot heard round the world.” Having read several first-person accounts of that retreat; both the British just trying to get back to the city unmolested and the colonists doing everything to harass them along the way, I was able to create a very real experience for my imaginary characters.


I have not used some of the more devastating events of my life in my stories . . . yet. But, I know what it feels like to go through a divorce. I know what it’s like to lose a spouse to cancer. I know how awful it is to watch a parent lose themselves to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. And I know the devastation of losing a grandchild and the heartbreak of not being able to fix this awful loss for your own child. When one experiences things that suck the deepest emotions to the surface where you can’t hide from them, they stay with you forever and should any of your imaginary characters have a similar experience, you can pour all that emotion into the writing and your reader will feel it, too. So, yes, I do use real experiences in my writing – it’s how I make my characters real for my readers.


Why not hop over to these other bloggers and see how and why they’ve used real events in their imaginary stories:

Victoria Chatham 
Judith Copek 
Dr. Bob Rich 
Beverley Bateman 
Margaret Fieland 
Anne Stenhouse  
A.J. Maguire  
                                    Diane Bator 
                                    Fiona McGier 
                                    Rhobin L Courtright 

                                    Connie Vines 


Posted by: Skye Taylor AT 04:57 pm   |  Permalink   |  6 Comments  |  Email
Skye, this is perhaps the best piece of writing from you I've seen. It's a very impressive analysis.
Posted by Bob Rich on 06/22/2019 - 06:11 PM
Skye, depth of emotion and life experiences (personal and historical) you showcased in this blog post. I interview tribal elders for my historical novels, but my military family members never wished to share much information.
Posted by Connie Vines on 06/23/2019 - 01:14 AM
I remember very well some of the events you mention, and I had two brothers in service during Vietnam. I think as both writers and readers we learn so much about ourselves and humans in general, how we all react and the emotions we feel. Great post, Skye.
Posted by Rhobin on 06/23/2019 - 09:40 AM
Oh Skye, choosing the wrong line in the grocery store. I've already got characters chattering to each other. Inspiring post, thank you, anne stenhouse
Posted by anne stenhouse on 06/26/2019 - 05:51 AM
Good post, Skye and you mentioned a few things I hadn't really thought about when it comes to people or incidents you might write about and making sure you adjust details.
Posted by Beverley Bateman on 06/26/2019 - 06:57 PM
This is a great post on so many levels: capturing the issues with writing about something that happened to friends and family, (incl. your brother's story) and mention of horrible events we all remember with sorrow. It's so good to capture your emotions. This is good stuff!!!!
Posted by Judith Copek on 07/20/2019 - 02:13 PM

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