Fictionalizing True Stories: Mining Real Life for Plots and Characters
by WLT Intern Kelsey Williams
The essence of fiction is make believe—a world all its own. Why, then, is the fiction we write so deeply rooted in our own life experiences? February’s Third Thursday panelists—novelists Charlotte Gullick, Varian Johnson, Ruth Pennebaker, and Mary Helen Specht—all agreed: We cannot escape the influences of our daily lives, our unique and curated perspective on the fiction we create.
The audience’s positive reactions throughout the event further grounded the universal understanding of the link between true experiences and fiction, though each panelist’s approach to channeling their lives into their work provided insight into the ways we can work with our memories.
For Charlotte Gullick, author of By Way of Water, it’s good to first establish what is true fact—hard fact, such as the five senses—and use this to cultivate fiction. Ruth Pennebaker, author of Pucker Up! The Subversive Woman’s Guide to Aging with Wit, Wine, Drama, Humor, Perspective, and the Occasional Good Cry, thinks in a similar vein—fact based on life’s experiences are the “germ” of the story, the inevitable spread and beginning of an idea.
Mary Helen Specht, author of Migratory Animals, while ultimately agreeing that true-life experiences and fact have an important place in the fiction she writes, is more interested in the “What Ifs.” Specht uses fiction to explore what might have happened in life—the avenues which in real life existed but were not ultimately the paths taken. It’s in the woven nature of fiction where details have their home.
Varian Johnson, author of The Great Greene Heist, believes in the “kernel” of real life—the spark of true facts that mold our stories. Through this molding and shaping, we eventually find themes that work to represent our lives—themes that may not have yet been apparent as patterns in our psyche. For Gullick, these themes that unlock in our writing represent what’s from the heart, and expose what we may have been avoiding. Pennebaker brought up that this may be dangerous—other people can start to see themselves in your work.
Specht spoke about these themes in terms of “Big T” and “Little t” truths. There are Truths in your fiction that exist to function as a core learning experience. “Little t” truths are the sensory experience—both experiences matter in your work, but it’s the “Big T” truths that are the most important take aways that one can use in their fiction.
Truth and fiction seem to not be able to exist in the same mode—and yet we have stories, like the stories our panelists have created, that show us that truth and fiction can coexist, and, like wine and cheese, they work only to maximize beauty when put together.
Join us next Third Thursday where we can continue to examine truths (both “Big T” and “little t”) together.
Kelsey Williams is a full-time bookseller and part-time short story writer. She loves art, literature, and the little smiles people get when they text someone that they love.