Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I Can Use This

How do writers use their own experiences in fiction? There's the obvious. Kathy Reichs, a forensic archaeologist, writes mysteries about a protagonist who's a forensic archaeologist. In his series that includes The Bookwoman's Last Fling and The Bookman's Promise, John Dunning uses his knowledge of the book business to write mysteries involving rare books. That he has had a varied career which involved thoroughbred racing, among other pursuits, helps him weave other threads into his fiction. (Note to self: sticking with the same career for over 30 years wasn't the best preparation for writing.) Immigrants to Canada often write about immigrants to Canada. (Boy, do immigrants to Canada write about immigrants to Canada!) People who grew up on the Plains often write stories about growing up on the Plains.

Yes, all that goes back to the old "write what you know," but aren't there less obvious ways we put ourselves into what we write? A famous writer, told that his latest book had the same theme as an earlier work, replied, "Of course it does! I've written the same book over and over, and I'll keep doing it until I get it right!" Some writers try to work out relationships in their own lives, usually problematic relationships, through their characters. Sons with fathers, daughters with mothers, husbands with wives, etc. Experiences may be revisited in a fictional world and played out to the same or different conclusion. The themes of our lives, whether we know or acknowledge it, may become the themes of our stories. Our conflicts may become the conflicts of our characters.

There are also incidental ways we put our world into a fictional world. A character may represent a person in our lives or may share physical or personality traits with a real person--a mother, a brother, the girl with the cellphone who annoyed us on the bus, the man arguing with the older woman in the restaurant--or be an amalgam of several people. (It's handy to have a lot of siblings and cousins.) The same is true of the places we've been. Our fictional settings can be places or a combination of places we know well.

Emotions? Actors are known for thinking during even the most personal experiences, "I can use this." Writers may be much the same, mining the past and present for emotions they can "use." Perhaps we control our emotions, rage not leading to murder, sexual attraction not leading to the abandonment of our spouse and children, but what if our characters don't exercise the same restraint?

We think we write fiction. But how much do we really make up?