Five great ways you can turn your own experience – whatever it is – into compelling storylines, story ideas and writing prompts.
I have finished reading from my book Seven Hotel Stories when a guy in the audience raises his hand.
‘How many of your story ideas are made up, and how much is real?’ he asks. ‘And in general, how do you use your real life to create storylines and fiction?’
This struck me as a great question. How much of fiction is the writer’s experience, and how much is made up? Suppose you work as a lawyer, or in an insurance office, and are not an astronaut, a detective, or an assassin? Can you still write about something thrilling?
Marilyn Monroe trained hard to become an actress
Here are five ways you can turn your own experience – whatever it is into compelling storylines and story ideas:
(i) anyone can write great stuff: don’t worry about who you are, or what you do. All you need is a paper and a pen, or a screen and a keyboard. The trick is to get started (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site);
(ii) do use what you know to help write your story: whatever you can do and however you live, you can draw on your life experience to create rich, multi-layered fiction. John Grisham started out repairing roads, then became a lawyer – he used his legal knowledge to write The Firm. Tom Clancy worked in insurance: his hero Jack Ryan is, like Clancy, of Irish Catholic stock;
(iii) writing draws on emotions we all recognise: have you ever fallen in love? Had a fight with your father, mother, daughter, son, brother or sister? Been delirious with joy, or filled with despair? You have powerful ingredients for fiction. J K Rowling worked as a secretary and used her experience of depression to create the Dementors. Margaret Forster’s hilarious and touching Have the Men Had Enough was based on her mother-in-law’s experience with Alzheimer’s disease;
(iv) writing is as much a craft as an art: you can learn to write better, just as you can learn to paint, or sing, or act. Marilyn Monroe had no major film roles for years after she signed with 20th Century Fox in 1946: she spent the time taking acting, singing and dancing classes and had her breakthrough in 1950. By studying writing you can learn how best to showcase your ideas, whether through the classic 3-act structure or through the use of scenes and sequels
(v) network like crazy: when Marilyn Monroe wasn’t taking lessons to sharpen her skills, she was networking furiously – hanging out with actors and directors and everyone who might possibly be able to help her to get into movies. For wannabe authors, this means attending writing workshops; joining a book group; and chasing up leads and contacts whenever you meet them. It worked for Marilyn.
By way of an example, my book Seven Hotel Stories is set in and around super-luxury hotels. I know a lot about super-luxury hotels, and I know people who know even more. Much of the detail is authentic; and some (but by no means all) of the hi-jinks and adventures which take place in the stories are based on tales my hotel contacts have told me.
In my story The Swedish Woman, for example, the eponymous hotel guest walks up the the reception desk, takes from her pocket a dead rabbit, and asks for it to be prepared for dinner. This was based on an incident in a real luxury hotel in London where a visiting member of a European royal family did exactly that, except with a pheasant rather than a rabbit.
What else? I work to turn what I know about hotels into Hotel Stories by working hard, and studying hard. I try to write two hours a day; I go on lots of recommended writing courses (see below); and I try to observe relationships – my own, and other people’s – to inform the emotions, loves and hates of the hotel guests and other characters who people the stories. At the same time, I feel comfortable saying in the appendix to the book that:
“all the Hotel Stories are works of fiction. None of the hotel customers, alligators, tycoons, Lovely Lassies, royalty, ice-hockey players, border guards, Prime Ministers, FBI agents or other characters who appears in the works is based on anyone I’ve ever met, heard of, or seen on TV. Nor, by the way, are any of the police officers, journalists, diplomats, presidents, special forces officers, terrorists, Janissaries, secret agents, people-traffickers or diamond merchants who people my novels.”
Just so we’re clear.
If you are looking for more writing tips to turbo-charge your prose, try these posts:
- Writing tips: plan in advance, or not?
- How to write gripping fiction: scenes, sequels and cliff-hangers
- How to write a novel: five ways to get in the habit of writing.
- How to write a novel: edit as you go along, or not? (“How to edit your novel part 1”)
- 7 ways to improve your manuscript (“How to edit your novel part 2”)
- Writing fiction: 7 ways to deal with rejection
- How I write
If you fancy a writing course, try these: