Based On True Events

The average novel – I’m guessing – is about 300 pages. 

A page of an average novel is about 225 words. I know that from my own 340-page, 75,000 word-novel, To Daddy, Who I Never Loved.

So, authors who are beginning their first manuscripts may be asking, where in the heck are they supposed to come up with 75,000 words? An excellent question, if I do say so myself.

Well, two places: lots of inspiration and outright theft. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating plagiarism. I am advocating theft from the best: Shakespeare, Stephen King, and the authors you love most. After all, that’s where they got much of their material. 

As for inspiration, that’s really theft too, except that we’re stealing from our family and our friends and maybe everyone we’ve ever met. But they’re our experiences.

“You’re a writer, so of course you want to write about it,” said Lorie Ann Grover, co-founder of the now-defunct website readergirlz. Grover authored three award-winning novels: Hold Me TightOn Pointe, and Loose Threads. “Writing fiction springing from an actual event – maybe one of your own personal experiences – requires a finesse for your reader’s benefit, your friend’s, your enemies, and yourself.”

Stephen King, one of this generation’s literary giants, makes up horror stories. But he uses his own experience, Benjamin Stevenson wrote in a lengthy article. Like everyone else in the history of life itself, King has had a tumultuous personal life. He is a former alcohol and cocaine abuser. He got hit by a van and spent months in the hospital and in recovery.

Misery, The Shining, and The Tommyknockers were written under the influence, King has admitted. After he became sober, King wrote, Doctor Sleep and Revival, which reflect on addiction from the perspective of a recovering alcoholic. Duma Key parallels his recovery from a car accident.

Shakespeare (1564-1616) plays use several Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) poems. The Bard also borrowed heavily from history (Julius Caesar, The Tempest, Richard III, Henry V, Edward III, Henry IV Parts I, III and II, Antony and Cleopatra, just to name a few of the most obvious among the three dozen.)

Long before I read Grover’s advice, I did what she advocated.

1. Begin with the truth.

I wrote an 11,000 word memoir. But what use is an 11,000 word memoir? Too small to be a non-fiction book. Too long for a short story. So I turned it into a novel. 

Same for Grover. “Truth is stranger than fiction, so there is certainly much to mine. Each of my contemporary novels sprang off the pages of my own life. Consider writing that first draft close to what happened, what you saw, and what you felt. Capture it.”

2. Get permission. Well, that’s Grover’s version. 

Me, I’d prefer to beg for forgiveness tomorrow than ask for permission today. 

To Daddy, Who I Never Loved, is about my experiences in 1967. When I was 15, I was bullied, I was unhappy, and so I ran away from home. Therefore, my memoir and my novel were about my mother, my father, my brothers, my cousins, my schoolmates, and everyone I knew that year. 

I did the usual things: I changed the names to protect the guilty bastards. I changed the name of my hometown in Oklahoma. I wrote the standard disclaimer: “This story is based on the author’s life. Otherwise, this is a work of fiction. Names, places and incidents are fictitious. The resemblance of characters to any person, living or dead, is coincidental.” 

Yeah yeah. But if course, the people in the novel who are still alive today know they’re reading about themselves. 

“Are others involved, and do you want to stay close to the facts?” Garner asked. “If you know this is the case, run and get permission. Do your best to describe that this will be a work of fiction with strands of truth woven through it.”

She’s right, and I was probably wrong. 

“Explain to those involved that they will see themselves reflected,” Grover wrote. 

It will be an inaccurate refraction, because their lives will be seen through your eyes.

It will be as if they are standing before a curved mirror in an amusement fun house. You might offer assurance their story could be a great benefit to readers. If they are willing to have you share the essence of what happened to them, go forward and write.”

Gee, maybe I was right after all.

“However, if you think the final work will be far from the truth, get to writing first,” Grover wrote. “If you aren’t sure, and just the thought of asking permission is hindering your process, begin to write with the intention to either:

Ask the involved parties in the future, knowing you may be denied permission to publish your work;

Or, be firm in your design to spin the story far away from the facts.”

I began To Daddy, Who I Never Loved in a prompts class. The instructor, Patricia Charpentier, would prompt – poke may be the better word – students with past-life scenarios:

One day, your mother sat you down for some important advice. You’ve never forgotten her words. What did she say? What did you do to deserve her admonishment? How did you react? Did you change your life? What did the room look like? Describe the look on your mother’s face. Describe her tone. What was she wearing?

3. Pause, Grover wrote. 

“Whether you’ve written a first draft of the facts, or are simmering on what truly happened in your mind, take a step back. Once the story is caught in your net, as a writer, you have an opportunity to now ask: how could it be made better? What is the theme burning beneath it, and what can I do to feed the flames?”

Details, details, details. Do not leave out the details. Stories are filled with details. Details are what make novels seem real. Details are the nails and lumber with which fictional stages are built.

Behind Grover’s novel, Hit, was the true story of her daughter’s best friend, who had been struck by a vehicle in a crosswalk. But her inner writer begged the question: instead of a stranger hitting the girl, what if it was someone she knew? And then she ramped up the tension in her version of the story and made that driver a grad student teacher she was crushing on. Grover said. Thus, the phrase “based on true events.” 

“It did take two years and several drafts for this plot point to rise to mind,” Grover wrote.

Took me eight years. Maybe 20 drafts. My excuse: I was working full time, teaching English classes at the community college, teaching writing classes at the arts league, and frivolously trying to live a full and lusty life. 

But that’s how I wrote my novel. I wrote the true story of hitchhiking 1,700 miles from Duncan, Oklahoma to Palo Alto, California. The miles and miles I walked. The short rides. What the drivers said to me. That driver who earnestly tried to seduce me, then molest me. The van full of hippies who picked me up on their way to The Summer of Love – an actual event in Monterrey, California.

4. After writing the true story, let go, Grover wrote. Stuff those real life facts in a box. Silence the voice inside the box that protests, “But that’s not what happened!” Then let out that fictional story in your head. Write an even better set of facts in your imagination. 

5. Facts can feel fake, Grover wrote. Not all true facts are believable. “The best, juiciest fact may not make it into your story because truth is stranger than fiction.

When I wrote Hold Me Tight, I was not able to include that the man who molested me was soon afterwards in a car accident and paralyzed from the waist down.”

Including that true fact in her novel would have felt contrived and unbelievable, so Grover laid aside the truth. She settled for knowing what actually happened.

6. When your manuscript is finished, share the news, Grover wrote. 

I didn’t ask their permission, but I have to live the rest of my life with my brothers and my cousins. So, before I published my novel, I emailed the entire file to them. I still didn’t ask their permission, but I did ask for their objections. My eldest brother read half the e-file; my elder brother refused. One cousin read the part about her. A few cousins are still reading the paperback. I was prepared to change the story subtly, but no one has objected. 

“Be kind,” Grover wrote. “Give those who inspired your story a chance to process the thought that you have written about the event… It gives them an opportunity to come to terms with the fact others will be reading the material.”

Life offers rich material, and it’s your life. You don’t need permission to write about your own life. 

“So, be brave,” Grover said. 

And if they complain that’s not how they remember it, stand up and say, “This is my story. Go write your own damned book!”