Storyville: Putting Your Life in Your Fiction

There is really no way to avoid letting your real life experiences seep into your writing. I mean, think about it. The emotions, they are your own. The experiences, the ones that really ring true, probably come from actual moments. But I’ll assume here that most of us have not killed a man, or been to Mars, or chased fireflies off a cliff, or lived in a stone tower making tiny mechanical birds. So how do you insert your real life experience into your fiction? Here are some tips on how to do that.

SETTING

I think an easy one is to take places you’ve been, and make them the backdrop. If you grew up on a tree-lined street, where the oak trees were a hundred years old, and the leaves piled up as high as a car, these dusty, dry mounds that you leapt into, never touching the bottom—then use it! You’ll twist it and tweak it, adding in moments from your time in St. Louis to those days in college in Peoria, to that one time you went hiking in New Mexico—use it all. Take the back yard, and add in that big park by the creek and the lone coyote, and make it all one story.

Have I ever put my own life in my stories, the settings? All the time—you betcha. My story, “Moving Heavy Objects” is entirely set in my childhood home, and is about my father, and how I always felt a great distance between us, but the story is not true. I can’t even count how many times I’ve used my apartment on Milwaukee Avenue, that dark time when I lived alone, drunk, cutting myself, wanting to die, prowling the streets of Wicker Park looking for trouble. I know that Disintegration, my second novel is set there. “Kiss Off,” is set there, too, as well as “Misty,” “Say Yes to Pleasure” and even “Stillness.”

OBJECTS

Remember that anything that actually did happen, it will bring layers of truth and authority, the details something that can’t be imagined...

What major objects have been a part of your life, things that you like, either real or imagined? Put them in your work. It could be a llama, a 1966 Candy Apple Red Mustang (it’s in Transubstantiate, for sure), or a baseball glove, a pet (my cat Luscious, in Disintegration), etc. Use them however you see fit. I know there were a bunch in “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One To Leave,” the Matchbox cars, or maybe baseball cards, or that long lost G.I Joe with the Kung-Fu grip. Don’t force them in, just sprinkle them in when you have an opportunity, they’ll give your story layers of depth and authority.

DIALOGUE

I have a hard time recalling dialogue, things people have said, but now and then I can hear it. My father, who grew up in Texas, used to say the funniest things when I was a kid, what do you call them, colloquialisms? He’d say, “Shit fire and save matches,” or “Richard, you’re as useless as tits on a boar hog.” Funny stuff, especially if I’m writing some sort of southern gothic story. What was it that the protagonist Annie Wilkes said in Misery, by Stephen King? That catchphrase? I think she called him a dirty birdy, or something? I know she had a chorus that tied into her being his “number one fan.” I think she also said “cockadoodie,” or something. That local, small town color is just priceless. So use whatever you can, if it fits of course. 

VIOLENCE

I haven’t been in a lot of fights in my life, but I remember being bullied when I was in grade school, the jerk that gave me a ride home, his older brother, actually, and how the song “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” was playing on the radio, and how he kicked my ass when they stopped the car, well short of my house. Caught me by surprise, the bastard. But I remember that sickness, that tension. I remember a fight in downtown Chicago, my friend accused of stealing some pot, me standing up for him (what an idiot I was, he was totally the thief) and what it felt like when that guy sucker punched me in the side of the head—it felt like a brick—solid, and deep, and as I went under, unconscious for just a moment, it felt as though a light was flickering out. USE it—whatever you saw (that accident on the side of the road), the moments that happened up close and personal (how it stung when she smacked your face) or detailed stories about a friend.

SEX

You didn’t think I was going to leave this slick stuff out did you? I assume we’re probably not all virgins here, so use whatever history you have, as well as whatever fantasies you may think about in the long dark hours of the night. Did that threesome really happen? Maybe it did, or maybe it didn’t, but it’s not hard to stretch the truth. (Twice, if you must know.) That one time you went to the underground sex club, or maybe it was just a gothic dance club, what did you see, what did they wear, how COULD the night have gone? I’ll tell you a secret—whatever you write about, the sex in your stories, be it masturbation, bondage, or oral sex—people will probably assume you did it anyway. So, spill it on the page, let it all out, the truth, the fantasies, the never happened, the wish it would happen—doesn't matter. Take that story your horny girlfriend told you, and use it. Take that Penthouse letter, whatever works. But fill in the real life details whenever you can—the way she liked to be on top, the way she always smelled of bourbon and vanilla, how that last slap on her ass was what sent her over the top. Go for it. Because that heat will keep your reader’s attention, but it’s what happens AFTER it’s over that will really reveal the character of your lovers. For a moment, we’re all beasts, right, and then the lights come back on, and we revert to our dominant selves.

WISDOM

What little bits of advice did you hear along the way? Use it in your stories, as straight up advice, or as the thread beneath the action, a guiding force. You want to hear the only advice my father gave me about sex? “Be like the trains and pull out on time.” Thanks, Dad. There is wisdom in the Bible, in Buddhism, enlightenment from your stoner college buddy, your teachers along the way, your parents—you name it. Think about those guiding forces, those mantras, and use them however you can. One of mine is Nietzsche, who said, “What does not kill you makes you stronger.” And if you’ve read my fiction, you can see how that has played out over the years—sometimes well, sometimes ending in total chaos and destruction.

