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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Guest Blog: M.S. Spencer: Relax: Memories are Made of This

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!


Rose Anderson said...

I enjoyed your post. "slurp and chuck" I heard that!

I know what you mean about your fiction looking a little familiar. When I wrote Hermes Online, I had elements in it that were based upon my personal experiences of my work life. But what had people wondering if the story was more of a biography was the fact I made the heroine sort of look like me. I made her a redhead not because I have red hair, but because you can do colorful descriptions with redheads.

In hindsight, I should have done that differently. It was too much having my job and pseudo-description together. A few friends were freaked out by the similarities in that erotic romance. One took three months before he could look me in the eye again! Best Luck. :)

M. S. Spencer said...

LOL Rose. Of course when you write erotic romance sometimes it freaks your friends out even if they're NOT in it! My latest, Lapses of Memory, has much more based on personal experience than my others--I hope I've matured enough as an author not to make it obvious! Thanks for reading and sharing. M. S.

Sandy said...

M.S., I really enjoyed your post. You've lived an interesting life.

When I first started writing I used events and threw in lots of characters I knew, but I've learned not to do it. lol

M. S. Spencer said...

Sandy, tell me you learned not to do it the hard way! M. S.

Paris said...


Loved the post. You're so lucky to have traveled all over. I'm more of an armchair observer and will recall weird facts from a history or science program that sometime end up in my work.

Learned to play chess while waiting out a wave of bomb scares? That must be an interesting story. Has it ever popped up in any of your books?

M. S. Spencer said...

Vicarious experience works just as well if you've got an imagination, don't you think, Paris? The chess thing--ah, yes, the professor who taught me later asked me to edit a story he'd written for Playboy--the chess bits were great; the sex...urgh. Thanks for reading! M. S.

Melissa Keir said...

Wow.. you have lived quite the life! Oh how jealous I am not to have had those adventures. I'm sure you have pieces that fall into stories and they do make the tales come alive for the reader.

Thanks for sharing!!

Sandy said...

LOL Yep, I learned it the hard way.

On the plus side, I have traveled a lot, too. I either loved the places or learned a lot about the countries I visited.

Suzanne Rock said...

Great post! You've really been all over, haven't you?

I have gotten a lot of questions from well-meaning friends who have read my erotic romances...and some raised eyebrows. I'm sure many are wondering if my dh and I do some of that stuff in the bedroom. My dh just smiles and is rather vague. In his mind, having an erotic romance author for a wife is like a trophy. It keeps people guessing, lol.

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