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Anne R. Allen's Blog


My Photo

Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, February 26, 2012

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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Blogger Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Not directly. I may have put little bits of myself or people I've met into fictional characters, but the one time I tried to write a true-life story was a flop. I tried to take a hilarious incident that happened to someone in my family and make a short story of it, but it came out as a stiff, uncomfortable blend of fiction and nonfiction, not nearly as funny as the way I had it told to me. First-person narration and no character names were probably bad ideas. :) I think the problem, as you've said, was that I didn't fictionalize it enough.

February 26, 2012 at 10:29 AM  
Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I've never even thought about turning real life people or situations into a book.

February 26, 2012 at 10:32 AM  
Blogger fOIS In The City said...

Loved this post, Ruth ... love the cover art for DECADES as well.

I have to agree with the "shark" on this one. Most of the "based on real life" stuff out there is a yawn. Then of course, there are people like you and the late Dominick Dunne :)

February 26, 2012 at 10:38 AM  
Blogger Anne Gallagher said...

I actually have written a book based on real life. Situations that happened to me as well as other people ended up in a women's fiction book I'm currently (or rather I should say am still) editing.

You're right, you do have to be careful of how you present real life in fiction. I changed so much of the characters and setting, only I know what's true and what's fictionalized. And that is kind of fun. Only I know the secret.

Great post, Ruth. And DECADES looks like a definite decadant read.

February 26, 2012 at 11:15 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Elisabeth—Perhaps you'll try it again one day. Sometimes stories have to "marinate" for a long time before they can be written. The situation that formed the spine of DECADES occurred long before I wrote it.

Alex—You're smart! ;-) Or maybe you haven't come cross the real life situation yet that will inspire you.

fOIS—thank you! Credit goes to Stewart Williams, my cover designer, for my amazing covers.

I knew Nick Dunne—not well, just slightly. But writing The 2 Mrs. Grenvilles, was an excruciating amount of work. Every time he thought he was finished, his editor asked for *another* revision. The finished product proved that all his work—& his ed's astute guidance—were well worth it.

February 26, 2012 at 11:18 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Anne—Thanks—and you're right about having a secret only you know! But you're the first person to call DECADES decadent! I hope that's a compliment! lol

February 26, 2012 at 11:21 AM  
Blogger Charley R said...

Hehe, I've thought about writing a story based on my own life - a particularly bizarre Army-brat one it is too - but I've had too many problems with detail recollection and, frankly, I don't like writing about real life. It's more fun when you get to know your world and culture and stuff because you've built it. I love worldbuilding :P

Still, I like this post!

February 26, 2012 at 12:08 PM  
Blogger Anne Gallagher said...

Ruth -- Decadent is always a compliment because it reminds me of chocolate. And who doesn't love chocolate?

And color me absolutely jealous that you knew Dominic Dunne. One of my favorite favorite favorite writers of all time.

February 26, 2012 at 2:08 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Charley—Thanks! Actually, world building when you use "real life" material is more of a challenge because you must build your world w/o letting the "real" incidents & people interfere.

Actually, having a lousy memory is a plus...forces you to create!

Anne—OK, I'll take that definition of decadent. Works for me...lol

Nick had a tough slog before he became successful. He was one of my favorite writers, too. For one thing (among many others), he was good at picking subjects to write about...a talent in itself.

February 26, 2012 at 2:40 PM  
Blogger Cathryn Leigh said...

I have taken people's personalities, especially my own and used them for characters. I have yet to try my hand at turning real life into a story. However I plan to do so eventually in collaboration with my mother. I'll have to make certain that I keep all of this in mind.

And now I really need to find a good way of listing all the books I want to buy, so when my birthday comes around I know how I"m spending my birthday money.

:} Cathryn / Elorithryn

February 26, 2012 at 4:24 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Catherine—In some ways, using "real life" is more difficult than just making up the whole novel. Lots of baggage needs to be shed.

