All us writers do it, subconsciously or consciously. We all insinuate bits and pieces of things that happened to us into our plots. There’s nothing wrong with it—especially because it’s impossible to avoid—but the question then becomes, what is the tipping point at which personal experiences turn a story into a memoir?
After all, as writers, we save every little event, personality, embarrassment, or success and file them away in little teeny cabinets in our brains, where they undergo a certain rehabilitation. Then at some point in a story a little bulb lights or pinprick pricks (for those who write BDSM something more painful happens) that says: Aha! I remember being in a similar circumstance and this is what happened. At that point we drag the memory out, massage it a little, and stick it into the story. In my latest book, Lapses of Memory, the heroine, a feisty journalist who prides herself on her iron stomach, meets her match in a Pork Vindaloo in Beirut. I can still taste the fumes. In Losers Keepers, a mystery romance, the heroine watches a man clamming in the low tide between Chincoteague and Assateague Islands. I can still hear the slurp and chuck as he pulled one boot after the other from the mud flats.
Since the writer actually experienced the event, one presumes it will be more authentic sounding—the adjectives spot on, etc. Or, to play the devil’s advocate, is it just easier to draw on a pre-fabricated memory?
I confess I have had quite a few adventures in my life. I’ve been traveling the world since I was five. I’ve lived on or visited every continent except Antarctica and Australia, and worked in cities from Istanbul to Washington, DC. I learned to play chess on the steps of the American Museum of Natural History in New York while waiting out a wave of bomb scares. I’ve walked the bowels of Hoover Dam and the closed stacks of the Library of Congress. Naturally I’ve stored up a whole slew of anecdotes, anecdotes that tend to wake up in the middle of the night and hammer on the bars for attention. So, how do I avoid filling my fiction with my real-life story to the point that it’s no longer fiction?
The answer is to let the anecdotes find their own way in. By that I do not mean unlock the cell door (it only encourages them). Start with the story and keep writing. When something fits, that little light goes off and your fingers are directly connected to the memory. Sit back and relax and it will weasel itself into the prose. Of course, it’s wise not to leave the computer alone and go out for coffee—you’re liable to come back to find vignettes swarming all over the page.
Incorporating your memories into your fiction works best if it’s so intertwined with the story that it doesn’t stand out as an artificial insertion. (Ironic, isn’t it—that an actual experience can wind up seeming artificial in the ocean of make-believe?) An engram of a scent can become a marker for a character. For example, the German cologne 4711—which my grandmother always wore—figures in my current work-in-progress, Linksmanship: Marked for Life (an Old Town romance). In it the heroine comes across the scent several times and only discovers its source at the denouement. When I was a young and innocent woman, a friend took me to a transvestite show (Guys Will be Gals). When I remarked on the statuesque dancer with an exceptional bosom and seventies bouffant, he explained—to my lasting mortification. That roadhouse wound up as the rendezvous for the villain and his lover in Lost and Found.
So what do you do if despite all your best intentions, someone who knows you recognizes himself or something he did in your story? Duck? Tuck and roll? Cut off all communications? Smile winningly and offer to autograph their copy? It actually happened to me, only in reverse. My brother wrote a book of 100-word stories and a few were based on family events. So I gave him a call and reamed him out. No, strike that. In fact, we had a hilarious discussion about how memories of the same occurrence can vary so wildly. Which brings me to the solution to the above problem. If you are importuned by a pissed-off unwilling role model, laugh and tell him that’s not how you remember it. Of course, you’re just as likely to get a friend who makes a cameo appearance (like my friend Sanford in Artful Dodging: the Torpedo Factory Murders) to buy copies for his entire contact list.
I’d love to hear from you!