EMOTION

This is a pretty broad category, but really, aren’t we always tapping into our own emotions? I have not had a child die (thank God) but I’ve know friends that have lost children, and along the way I’ve been surrounded by miscarriages, by abortions, by suicides, and murders—and the fallout that surrounds those moments. Think of the love you’ve had in your life, the way that special someone made you feel, and how it crushed you when she betrayed you, when you were once again the sucker. Have you had a parent die, a grandparent? What was that like—the loss, the funeral, meeting all of the friends, how they spoke of this person, the stories, the laughter, and the crying. It’s all there, tap into it. Describe what you feel and then add in the details as you can—the smell of the red currant candle, the taste of copper pennies in your mouth, the bundle of knots in your stomach as you vomited into the toilet. Use it, use it all, and your audience will believe you, will be mesmerized.

SUPERNATURAL

I know that not all of us have had unusual experiences, but many of us have. What shiny, bright object did you see in the sky that one cold, October night? What exactly was that creature you saw shambling through the woods, covered in hair? The conversation you had with God, the time you left your body while on LSD, what happened and what didn’t? The supernatural is all around us. I had a friend that lived in a haunted house, it was listed in many different books, and he told me stories that made my skin crawl. The night my friend Martin died (RIP, buddy) I saw him standing at the foot of my bed, in the shadows, and he was NOT happy. If you've ever had any sort of strange experience, pull up those memories, and then fill in the blanks.

NAMES

This is an easy one, but I do it all the time. I try not to use my children’s names, since my wife frowns on me killing them off. But I’ve used an ex-girlfriend, Heather, for example. I’ve used bosses and friends that turned into jerks, no problem maiming a guy named Lance (“Herniated Roots”) or using my real life brother, Bill, to be the hero of the story. There is an Isabella who appears in  “Fireflies,” that is the name of what would have been our third child, lost to miscarriage, so while I didn’t kill off my wife, I did tap into that pain when imaging the loss of child, of life, in several of my stories. Have fun with it. I think I liberally, to the point of distraction, sprinkled in names of my friends into Transubstantiate. Why not?

SENSES VS. BRANDS

I hate using a brand names in writing because if the audience has never heard of Doc Martins or Peugot or the band Menomena then the details will be lost on them. Instead, use those experiences (the specific) to tap into the general. What does that band sounds like—is it the rifle shot of the drum, the reverberation of the bass, the growling lead vocals—now that feels like an experience. Don’t tell me that fragrance is Dolce or Nirvana or Daisy, tell me apple and freesia, musk and sandalwood, papaya and vanilla, whatever you think we’ll recognize. And that goes not just for sounds and smells, but touch and taste—what did that bourbon taste like (smoke and caramel) vs. what did her neck taste like (salt and strawberries)?

IN CONCLUSION

What I’m trying to say is that obviously you’re going to have to stretch yourself, to imagine what it might be like to commit some of these horrible crimes. I think somebody once said that we process and store information from our dreams, from books and movies, and hold onto those experiences as our own. BUT remember that anything that actually did happen, it will bring layers of truth and authority, the details something that can’t be imagined, because they were really there, they are not conjured up, but recalled. So whenever possible, use those details, and then fill in the rest as it best suits your story, keeping the hook, the conflict, and resolution, in mind. Never force it, but trust me, when that detail feels right, that color, that toy, that perfume, that sensation—your audience will recognize it, and believe.

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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Comments

Sanbai's picture
Sanbai from the Midwest is reading The War of Art April 8, 2014 - 8:05pm

Richard! You are the king of comma splices! But I adore your writing and you are not allowed to change it. ;p

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago April 9, 2014 - 3:52am

As always, you give us an education in an article. Thanks

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies April 9, 2014 - 7:59am

lol...thanks, sanbal. most of these columns are just me talking, so i apologize for any grammatical weaknesses. thanks, tom!

"Although acceptable in some languages and compulsory in others (e.g. Bulgarian), comma splices are usually considered style errors in English. Some English style guides consider comma splices appropriate in certain situations, such as when being poetic or with short, similar phrases."

i bolded my reason for the splices. :-)

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading Zombie Bake Off by Stephen Graham Jones April 9, 2014 - 9:24am

Apparently I'm always comma splicing too, therefore I didn't notice anything wrong with your writing :)

Anyway: great article! Names, no I don't do names from real life, least not for the moment anyway. I think it would be because if I associated it with someone then I'd already have all these built in perceptions and ideas, and sometime I don't know how a character is going to be until I write them. I enjoy the discovery and don't want to influence it, you know?

But otherwise yeah, usually its subtle (because subtlety is awesome) or totally scewered and twisted out of shape. I also like to relocate a lot of real emotions into different situations. 

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb April 9, 2014 - 11:39am

I love this article...and not just because it got me through a social event where I was bored so I read this on my iPhone instead of listening to someone's presentation...

The section on sex had me thinking of Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross where he does that line 'The great fucks you've had, what is it you remember? ...I'm saying for me, I don't think it's the orgasm...' I love the idea that it's what happens afterwards that really matters, and using wish fulfilment because people are going to assume you've done it anyway. God help me when my friends read my latest stuff if that's the case!

The conversation you had with God, the time you left your body while on LSD, what happened and what didn’t?

Oh I met him. I really did. And I'm still an athiest.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami April 9, 2014 - 3:32pm

I tend to use moods and characters from my life.

Particularly when I write YA, I tend to base some of my stories on real experiences. I almost definitely change the names though, and also merge characters.

The setting often runs through a lot of my work. It's only recently that I've begun to write about big city life. Usually even then I'm basing it on the closest city I know of.

I may end up rewriting an old short story I wrote to be more setting relevant.