Re: listing what you want to buy: I just use a notebook & a pen: old fashioned but does the job perfectly!

February 26, 2012 at 4:45 PM  
Anonymous Karen S. Elliott said...

I use bits of my life, and the lives of others I know, in my fiction. Just one little idea of something I've experienced can turn into a story that is not at all like my real life (like me actually hacking to bits an ex - that never happened in real life, but the thought of it helped me create a funny horror story). Research into family history has also spurned additional historic fiction. Great post! I am sharing with my FB group!

February 26, 2012 at 6:09 PM  
Blogger Leslie Rose said...

I believe we are springboards for our stories. It's the brushstrokes we add that give our stories the dimension.

February 26, 2012 at 6:10 PM  
Blogger Cathryn Leigh said...

Ha ha YOur right Ruth I should totlaly use pen and paper... it's not like I don't always have some around... potentially the same some (heck even my phone note pad would do. I can e-mail them to myself and friends).

Oh and I completely forgot you were running a contest. I'd love to win Decades!

*giggles and grins*
Cathryn / Elorithryn

February 26, 2012 at 6:46 PM  
Blogger DeniseCovey_L_Aussie said...

DECADES sounds great. I can't understand writers who say they have trouble coming up with new story ideas. Hey, life is happening all around us, too many stories to mention.

Great post.


February 26, 2012 at 9:01 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Karen—What???!!! you mean you didn't actually hack your ex to bits! lol

Thanks for sharing with your FB group. I hope my comments about turning real life into fiction—I learned the hard way!—are helpful to people.

Leslie—You're absolutely right & you expressed it perfectly.

Cathryn—yes, let's hear it for pen & paper. If I get stuck writing on my computer, I find that switching to pen & paper can get me thru whatever is bugging me.

Denise—Thanks for the kind words. Sometimes the challenge isn't even coming up with a new idea. Sometimes the real problem is expressing an old idea in a new way.

February 27, 2012 at 5:40 AM  
Blogger Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I changed all the names of people that became characters in my book, but their personalities definitely came across in my fiction. It worked out a little too perfectly. Though if anyone asks me about it, I'll deny everything and call them a narcissist.

February 27, 2012 at 9:15 AM  
Blogger Sunny Frazier said...

I used two real cases from my experience with the sheriff's dept. for my books FOOLS RUSH IN and WHERE ANGELS FEAR. My publisher didn't put my photo on the back cover because we were afraid the drug dealer I based the case on would order a hit from prison. Thank goodness he died! But yes, I changed much of the story to keep it fiction. Plus, I published it after I retired so the Sheriff couldn't stop the publication.

Always need to tread lightly.

February 27, 2012 at 12:33 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Michael—lol...excellent idea!

Sunny—Very smart & in this case necessary! Sounds like you have an excellent source of great real life material.

February 27, 2012 at 2:12 PM  
Anonymous Phyllis Humphrey said...


A great post. I agree with Denise: there are stories everywhere. I've used my own experiences - travel, dumb things I've done etc - in fiction and wrote a memoir about my husband's aunt's year in an Oregon logging camp. I look forward to reading DECADES for reasons I can't disclose here. Thanks for the help.

February 27, 2012 at 9:59 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Phyllis—Thank you for the kind remarks. Love the idea of Auntie in a logging camp--brings lots of vivid, scary & entertaining images to mind!

February 28, 2012 at 10:48 AM  
Blogger patti.mallett_pp said...

I'm so happy to have traced your Blog over from Twitter, Anne! What Ruth is writing about today is exactly what I need. "DECADES" looks very intriguing, Ruth, and I will definitely be checking it out!

There has been a portion of my life itching to be put in a story. This past October, I used it for the foundation of my NaNo novel, deciding to spend a month with it, and see if it was worth the effort.

That is what I'm working on now, mostly slashing and rewriting. Whether is turns out to be a yawn, or a good yarn, it will be completed.

