One Writer’s Journey

October 16, 2018

Fact vs Fiction: Stories Based on Real Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:40 am
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This past week, a fight broke out at the local high school.  Apparently it was “a big one” by whatever standards are used to quantify these things. The students who started it were not from our school and somehow accessed the building in spite of locked doors, students required to wear IDs and security guards.

One student reported to his mother that the school was on lockdown for two full classes.  Or so she claimed on Facebook.  Several other parents, parents I know, said that their children said no lockdown, the principal said no lockdown, and the announcement about the event didn’t mention a lockdown.  To which mom responded, “Are you calling my kid a liar?”

Writing about this as nonfiction would be tough.  Why would this kid like?  Why do some people talk about how strict the security is and others claim there is next to none?  How do you separate the fact from the fable?  It isn’t easy, but if you are going to write something like this up, you need to do it.

Writing this whole scenario up as a fictional story is an entirely different situation.  Let’s say that a girl let the boys in because one of them had a nice smile.  I don’t know that’s what happened.  I’m just spinning possibilities.  But if I wrote that in fiction, I’d have to make it pretty compelling.  Why would she do this?  Kids break rules in real life but in fiction they have to break them for a reason.

And what about the kid who is lying to his mother?  What if he isn’t?  Again this is my spinning a tale.  What if he is painfully honest and she’s lying to get her ex-husband the head of security fired?

One of the trickiest things about using reality to build fiction is knowing what to change.  Sometimes we hesitate to change how things happened when a change would create a more compelling, believable story.  Read your local paper.  Keep up on events at the local high school.  Both can lead to more story ideas than you have time to pursue.


January 18, 2018

Writing a Fictional Story Based on Fact

If you like to write fiction based on fact, be sure to read Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. 

I have to admit that although the book was originally published in 2012, I just read it.  For the first time.  Yes, it had been recommended to me.  Yes, I had seen the book and therein lay the problem.  I had seen the cover.  It looked depressing and I have a soft spot for great apes in general, gorillas in particular.  I really did not want to be depressed about gorillas. But I finally read it and I am so glad that I did.

Applegate based her story on the life of a real gorilla that lived in a mall.  He hadn’t been with other gorillas for over two decades.  Now he lives at a zoo in Atlanta. Applegate knew about this gorillas life when she decided to write her story.  But she wanted to give Ivan the chance to be a real silverback.  The silverback doesn’t just sire little gorillas.  He is their protector.

If that is true, how can a gorilla who lives alone be a silverback?  This is why Applegate wrote the story as fiction.

Oddly enough, the real gorilla liked to paint so Applegate didn’t have  to add that detail.  But in order to give him someone to protect, she had to change the story.  So she added a baby elephant, Ruby.  Ivan promises to make sure that Ruby has a better life and thus has to do something to make it happen.

Not only does this fictional gorilla have the opportunity to be a real silverback, he also gets to be a strong protagonist.  In addition to protecting Ruby, he solves his own problem.  This isn’t some thing that was available in reality so Applegate fictionalized it to make a stronger story.

Writing fiction based on fact is tough.  When we try it, we are tempted to hold on to too much.  Instead we need to discover the Essence of the true story.  We need to make certain that ends up in our fictionalized tale and then craft the best possible story around it.

To read more on writing fact based fiction, check out Fiction or Nonfiction: An Opportunity to Craft the Best Story  and How to Write Fact Based Fiction.


November 14, 2017

Stories Based on Real Life: Reality with a Twist

“That would make a great story.  You should write it.” If your family and friends are anything like mine, they love pointing out when some event would make a great story.  And in all reality life is a great place to find inspiration.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I read the picture book Robinson by Peter Sis (Scholastic Press, 2017).  In this book, the narrator and his friends love pirates.  They play pirates all the time.  But when the time comes for the school costume party, the main character, encouraged by his mother, decides to dress as his favorite character – Robinson Crusoe.  His friends are not amused.  Back at home, he dreams of great adventures and when he awakens his friends have come to check on him.  Soon they are all playing castaway.

The story was inspired by an event that Sis experienced as a child but it differed in several key ways.  Why then did he not duplicate his experience in the story?  Because reality very seldom arranges itself as a perfect picture book manuscript.  Here are just a few of the things you may need to change:

Motivation. Your characters have to have a motivation for their actions.  In life, you may not always know what that motivation is.  In picture books it is a necessity.  But that’s okay.  Fiction picture books don’t have to duplicate what inspired them.

Satisfying Ending.  Not all real-life situations have a satisfying conclusion. You may never find the missing object, but in a picture book your ending must satisfy.  If the main goal is not achieved, it still has to resonate and be something that readers will want to revisit. To make the story work, it may not duplicate reality but that’s okay.

