Monday, September 10, 2012

Using Life Experiences (Part 1) by Morgan St. James #GuestPost #writertip

Morgan St. James is an award winning multi-published author, speaker and columnist. She has written over 500 published articles relative to the craft of writing and people in the industry, as well as the book Writers’ Tricks of the Trade: 39 Things You Need to Know About the ABCs of Writing Fiction. 

Today and tomorrow, she shares with us her tips on using Real Life Experiences in your writing.

How to relate life experiences to your writing
Even if you feel as though there was nothing really special about your journey along the path of life, you would be surprised at the treasures you can find if you open your mind and explore. Life experiences and emotions are priceless when writing fiction, creative non-fiction and yes, memoirs even if there is no story that seems worthy of a book. Two perfect examples of captivating memoirs from ordinary women are “Dancingin My Nightgown: The Rhythms of Widowhood,” by Betty Auchard and “CanWe Come In and Laugh, Too?” by Rosetta Schwartz, my mother.

Betty, married to the love of her life for many years, depended upon him for everything. Now she has to learn to cope after he dies, and it wasn’t easy. She takes you through the steps of emerging as an independent woman after years of being half of a couple, deftly telling the tale of her struggles and triumphs. A story many women can relate to. Rosetta, who was born in 1909, tells of being the youngest in a zany family of ten children when the world was so different. She takes you all the way through to 1989 when, at the age of 80, she wrote her story. Rosetta, too, faced challenges in life and always depended upon what she learned as a child growing up in a family with more laughter than money. The title of her book says it all. The neighbors always used to knock on the door and ask if they could come in and laugh too. She looked at bumps in the road with laughter and taught her whole family to do the same. She inspired people to believe in themselves.

Then there are memoirs like “TheButterfly Garden: Surviving Life on the Run with One of America’s Most Wanted,” by Chip St. Clair, the horrific story of growing up in total fear. As a boy, he never knew what would set his father off--maybe the ice cubes had melted in his glass of Tab, maybe dinner was overcooked or undercooked or the gravy was too runny. Regardless, the beatings always came. As did the twisted games of cat and mouse--being thrown from a rowboat into frigid Lake Michigan, the middle-of-the-night moves to different states, or being left to dangle over a ten-story balcony while his father watched from inside. Somehow he tells it all in a way you can understand right through to the point where as an adult he becomes an advocate for abused children.

Keeping this in mind, your own experiences can be used to breathe reality into fictional characters. Forget just stringing together a series of words describing physical attributes and how the character carries out routine or off-the-chart situations—perhaps spiced with inner thoughts. There is more to creating someone with feelings and emotions and a physical presence. Doing that doesn’t have to be daunting. The reader sees events through the eyes of these players in the story, so at all costs avoid moving paper dolls or overblown figures through the scenes. Here is where the advice, ‘draw from what you know,’ comes into play.

This is a place where adjectives, adverbs, similes and metaphors are your friends as long as they aren’t overused. Sprinkling them in the right places sparks the reader’s imagination. It allows them to draw parallels to familiar images and see them in their mind’s eye. Overuse them, however, and it minimizes everything. Why? Because with each new spouting of a simile, metaphor or more adjectives or adverbs than should ever be huddled together in the same sentence, the reader begins wonder how many more of these they can endure.

To avoid clichés, reach into your own experiences and picture things that impressed you. Put the image into words and apply it to something about your character. For example, the woman had shining blonde hair. If it was straight, did it just hang there or shimmer like a golden shawl?
Why would I choose the simile of a golden shawl for this example? Because I pictured a former business partner and friend who had hair like that. I could never look at her without thinking of a golden silk shawl. Let’s say the hair isn’t straight, but curly. Is it in tight ringlets perhaps described as coiled little ringlets like the fur on a pampered poodle? Maybe this blonde hair undulates in luxurious waves reminiscent of waves kissed by the glow of the sun as they push toward shore.
In each of these examples we picture a different person. And, every reader will have their unique vision of that person. Simply saying “her straight blonde hair” or “curly blonde hair” would never launch imagination in the same way.

So often these images are fleeting, triggered by something someone said, something we remembered or saw, but even with Herculean effort, we can’t pull them back when we need them. They lurk right at the edge of recognition, then slip away. One way to capture them is to keep a log. When an image like that pops into your mind, distinct images and emotions ride on their coattails, leaving you with a describable impression. Reach for the little spiral notebook—we all should have one of those—and flip to the section you’ve set aside for just such visions. Using the same example as above, assume you imagined hair badly in need of care. Maybe you would jot down: her blonde hair reminded me of a field of hay long past the time it should have been harvested.