Thanks for the great advice here. It is extremely difficult to rewrite (and twist) our personal story so that is is interesting enough to pull readers in!

It's kind of like replacing a 40 watt light bulb with a 200 watt. (Only a lot more difficult. LOL)

I've Bookmarked the page and will be poring over it. Thanks much! Wishing you great success with DECADES!

February 28, 2012 at 11:58 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Patti—Thanks for the kind words about DECADES. Yes: slashing & rewriting, editing & revising are all key. You're ahead of the game because you have a draft to work with. Enjoy the process!

February 28, 2012 at 2:02 PM  
Blogger Steven J. Wangsness said...

DECADES. OK, now that that's taken care of...

Nice post. No. 3 is particularly important, and not universally observed, unfortunately!

March 2, 2012 at 12:17 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Steven—Thanks for the flattering words & good luck on the drawing!

March 2, 2012 at 12:49 PM  
Anonymous Martha Reynolds said...

This is one of the best posts I've read, because it's absolutely relevant to what I'm writing. I'd love to read DECADES! Ruth, you've provided some valuable information on creating fictional characters based on real people. Thhank you!

March 3, 2012 at 4:56 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Martha—Thanks so much for your kind words. When I wrote Decades, I stumbled around, using trial and error as I searched for a way to tell a dramatic story I thought would interest readers.

I'm glad my solutions to the problems I faced are relevant to you. I wrote the post hoping to help other writers facing the same issues.

Good luck with your book & the drawing!

March 3, 2012 at 5:05 AM  
Blogger Diana Stevan said...

I originally wrote a screenplay based on my experiences working on a psych. ward. I got an agent and got as far as Jodie Foster's agent with it, but nothing further happened. Then, I wrote it as a novel and again, nothing happened. For me, it was a learning experience. I was too close to the subject matter, and in that way it became too precious. So precious, that I kept re-writing and re-writing. I could've written five or six novels instead. Oh well, I learned a lot, and maybe that's what it's all about.

March 5, 2012 at 2:29 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Diana—I think you make an excellent point about being too close to the subject matter. I didn't write DECADES until quite a few years after the real life event. IME it takes a long time for a writer to process & digest the events & to see them with the perspective that permits fictional representation.

March 5, 2012 at 4:31 PM  
Anonymous Von Rupert said...

Hi Ruth, thanks so much for these tips. I run into so many people who tell me they have a great "real life" story to tell, but they don't know where to start. I LOVE that you start with "learn your craft." It makes perfect sense, yet so many people want to skip it. Thanks again! I'll definitely send this link to many. :)

March 7, 2012 at 3:47 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

VR—Thanks! It astonishes me how many people want to write a book but don't want to bother to learn the craft. Some don't even think there's anything to learn! Oy...my head hurts!

March 8, 2012 at 4:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What are your thoughts on writing a fictional book that include factual events that involve your close relative? If the book were picked up and suddenly your whole family, including the person themselves, are reading about how you see them... Basically the characters in your book are sounding a lot like relatives and suddenly there is a huge family feud....should you just wait till they are deceased?

October 6, 2012 at 2:24 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Anon-I think this is a problem all writers face. Family and friends will see themselves in your work, whether you put them in there intentionally or not. In a sense, all our characters are probably composites of people we have known, so we can't control all of it. If you consciously model a character after a real person, make sure you change important markers like appearance, age or gender. And it helps to give the character some fictional undesirable trait the real person would never want to claim :-) Or choose somebody who doesn't read. Luckily, fictional characters tend to take on lives of their own, so even if you start trying to imitate Aunt Susie, the character will probably start doing some very un-Aunt Susie things. But using some personal events or characteristics--big, obvious ones with the potential to wound--sometimes do have to wait until the real person has passed on.