Solution.  In the best picture books, the young character solves their own story.  They may have some help but the motivation and the actual effort must the their own.  In reality, picture book aged people have much less autonomy. But that’s okay.

Time.  You may need to expand or contract the timeline to make your story work.  A story that takes weeks and weeks to resolve, especially if it is weeks and weeks of the same old same old, may not work in picture book form.  But that’s okay.

Why?  Why is it okay?

Fiction picture books don’t have to duplicate what inspired them.



November 18, 2015

Crafting Life Based Fiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:51 am
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fact based fiction 2A friend of mine is writing a middle grade novel based on something that happened when she was in school.  Another friend is writing a picture book based on a story she told her now-adult child each night.  I’ve drawn on my relationships with various people when I create relationships between my characters.

Many writers create life-based fiction and they do it for good reason.  Exciting things happen.  We know interesting people.  The emotions we feel are the emotions that we want to bring to our readers through our characters.

That said, it isn’t easy to translate life into fiction and there has to be some translation.  We don’t always know people’s motivates people and, face it, some motives are just not all that great.  People also act out of character.  You’ve seen it when a super sloppy kid meets the girl of his dreams and manages to show up at school one day looking picture perfect.

Reality is messy.  To work well, fiction has to be much less so.  Characters act in character.  Plot builds, step by logical step.  When your life-based writing doesn’t do one of these things, your reader notice.  They don’t care if that’s how it really happened.  They want a story that works.

Unfortunately, many of us hesitate to make the changes. Whine along with me — “That’s not how it really happened…”

If you’re writing memoir or other nonfiction, that matters.  You have to write the facts.

If you’re writing fiction, real life has to take second place to creating a solid story.  I’m not saying that if your reader says “change this right here” that you need to make that specific change.  But what I am saying is that you need to listen.  You need to realize that, as lived and as written, your story may not be working.  You need to figure out why and you need to figure out how to fix it.

In that way its just like writing any other fiction.


November 17, 2014

Fiction Based on Real Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:10 am
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life based fictionHave you ever tried writing a fiction story based on an event in your own life?  It can be really tough.  You want to write it the way that it happened and not change a thing.

But that doesn’t generally work.  No matter how true the story might be, it still need to work as a story.  That means that:

Motivations have to exist.  In real life, you might have done something on a whim.  “Let’s try this and see what happens.” That’s a lot harder to pull off in fiction.  Your character has to want something specific and she has to have a reason for wanting it.  The same holds true for your antagonist.  He can’t want to mess things up for your protagonist for no reason what-so-ever even if that seemed to be the case in real life.  Your story has to function as a story.

Coincidence needs to be minimized in your story.  Things can’t just randomly happen.  Yes, that might be the way it happend in real life, because coincidents really do happen all the time.  You look out the window just in time to see something happen.  You show up a half hour early and miss a huge wreck on the highway.  That’s fine . . . in real life.  But too many coincidents in a story make it look like you did a bad job of planning things out.

You have to make the real event work as a story and that will require making changes to what really happened.  To find out about writing fiction based on a real historic event, read my post from yesterday at the Muffin.


April 24, 2013

How to Write Fact Based Fiction

fact based fictionRecently, I got a manuscript back from an editor.  Not only had she read it but she made comments as well.  Evidence of actual reading!  Oh, joyous happy dance. Then, I read one of her comments.  “Finishing this job is easy.  There’s no way he would put it off.”

Seriously?  I live with this character, or at least I live with the person behind the character.  This person would definitely put this task off.  Easy?  So what.  That doesn’t matter.  The question is does he want to do it, because he puts off everything he doesn’t want to do.  Easy.  Important.  Urgent.  If he doesn’t want to do something, he will get it done at the very last possible moment even if his putting it off is causing me to break out in hives.  I’ve actually told him his ability to procrastinate is the lamest super power ever.  That’s reality.

But what I’m writing is fiction.  This means that if this action doesn’t work in the story, it doesn’t work.  It doesn’t matter if that’s how something really happened or not.

A story may be based on things that actually happened, but fiction is not fact.  Very often, it has to make more sense than real life makes.  The logical connections need to be there for one and all to see and understand.  Just because something happened in real life doesn’t mean that it will work in fiction.

Does this mean that I’m changing my character’s action?  Yes and no.  He has to procrastinate for there to even be a story, but I can change some other things that will make his procrastinating seem more logical by making this final step more difficult.   After all, this is fiction and doesn’t have to take place the same way it would in real life.  Use reality to fuel your fiction, but don’t let it limit your story.



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