Why I Don’t Tell the Truth: Putting Your Real Life in Your Fiction

Michael, Brandon, Nicole, Elizabeth, Nora, Josh, Gary, Elaine, Sheena, Paul, Rob, and insert a bunch of other names.

Above is a list of character names from my ‘Love and Danger in St. Claire’ series. They are also names of people I’ve met or known in real life. I mean, I know tons of Michaels and at least five Joshs. Three Pauls. Multiple Noras, Elaines, Elizabeths, and Nicoles. Only two Robs though which I think is kind of weird. Isn’t Rob a pretty common name?

The most common question about names I both get and ask myself is: Do any of these fictional and real people intersect?

I don’t know about the stories filling other writers’ heads but mine always seem to fall into two different categories: Stories I could write because I think they’ll be fun and stories I could write about seasons or experiences in my life.

Thus far in my career, the former is the uncontested winner. I want the books I write now to have meaningful themes, arcs, and experiences, but they belong to my characters alone. Currently, the only thing in my books that has ties to reality are settings. In that sense, I’m fully a write-what-you-know author. I’ve lived in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio at different times in my life. I’ve seen their cities and their country. I would say that the settings in my currently released novels are a melting pot of all those different places blended together and poured out to make my fictional world.

So, the answer to my above question would have to be Not really. Other than the country roads I’ve long called home, I keep my experiences and relationships off the page. Now before you grab your pitchforks and cry We ride at dawn! I realize that the stuff that comes out of my brain is also formed by my brain which is obviously influenced by my experiences. Therefore, no work of fiction is completely separate from the life that created the author. I get that. What I mean is that I don’t write specific relationships or seasons of my life intentionally. And if you’re next question is Why not?

Well…it’s complicated.

A lot of authors I’ve noticed who take moments and experiences and weave them into their fiction choose seasons of their life that were difficult. Times of trauma or oppression. Painful times of conflict, loss, or betrayal. After all, those things make way better stories than everything-is-awesome.

Let me say that I have the utmost respect for these authors and their bravery and transparency. They are fulfilling one of the greatest purposes of literature and their vulnerability speaks to their readers in a way nothing else can.

But I, frankly, am not there. Have I had pain, trauma, betrayal, and more in my life? Yes. Am I still here and stronger for it? Yes. But have I felt a call to turn any of it into a novel? No.

Maybe someday that will change. But, to be an open book here, not feeling drawn to do so isn’t the only reason. During the times I’ve wondered about it, I can’t help but feel like I’m not ready to dissect some of the experiences in the way needed to craft a novel. If you’re an author, you know writing a book is so much more than sitting down at your laptop and getting something out. There are rounds and rounds of editing, proofreading, and questioning before you’re done.

An example I am decently comfortable sharing about in part, would be the story of my first kiss. It was not the experience a naive middle school girl should’ve had. And like I’ve heard so many women share themselves, I didn’t realize how traumatic, altering, and wrong it was until I was an adult. We are resilient when we are kids and our minds make justifications for others and call things ‘normal’ for years and years until our psyche is ready to face the fact that they weren’t. I have accepted what happened in that moment that makes my stomach turn even now, but to let it influence a scene in any of my novels means that it will be picked apart, read and reread, and scrutinized by multiple editors. And that’s all before it gets to print. I just don’t think that is something I need to do right now, but that doesn’t mean I’m weak. It means I am self-aware and assured.

If you have a story similar to mine, you know the vulnerability that comes with sharing it to the people you know let alone all the people you don’t. Some of the people closest to me to whom I’ve told my story looked at me with question in their eyes like maybe they were thinking, ‘Is she overreacting?’ or ‘Shouldn’t she have known?’ or ‘Why didn’t she just do this or this?’

While I feel no need to prove myself or my experience, that judgement is difficult and would exponentially increase once the story is in paperback form. I know all that makes it sound like I keep my real life out of my fiction because I’m scared and maybe in some ways I am. And I know it also makes it sound like I’m warning other writers off incorporating their real life experiences, but I don’t consider knowing a truth to be a warning. I always try to be transparent in my advice to writers and I think you all have a right to know what you’re getting into. But I promise you, if I ever do feel the Lord call me to create a book, fiction or non-fiction, about some of the difficult seasons in my life, I will buckle down and write it. Then, I will do my best to trust him to give me strength for the fallout.

Normally, my blogs are advice for writers, but this one is different. I don’t have any advice for you on whether you should write your real life and what you’ve experienced. It’s a decision you have to make for yourself. If you choose not to, you have my understanding. And if you choose to do so, I will be a reader who supports you. Happy writing!