8 Tips for Turning "Real Life" into Bestselling Fiction

A lot of people start writing because they’ve got a real-life story to tell—something that happened in their own lives or the lives of friends or family members they think would make a great book. Sometimes these stories work well as memoirs, but, for a lot of very good reasons, a lot of us prefer to present the stories as fiction.

But if you decide to write your story as a novel, you have to take that raw clay of factual material and shape it into something that is your own creation. Sometimes this can end up being more work than writing a story entirely from scratch, because you have to distance yourself from the “real” characters and make them your own.

This week, Ruth Harris tells us how to do just that.

But remember, unless the real story is something that made major headlines, most readers aren’t going to care what your source material is. In fact, the Query Shark, (agent Janet Reid) says: “I really don't care if it's based on a true story. If anything that makes me less likely to read on because, zut alors!, most people's lives don't have much of a plot.”

Along with letting us in on her creative process here, Ruth is also offering two free ebooks of her based-on-a-true-story novel, DECADES, to our commenters. All you have to do is put “DECADES” in your comment, and you’ll be eligible for our drawing. Contest goes until midnight March 3rd. Winners will be announced next Sunday, March 4th.


Make-overs, plot twists & a search for meaning

by Ruth Harris

Writing a novel based on a real life situation is a lot more than just regurgitating a story you happen to know—even if it’s a whizz-bang, humdinger of a story. The challenge is turning real people and real events into fiction. Having no guidelines at the time I wrote DECADES, I figured it out as I went along. I made plenty of mistakes along the way but had several advantages even I wasn’t aware of.

1) Learn your craft.

It’s basic but bears repeating: learn the nuts and bolts of creating compelling fiction. Decades was my first “big book,” but prior to writing it, I had been writing professionally for over ten years—weekly articles for men’s and male adventure magazines and original paperbacks, mostly Gothic romances and romantic suspense, under a variety of pseudonyms.  Publishing salaries were as lousy then as they are now and I needed the money. In the process—and hardly intending to—I learned how to write action, emotion, and sex; how to grab a reader from the first sentence and how to create a cliffhanger. That knowledge of the craft would be the invaluable underpinning of the novel.

2) Be a good listener—and don’t gossip.

Coincidence—and real life—provided me with the initial inspiration for Decades, the story of a marriage in crisis. The coincidence was that I happened, quite by accident, to know each of the three main characters, two much better than the third. They were:  a successful but restless husband, the shy, rather insecure, rich girl he marries on his way up, & the glam fashion editor who is “the other woman.” They told me “their” versions of what was happening because they knew they could trust me not to gossip. They didn’t know—nor did I at the time—that one day I would turn their dramas into fiction.

3) Just because “it really happened” doesn’t mean it’s good fiction.

In writing a novel based on real life, I faced the same challenges a writer does with any novel—the need to create believable characters and  a dramatic plot—with the added twist of having to structure the formlessness, confusion, and indecision of everyday real life into the demands of a novel. Knowing the “real people” turned out to be both a blessing and a hurdle.

4) Protect the privacy of your “real life” characters.

Of course I changed names but, as I began to write, I went further and changed initials, too.  It wasn’t enough to change John Doe into Jack Dawson. A radical name change—to Mark Saint Clair, for example—guaranteed JD’s privacy and had the secondary effect of freeing me from any reminders of the real John Doe/Jack Dawson. I also changed the character’s physical appearance, details of his childhood, and gave him military experience he never had.

5)  Help your reader relate to your story.

IRL my fashion editor friend was a stylish, never-married Manhattan single girl who led a hectic, high-profile social life. In the novel, I wanted a character more in touch with everyday experience so I left out all the glitzy fashion-world details. Instead, I portrayed a woman more characteristic of the times who marries young, has two kids, goes thru a drab, depressed, is-this-all-there-is? period. She divorces the husband who was her college boy friend & learns (the hard way) how to conduct herself in a challenging and competitive business world.

Each of the other characters got a similar makeover. I made the husband taller, handsomer and more successful than he really was and changed the nature of his business. I gave the fictional wife a talent even she didn’t recognize—a talent that, in the end, rescues her.

6) Give your characters room to roam.

IRL the story took place mainly in Manhattan but I thought the setting too confining. In the novel, the characters do live in Manhattan, but I added scenes in Florida, Nantucket and the Caribbean. Using different settings helped me show how the characters behaved in different geographies and in different social milieu. Trust me, a week in the Caribbean with a wife is much different from a week in the Caribbean with a girlfriend in the middle of a steamy affair!  For the novelist, pure gold.

7) Expand the scope of your story.

Almost any “real life” story by its nature, tends to be limited to the people directly involved. (Unless your story is about a friend who happens to be President of the United States.) As I drafted the novel and its plot and characters took shape, I wanted to show how the consequences of what started out as a casual affair affected people not directly involved. I ultimately created a teen-aged daughter torn between her charming, straying father, her loyal, devastated mother, and the come-hither lure of contemporary culture, in this case, the go-go Sixties.

8)  Look for the larger significance of your story.

I don’t mean you should hit your reader over the head with The Meaning Of It All. The final element that transformed real life into fiction came to me as I was halfway through the draft and paused to write what passed for an outline to the end (outlines aren’t exactly my strong suit!). I realized that the age difference between the married couple, the younger “other woman” and the teen-aged daughter led naturally to portraits of three transformational, mid-20th Century decades—and to the title.

By the time I was finished with my makeovers, plot twists, and search for a more substantial framework for the story, the characters had taken on their own, fictional lives, the plot moved with its own energy to a far different conclusion from the one in real life, and I was able to portray massive cultural and social changes in an entertaining and story-appropriate way.

But coincidence wasn’t finished with me. As it turned out, the main situation of the novel—a marriage in crisis and an adulterous affair—was being lived by not one, but two, prominent publishers—"This is my life," one of them told me. They competed for hard cover and mass market paperback rights, a situation my agent and the publisher’s subsidiary rights director took great advantage of.

I never planned it, had no idea that my fictional affair reflected the real-life experiences of the two publishers. All I knew was that coincidence had handed me an incredible basis for a novel that combined fascinating personal dynamics set against an era of tumultuous social and cultural change, the repercussions of which we still feel today.

What about you, scriveners? Have you written a book based on a true story? Thinking about it?

Other News: Ruth also has a post at WG2E this weekend with some honest talk from bestselling authors about where they get their inspiration. Anne tells all in an interview with Catherine Ryan Hyde, and Anne got gentrified and canonized by Porter Anderson on Writing on the Ether this week. 

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