Our guest post today is by writer Heather Wardell. Heather has been writing full-time since 2005, after careers in software development and elementary school teaching. In her spare time, she reads, runs, crochets, swims, and plays drums and clarinet. While it would be entertaining, she hasn't managed to do more than two of these things at once. She has four novels available now, including one for free download, which can be found at her website.
The more real your women's fiction, the better. Using actual events may seem like a great way to make this happen, and it can be. If you're careful. Don't take someone else's life story and slap your name on it. That's a good way to lose a friend, upset your relatives, or even face a lawsuit. But some material is too good to let go to waste. Let's say your uncle Sven caused a huge family scandal by leaving his pregnant wife at the altar and running away with the best man. How can you use this in your book without your parents disowning you?
Here are my rules for using real life in your women's fiction.
1. Use situations that involve only you however you'd like.
If nobody else is involved, then nobody else can be upset or concerned. I tripped over a sidewalk while out on a training run and hit the ground, ripping up both knees and my left cheek. This cell-phone picture shows my face immediately post-fall, but sadly I didn't take any pictures of the spectacular bruising that showed up in the next days. I was writing my "Seven Exes Are Eight Too Many" at the time, so the fall itself, modified just enough to fit the book's setting, and the uncomfortable and unattractive recovery period became key elements in the book.
I have also reused a painful airplane flight with an ear infection (in "Go Small or Go Home") and a difficult wallpaper installation and an attempt to shove far too much Ikea furniture into a tiny car (in "Life, Love, and a Polar Bear Tattoo"), along with lots of smaller events and misfortunes that have befallen me over the years.
Everything that happens to you and you alone is fodder for a book if you're willing to share it. You can always change the details if you don't want people to know it's a real situation.
2. If the situation belongs to someone else, ask permission.
My newest book, "Planning to Live", begins with a car accident that traps the main character in her car. When I began planning the book, I remembered that my cousin had undergone a similar accident. I contacted him, and he was happy to walk me through the accident and give me permission to use his experiences and reactions. I know it made the book stronger.
You can use other people's romantic successes and disasters (especially disasters, since real-life dating disasters are often funnier than anything invented) if they're all right with it. You can also borrow elements of career situations, family dramas, exercise-class bloopers, and anything else. But if it's theirs, don't use it without permission.
There are issues here, of course. Your friend's horrible first date with the guy who showed up in a Jedi cloak clutching a light saber isn't just her story. It's also the story of the wannabe Luke Skywalker. Here's where I would change the Jedi cloak to a Star Trek uniform or make the guy pretend he's a robot throughout the date. Keep the "what is with this freak?" element but make the situation unrecognizable.
Melding several situations together is also an option, but I do think for the sake of your relationships that you should make sure that the people involved don't mind having their situation melded into your book.
Sex scenes are particularly tricky. Not every partner would want you recording your sex life for your books. If yours doesn't mind, then feel free, but otherwise be sensitive. I have had my husband help me test hug scenes to make sure that where I think the arms can go (it's always the arms that trip me up when writing physical scenes) actually work, but I would never take something he's done and toss it into a book. It's for his comfort, for mine, and for the comfort of my friends and family who might not want to read exactly what we get up to!
3. If you know you won't get permission, transfer the emotions to another situation.
So your best friend is enmeshed with a terrible guy and can't seem to break away. You've given her all the advice you can but nothing seems to work. Like a bad cold or a rodent infestation, he keeps coming back. You would dearly love to have a character in your current book in the same situation but you know that your friend isn't exactly in a "sure, write about how messed up my life is" place at the moment. What can you do?
Change it up. Instead of a woman trapped in a bad relationship, make your new character a man whose career isn't going as he planned. Or use your own feelings of frustration over not being able to help her to add depth to a career counselor who's attracted to her new client but also frustrated that he doesn't seem to be able to break free of his situation.
Don't assume that the situation has to be dropped into your book in one piece. You can use even just a single emotion or sensation (the sick shudder that went through you when you saw she'd taken him back yet again) to enliven your invented situations.
You can imagine yourself as uncle Sven, fleeing a marriage he doesn't want and finally admitting he prefers the best man to his bride-to-be. Guilt, freedom, fear of his family's reaction, sorrow for hurting his fiancée... there are a ton of emotions you could pick up by thinking about Sven. Or his fiancée. Or his horribly embarrassed mother. Or the brother who knew Sven was gay and didn't know whether to tell the bride.
I think this is probably the best way to handle situations that are huge and meaningful but not easily put into a book. After all, to tell Sven's story you would also be telling the story of a myriad of other people, who might not appreciate it. But if you ponder Sven's feelings and then let them fuel your writing of a completely different situation, you're not telling any stories but your own. And let's face it, we've got enough books that are just rehashing what writers think they're supposed to write. Let's tell our own stories!
4. Make sure the edges don't show.
In the first point above, I mentioned that I had to adjust the fall for the situation in the book. Running through the jungle in a contest, my protagonist could hardly trip over a sidewalk as I did, but there were certainly rocks and tree roots in abundance so I made her trip over one of those. It may seem obvious (and in this example it is) but when you're putting real-life elements into your book be careful that they don't stick out. Don't use an event just because it was cool or painful or funny. Every scene in the book needs to pull its weight and be truly relevant, and real-life elements are no exception.
5. If the person wouldn't complain for fear of looking bad, go for it.
I'm not sure this is a great plan, to be honest, but I did it in my first book long before it occurred to me to be careful. In "Life, Love, and a Polar Bear Tattoo", main character Candice was told years before, by the ex who comes back into her life while her husband's away, "I've had a smart girl and now I want a beautiful one." Nice, huh? Well, it's a direct quote from my high school boyfriend after I found out he'd cheated on me. Does he even remember it? I don't know. If he does, and he reads the book, is he likely to say, "Hey, that was me?" and demand credit or something? I doubt it. Would you? Note that the ex in the book is nothing like him in any other way. Nobody who doesn't know that he said that (and it's not exactly been a topic of conversation for me over the years) would connect him with the book.
I think in general it's better to disguise things or use safer things, as I discussed above, but I couldn't invent anything that cruel and it struck exactly the right note in the book and I felt a little vindication by using it for my own purposes.
(Sadly, I took that guy back and dated him for another two years before finally seeing the light at age twenty. Candice was smarter and dumped him on the spot!)
Fellow writers, what do you think? Where do you use real life in your women's fiction and where do you stick with things you've invented?