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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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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, November 2, 2014

How to Turn "Real Life" into Bestselling Fiction...and a Word about Memoirs

by Ruth Harris 

Writing a novel based on the lives of real people is much more than simply recounting their story—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) Master the abc’s of 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—free-lance blurb writing, articles for men’s adventure magazines and for women’s magazines. I also wrote original paperbacks, mostly Gothic romance and romantic suspense, under a variety of pseudonyms.

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) The Rashomon effect.

Real life—and coincidence—provided me with the initial spark for what would become the story of an extra-marital affair and a marriage in crisis. The coincidence was that I happened, quite by accident, to know each of the three people involved, two much better than the third.

The three were: a successful but restless husband, the shy, insecure, rich girl he marries on his way up, and a fashion editor who becomes “the other woman.” Two of them confided “their” versions, giving me two different points of view and invaluable perspective. 

None of them knew—nor did I at the time—that years later, haunted by their story, I would turn their dramas into fiction.

3) Beware the “it really happened” trap.

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 and irresolution of everyday life into the demands of a novel.

Knowing the “real people” turned out to be both a blessing and a hurdle, a limitation and a spring board. I found that the real events that seemed so compelling when told to me often either fell flat in fiction or else were quite literally unbelievable.

After getting bogged down over and over because I kept thinking “it really happened” was important, it eventually dawned on me that ignoring “it really happened” was even more important. 

The incidents and encounters I invented served the demands of a novel much better.

4) Privacy and liberation.

Of course I changed names but, as I began to write, I realized I had to go further and change initials, too. It wasn’t enough to change John Doe into Jack Dawson. The initials “JD” kept triggering unwanted memories of the real person and interfering with the creation of a believable fictional character.

A radical name change—to Mark Saint Clair, for example—guaranteed JD’s privacy and, from a writer’s point of view, had the secondary effect of freeing me from any reminders of the real John Doe/Jack Dawson.

The liberating consequence was that I felt free to change the husband’s ethnicity, physical appearance, the details of his childhood, and entirely fictional military and educational experience. I made him taller, handsomer and more successful than he really was, changed his profession, and invented a fictionally significant relationship with his daughter.

5) Help your reader relate.

The fashion editor was a stylish Manhattan single woman who led a hectic, quite glam social life. In the novel, I wanted a character more representative of everyday experience so fun and gossipy fashion-world details went mano a mano with the delete button and lost.

Instead, I portrayed a woman more characteristic of her 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 and, as opportunities for women opened up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, learns (the hard way) how to conduct herself in a challenging and competitive business world.

Each of the other characters received a similar makeover. I invented parents for the fictional wife, created a sexual history for her emblematic of post-World War II cultural attitudes, and gave her a talent even she didn’t recognize—a talent that, in the end, rescues her. 

6) The geographical imperative.

The events took place mainly in Manhattan but, as my draft took shape, I realized the setting was too limited and that I needed to give my characters breathing room. 

The characters in Decades do live in Manhattan, but I added important scenes set in Florida, Nantucket, and the Caribbean.

Using different settings helped me show how the characters behaved away from their usual routines. 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) Raise the stakes.

Almost any “real life” story by its nature, tends to be limited to the people directly involved and their immediate circle. (Unless your story is about someone you know who happens to be President of the United States whose actions have global consequences.)

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 between consenting adults 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) Theme and variations.

The final element that transformed real life into fiction occurred to me as I was halfway through an early 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. That realization gave me a theme that supported the fiction—and 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, living, breathing albeit 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 that readers could relate to in an entertaining and story-appropriate way.

I certainly didn’t plan any of it in advance. All I knew when I began was that life had handed me a fascinating story. The false starts, tough decisions, and dead ends ultimately led to an international bestseller that explored dramatic personal dynamics set against an era of tumultuous social and cultural change, the repercussions of which we still feel today.

Wasn’t easy but definitely worth it.