October 6, 2012 at 1:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for your reply Anne, it totally made my weekend! I am fairly new to trying to put life to pen, so there are so many little quandaries swirling in my mind. :)

October 6, 2012 at 3:45 PM  
Blogger annabell said...

I am finally put it all down on paper after a decade of thinking about it
Very inspirational thankyou

January 14, 2013 at 8:22 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Annabell—Thank you for the kind words. I completely understand the need to think about something over a long period of time. Sometimes it takes a long time to process an experience sufficiently in order to write about it with some degree of perspective and clarity..

January 15, 2013 at 10:16 AM  
Blogger Making a Difference said...

DECADES I have not read, but your tips for turning "Real LIfe" into bestselling fiction was VERY helpful. Thank You. ~Jennifer

January 17, 2013 at 5:32 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Jennifer—Thank you for your kind words. So glad what I wrote about transforming Real Life into fiction was helpful.

January 19, 2013 at 11:22 AM  
Blogger Sunny Josephine said...

Thank you for all of these tips. I am in the middle of publishing a book on paranormal stories. I have originally started with stories I have heard from others, but have done lots of changing, their names, places, environments they live and their histories and at the end, some of my own experiences? I had been wondering about noting my book as 'inspired by actual events'? Which most is of course, but is it necessary to say that, as I have changed characters and events so much? Thank you

An Aspiring Writer

February 5, 2014 at 3:13 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Sunny Josephine—Do you want to include 'inspired by actual events' to help market your book? Or do you consider it a disclaimer? If you're not sure that you've sufficiently disguised the "real life" events and people, you should get a lawyer's advice.

February 5, 2014 at 10:33 AM  
Blogger Chris Conrad said...

I've completed my book on a period of my life full of turmoil. All the names and places have been changed. The characters have had some characteristics changed. But I am beginning to be concerned about some of the specific events that are described in detail, including the dialogue. I am on my third editing. I guess I will have to go back through and fictionalize all of the significant, identifyable events. I did create a completely fictional ending.

July 15, 2014 at 9:48 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Chris—As you change details/backgrounds/backstories and other identifying characteristics of your "real-life" characters, they will evolve into unique characters and take on their own lives. Don't be afraid to fictionalize.

July 17, 2014 at 8:16 AM  
Blogger Mole said...

Though I have numerous fascinating ancestors to draw on, I find they acquire a life of their own when I make them fictional, sometimes ending up with completely different lives and careers than evident in their 'true story'. This is no bad thing. Their DECADES take on greater significance and colour. Thank you for your guidance and inspirational ideas. Mole aka Rosemary DS

February 16, 2015 at 11:31 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Rosemary—Thank you for your kind words. Glad you found the post inspirational!

February 17, 2015 at 1:00 PM  
Blogger Anna Anderson said...

Hi, I'm currently writing a fictionalised novel of real events....its the story of my Great Grandfather and his 3 wives. I'm just wondering what the legalities are if you use real events, real names, and real places. I want to blend the reality and the fiction in a readable way, yet still remain true to the events that took place. If it based over 100 years ago, is there any legal problem with that? Just looking for some guidance here. Thanks!

October 22, 2015 at 1:59 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Anna--Ruth will probably have some suggestions, but my mom did this with her novel "Roxanna Britton", based on the life of her great grandmother. She called it a "biographical novel" which allowed for the made up parts.

You always have to make things up in terms of dialogue and transition scenes, even in the most accurate historical novel. As long as you make sure it says "novel", you can do whatever you want. Even in memoir and biography you have to take liberties and alter the truth to fit into a storyline. The only thing that would be likely to get you in trouble is outright slander. If you say Great Grandfather had an affair with Winston Churchill and you know it didn't happen, people might get upset. Other than that, let your imagination fill in the blanks!

October 22, 2015 at 3:44 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Anna--your question is about legalities so I can only advise that you ask s lawyer esp since you want to use real names and real events.

October 22, 2015 at 4:53 PM  

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