Morgan has recently published:
Vanishing Act in Vegas – The third silver sisters mystery

What are some of the life experiences you've written about? read about? Were the scenes more realistic because of your personal experience? Leave a question for Morgan in the comment section, and come back Friday for Part II.


  1. Hey there do you ever worry about friends or family reading your work and getting upset about your impressions?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Not really. Many of our characters are composites, taking one feature from one and another from a different one. Except in the case of true stories. For example, The Second Time Around, and The Mafia Funeral in the anthology "The MAFIA FUNERAL and Other Short Stories" are both true. They are funny and nothing is derogatory. I try not to make anyone a villain unless I have their permission. As for my new book, "Confessions of a Cougar," I contacted my friend who is called Ann in the book, and she was delighted. She can't wait for me to give her a copy.

      If you are making someone a character that would be objected to by the real one, I suggest incorporating elements of various other people so it is not exactly that person.

      Thanks for the question.

  2. I had to chuckle over your first comment/question. When I write characters who aren't even slightly based on friends and family, someone still thinks it's them.

    You gave some excellent advise and you're absolutely right about keeping a notebook handy. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

    Marja McGraw

  3. Thanks for checking in Marja. That notebook really helps.

    I had all sorts of memories committed to paper when it came to writing Who's Got the Money? As I reviewed them, very clear mental images came to mind. Like touring a prison factory where the workers were all proud of what they were doing and being in a massive military warehouse. All elements that entered into setting scenes in Who's Got the Money?

    When my friend and I took the trip to England that became Confessions of a Cougar this month, I kept a complete journal and carried it around with me for years. Of course, when it came time to write the book I couldn't find it, but because I'd written everything down back in 1980 and re-read it several times during the years, my memories were clear.

    Incidentally, my son is a memory expert gave seminars all over the country at one time. Something to remember is that the body remembers before the mind does. When you write something down, you place it in motor memory. Maybe that's why everything came back to me.

  4. Excellent advice, especially on avoiding cliches. I'm using my experiences for my mystery novels. My character is the total opposite of myself, but I can still use places I've been, my feelings and my imagination to build my hero. Thanks for the post!

  5. Sally, that is so right. It is like getting "jump started," isn't it?

  6. When people ask if Ghost Orchid is about real people, I answer, "of course. They live in the pages of the story, borrowing their experiences from real life and shaping them to their own needs. I give them emotions I have learned, places I have been and the freedom to live their own life. Place is real; what happens there is enhanced by the imagination of the author and the reader." author of Ghost Orchid

  7. That is exactly what I'm talking about. When you give the characters real life experiences they don't seem contrived. When you use places you've been, even if it is only your own backyard, they feel like a place instead of a painted backdrop. Good comment, DK.

    It is one of the things I love about the writing of Robert Crais and Michael Connelly. They place many of their books in L.A., a town I've lived in most of my life. The descriptions are so right on and vivid, I feel like I'm right beside them in a neighborhood I know. In fact, in one Robert Crais book they were driving down a little-known street I used to live on, and the description was perfect.

  8. Fictionalizing real life experience is an important part of creating fiction. That's why keeping a daily journal is helpful. As you point out, those fleeting thoughts and impressions are ephemeral and need to be caught before their gone. I think of Virginia Woolf's writing in that context.

  9. Plus, sometimes it is fun to relive those experiences. Like in "Confessions of a Cougar." Ah, Jeremy and those other sexy Englishmen. Or looking back at some of the crazy things that happened during that trip, my friend who was the model for Sue and I still count it as our best adventure---ever. But then, that is creative non-fiction, not fiction.

    More on point to your comment, Jacqueline, without the experiences my co-author and I had when we marketed furniture manufactured in federal prisons, there is no way "Who's Got the Money?" could ever have been written. Yes, it is pure fiction, but Meredith kept so many notes and documents, when we concocted our clever embezzlement scheme, together with our knowledge of how the program works and having talked with inmates and been inside some of the factories, it was invaluable.

  10. Late to this party! Just wanted to say that Morgan hit the nail on the head with characterization work and realism. Will check out Part 2 on Friday!

  11. Thank you everyone for stopping by. I'll be checking in throughout the day on Friday.