A few words about writing a memoir.

Unlike fiction in which the reader has no expectation of a “true story,” the memoir promises the opposite: an approximation of real life. The decisions the writer of a memoir must make come down to "how much do I want to reveal" and, considering the vagaries of memory, "how far can I deviate from the truth?"

Jane Friedman addresses some questions memoirists must answer in How True and Factual Does Your Memoir Have to Be?

If you want to tell your own story but are undecided about whether to present it as a memoir or a novel, Leslie Lehr lays out the advantages of each.

Dana Sitar, author of This Artists’ Life, details seven mistakes to avoid when writing a memoir.

My DH, Michael Harris, required fifty years to write his bestselling memoir, The Atomic Times, about his experiences as a young soldier assigned to “observe” the US H-bomb tests. In an interview on this blog, he explains what took so long and discusses the importance of voice, perspective, and POV.

What about you, Scriveners? Have you tried to write fiction based on real characters and situations? How did it work for you? Have you been thinking of writing a memoir and wondered how much you could bend the truth? Have you found you got hung up in "the way it really happened?"


DECADES: 2014 edition revised by the author for today's reader.

And it's FREE!!

"The songs we sang, the clothes we wore, the way we made love. Absolutely perfect!" ...Publisher's Weekly

Kindle  |  iBooks  |  Nook  |  Kobo  |  GooglePlay

THREE WOMEN. THREE DECADES. Spanning the years from the optimistic post-War 1940s to the Mad Men 1950s and rule-breaking "Make Love, Not War" 1960s, DECADES is about three generations of women who must confront the radical changes and upended expectations of the turbulent decades in which they lived.

Evelyn, talented but insecure, is a traditional woman of the Forties. She is a loyal and loving wife and mother whose marriage and family mean everything to her.

Nick, handsome and ambitious, a chameleon who changes with the changing times, is her successful but restless husband.

Joy, their daughter, confused and defiant, a child of the Sixties, needs them both but is torn between them.

Barbara is the other woman, younger than Evelyn, accomplished but alone. She is a transitional woman of the Fifties who wonders if she can have everything--including another woman's husband.

DECADES, sweeping in scope yet intimate in detail, is the emotional, compelling story of family, marriage, crisis, betrayal and healing.


WALKER PERCY PRIZE IN SHORT FICTION $15 ENTRY FEE. Winner receives $1,000 and publication in New Orleans Review. All finalists considered for publication. Enter previously unpublished original stories up to 7,500 words. Deadline December 31st

Writers’ Village International Short Fiction Contest $24 entry fee. Prizes of $1600, $800, $400 and $80. A further ten Highly Commended entrants will receive a free entry in the next round. Professional feedback provided for all entries! Any genre: up to 3000 words. Deadline December 31st.

SCHNEIDER FAMILY BOOK AWARDS: NO ENTRY FEE. These awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences. Three awards of $5000 each will be given annually in each of the following categories: birth through grade school (age 0-10), middle school (age 11-13) and teens (age 13-18). May be fiction, biography, or other form of nonfiction. Deadline December 1, 2014. 

JANE LUMLEY PRIZE FOR EMERGING WRITERS NO ENTRY FEE.  The Prize is awarded annually to a writer who has not published a full length book of poetry or prose. This year is poetry. The winner will receive a prize of $300 and will be featured in Issue 6 of the Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal. Deadline November 30th.

 to be published in January 2015. Publication will also be awarded to the first two semi-finalists. In addition, all the entries will be considered for publication. Deadline November 30

MUSEUM OF WORDS MICRO FICTION CONTESTNO ENTRY FEE. The competition is for very short fiction pieces of up to a maximum of 100 words. The winner will receive a prize of $20,000, with three runners-up each receiving $2,000. This contest is open to writers from all countries and entries are accepted in four languages: English, Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew. All stories entered must be original and unpublished. The last Museum of Words contest attracted 22,571 entries from writers in 119 countries. Deadline November 23, 2014.

