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December 6, 2010

A question frequently asked of writers is: “How much of your fiction is based on the facts of your life?

The most common piece of advice given to writers is: “Write what you know.” What most of us know best is our own life. We may not understand it, but we know it. It’s the world we inhabit on a daily basis. So, it’s good advice–and a good place to start.

I don’t claim to answer for all writers, but here’s how it works for me. I choose an experience that I find meaningful and, needing to share my feelings, I write about it. I portray it as faithfully as I can, but the wonder doesn’t come through. The words don’t do justice to the feeling. It’s mundane. So I embellish it. Add a little drama. It’s too personal. Will anyone else be able to relate to it? I change some of the details, hoping to make it more universal. Punch it up a bit. More details. More drama. Almost without realizing it, I take the essence of the experience and transform it into something new, something that I hope will convey my sense of wonder. My experience becomes fiction.

A variation of that first piece of advice is: “Write what you want to know.” More good advice.

Here, I might start with an event that makes no sense to me. I take an inexplicable action and try to understand it by creating a fictional scenario that explores the event from various angles. I make up characters who represent different facets of the puzzle and try to imagine it from their disparate points of view. For me, one of the joys of writing fiction is immersing myself in another personality, whether it is the heroic figure I’d like to become or the villain I won’t let myself be. Still, even the most bizarre characters and events that I make up come from somewhere–something I’ve seen or heard or read about.

There’s another option to writing about what you want to know. Suppose I decide to set my story in a time or place completely foreign to the world I inhabit. With enough research, that’s possible. I can look up facts to make any setting credible. However, I still have to use my imagination to blend the characters created from the world as I know it into the setting dictated by the facts of a different environment.

Whatever type of story I’m writing, by the time that first germ of an idea has been molded into something I’m willing to share, I have a hard time drawing the line between fact and fiction. All I can hope is that, by blending the two, I’ve captured at least a bit of that elusive thing called truth.

I find that the more I write, the less I rely on personal experience and the more I use my imagination. The first piece of fiction that I ever had published was a short story called All Is Calm. It’s about a family celebrating the holidays, filled with the stress that comes when you combine diverse personalities and traditions and . . . well, let’s just say that it’s based on some of the details of my family with quite a few invented details thrown in. If you’re interested and have time, you can read it on my website: Just click on “Short Story.”

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