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Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

In a nutshell, let real life inspire, but still write as if it's fiction.
Real life can indeed be rather boring. Or the other extreme, unrealistic. Especially when you see a horrific deed in the news and you can't believe someone would really do that - you really won't believe it in a book.

November 2, 2014 at 10:26 AM  
Blogger CS Perryess said...

Thanks for another fine post. I couldn't agree more with your suggestion to avoid “it really happened” trap. So many writers get bogged in the facts (or what their memories retrieve as fact) & forget that the power of fiction is *story* & all that entails. Keep up the good work.

November 2, 2014 at 10:32 AM  
OpenID characterfulwriter said...

We don't get enough of this 'writing process' kind of article. It was good to see how the final work emerged.

November 2, 2014 at 10:47 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Alex—You've said it so well: real life should inspire. Should definitely not be a literal guideline. And you're right: generally speaking, real life is either boring….or way over the top! Thanks!

CS—Thanks for the kind words and for keeping the focus on *story* which, after all, is what readers crave.

characterfulwriter—Just as I was able to write the story only long after it really happened, I couldn't really see the process with any perspective until years later. Interesting how long it takes (at least for me) to process!

November 2, 2014 at 11:36 AM  
OpenID paulfahey said...

Byy, Ruth, this is a honey of a post. What great insight into your writing process. And I'm getting Decades. The synopsis of Decades reminds me a bit of the books I read in the sixties and seventies by Rona Jaffe. Loved her work. Hope that's seen as a compliment as I surely meant it that way. Great advice on memoirs too. I've never written one but have done flash memoir pieces or vignettes and played around a lot with reality by using what I learned in flash fiction to write engaging scenes. At least I hope I did. All the best your way. Paul

November 2, 2014 at 12:34 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Paul—I'm flattered by the comparison to RJ. She was an excellent writer, an astute cultural observer. She was also a particularly nice person and a close friend—at times she and I had the same publisher and same editor. Trust me, we shared lots of war stories. ;-)

Hope you enjoy Decades!

November 2, 2014 at 1:28 PM  
Blogger Barry Knister said...

Thank you for this useful description of the process or evolution Decades went through. I think the lengthy delay between actual events and your use of them must have been crucial to your success. My version of "it really happened" has always stood between me and using actual events and people. Whenever I've tried to do it, a school marm-like moral imperative intrudes, demanding that I be faithful to "what actually happened." But of course what actually happened is a history, not a story.
But that's okay. I'm perfectly happy using bits and pieces from memory--a little of this, a little of that--and brewing it up in fictions. As people are all too fond of saying: whatever works.
Thanks again for a very engaging post.

November 2, 2014 at 1:57 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Barry--pleased you found the post useful. You're right--the passage of time was essential. The only way I was able to have enough perspective. You also make an excellent point about using bits and pieces. In a way we are making quilts.

November 2, 2014 at 2:17 PM  
Blogger Julie Musil said...

What fun to learn how your book came to be, Ruth. I love watching the news or reading the headlines online and using them in fiction. For instance, my latest release was born after I watched a high speed freeway chase on a Los Angeles freeway. Two teens were caught with loads of weapons in their truck. Oh, the what ifs that came from that!

November 2, 2014 at 6:49 PM  
OpenID tinadavidson said...

Thanks for your advice and free copy of your book, Decades #1. I am working on dramatizing an event I attended. I love the challenge of taking a mundane topic and making it exciting, relevant, and funny.

November 2, 2014 at 8:55 PM  
Blogger Claude Nougat said...

Ruth, this is one of the best posts you've ever written and of course it relates to your novel Decades that I consider a 20th century masterpiece: it is the Big Novel by which, I am totally convinced, you will go down in History. It is a must read for anyone interested in contemporary literature - it does so many things besides chronicling beautifully 3 generations and what is remarkable, is that it transcends genre. Sure, it is a love triangle, but you handle all the details of genre (here romance) so well, that you manage to lift the whole novel to an entirely new level. As you can tell, I'm a great fan of yours and I tell everyone I meet to read Decades!

It is interesting that in this connection, you should mention memoirs writing, because that happens to be what I'm into now (more or less) - I plan to publish a book about the United Nations where I worked 25 years and publish it under my real name, Claude Forthomme, because it makes sense, that's how I'm known in that environment ( I finished as Director but I was a field soldier for 20 years, traveling to developing countries to evaluate aid projects).

So it will be both an analysis of what's wrong with the UN and where it is going, the challenges it must face in our rapidly globalizing world that is bringing in big new actors beyond national governments (e.g. the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). But it will also be a memoir, I shall recount some of the more amazing experiences I've been through (already some of it published as articles on Impakter magazine, to a surprising success - large number of shares! - much to my surprise as I thought this would be rather a "niche" sort of thing...) And you're so right, the way one writes a memoir, using the "weapons" of fiction writers, makes all the difference!

November 3, 2014 at 1:19 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Julie—Wow! Teens with weapons? Oy. No wonder you came up with lots of what-ifs.

Goes to prove that *nothing* is wasted on a writer! Bottom line: we never know where our next great idea is coming from. :-)

November 3, 2014 at 4:57 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Tina—Taking a mundane topic and making it into compelling reading is such a constructive way to view everyday life. It *is* a challenge and can really help you grow as a writer.

Hope you enjoy Decades!

November 3, 2014 at 4:59 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Claude—Thank you for your extraordinarily flattering words. Decades was one of those "overnight" successes that took over ten years of work in obscurity. Thank you, too, for your PR efforts on my behalf! :-)

Your memoir sounds fascinating. You must have had all kinds of amazing encounters and experiences that will interest lots of people. As you put it so well, the "weapons" of fiction apply to a memoir which is, after all, a story, another kind of story. I'm looking forward to reading it!

November 3, 2014 at 5:15 AM  
OpenID connienaka said...

Ruth, thank you so much for writing this post. As another reader stated, it is difficult to find articles that discuss the process of piecing together a novel from a " real life" story. Before my beloved aunt died she handed me a manuscript, her memoir. She'd written down everything she could recall from life during the 30's and 40's in rural Germany. It's fascinating, filled with many details about the lives of my ancestors. There is drama and love and suspense and horror! She was quite a character and her words to me, upon handing me the manuscript were " I command you to do something with it."

For two years now I've been struggling - much of the struggle comes from guilt at wanting to change things, add characters - make the story come alive. After reading this post I feel as though a huge weight has been lifted and I'm " free".

Thank you. You've just gained another faithful reader. I've also just downloaded your book " Decades" to my Nook. I'm looking forward to reading it.

November 5, 2014 at 9:51 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Connie—So glad my post helped! Setting yourself free from the snares of "real life" is crucial in the process of creating fiction but it's not always easy to remember that you're writing a novel, not a memoir, and that fiction doesn't demand "what really happened." Not at all.

We feel tethered to the true life story in so many ways—because of guilt, because we want to respect the real people and their experiences, because we have a sense that in some obscure way we're stealing even tho we're not and even tho, as in your case, your aunt wanted you to use her memories. A complicated brew!

Thanks for downloading Decades. I hope you enjoy it.

November 6, 2014 at 4:53 AM  
Blogger Barbara M. Hodges said...

This couldn't have come at a better time. I've been told a true story that will make a fantastic fiction novel. I've never did anything along the line, so this helps so much.

And thanks for the book. I'm looking forward to reading it.

November 7, 2014 at 6:56 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Barbara—So pleased to hear that the timing is just right for you. I hope learning from my mistakes will make your work much, much easier! :-)

I hope you will enjoy Decades!

November 7, 2014 at 10:32 AM  

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