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Writing Books Based on Experiences, Observations, or Traumatic Personal Events
"Musings" - July 2007

by Margot Finke

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Incorporating what they see or hear from friends, relatives, or complete strangers, is something writers are known to do. Keen observation is an art that writers must develop—it brings a sense of authenticity to their plots and characters. However, this month I want to delve into the art of using remembered events, past experiences, or painful emotional traumas, as character or plot enhancements, or the main thrust of a particular story. Hold onto your computer, mates, this could be a bumpy read!

Let's Begin with People We Remember:

If you capture an expression here, or a mannerism there, you have the basis for an intriguing character. It could be a peculiarity you noticed yesterday in the grocery store, or a quirky smile in your photo album, on long-dead Uncle Fred’s face. Or, it may be as simple as something you overheard while your kids were playing. Tweak or change it, until it has just the right feel. These remembered characteristics and quirks live in your head, to be borrowed time-and-again, adding flavor and style to a host of varying characters. Stolen "reality bites" add appeal and human dimensions. No one need know the secret of all those wonderfully human characters that live in your books. You only base characters on remembrances—you are not writing their biography.

Personal Experiences Can Rock!

Good or bad, sad or happy, these remembered chunks of our past are what make us who we are. They are there for the taking! Carefully selected snippets from our memory can become the bedrock of a new plot, or the turning point in a character’s search for answers. Twists and turns from your past life can be dressed up or played down—choose whatever works best. It is a bit like playing dress up as a kid. You take a dress from Mom’s wardrobe, some shoes, and add gloves and a hat. Lo-and-behold, you become someone quite different! Do the same thing with your personal experiences. No one will be able to recognize the person or the event if you dress them up differently. Weaving the bones of some event that you remember into your story will add a feeling of subtle authenticity—who’s to know? Writers do this all the time.

Writing About Emotional Past Events:

These are the memories that often trouble or haunt us. Sometimes submerged for years, they pop up when we least want or expect them. Some writers find comfort, solace, and a sense of closure, by grabbing these memories and writing about them. If you intend throwing everything into your book, including not just the kitchen sink, but recognizable family members and events, make sure the people who might recognize themselves are on board, or passed on. You don’t want your success, and that hard-written piece of mind, ruined by a lawsuit. People generally don’t mind when you write nice things about them; it is when you point a finger at their less than stellar morals or actions that they take umbrage. With this in mind, even the setting and characters in your "tell all" book might benefit from a name change, and a character disguise or two.

If you can't sufficiently disguise things, then keep in mind what TV producers do when they televise a story about someone famous (or infamous). A disclaimer, BASED ON THE LIFE OF . . . looms large on the screen.

Put a similar disclaimer in your book. I make this warning because of my own personal experience!  My dad's family boasted several published writers, and when one wrote a book based on their family life,  all hell broke loose. Various siblings remembered things different to the author,  and the uproar split the family in several directions.

Better to look at your raw and tender memories with the perspective that time has given you. Be true to your feelings; yet avoid narrative and dialogue that will unnecessarily hurt those who survived—like you. If in doubt about putting a particular segment of your life into print, balance the good it could do against the angst it might cause.

When someone considers converting an emotional time in their life into a story for all to read, a lot can depend on the character and temperament of the writer. What I could not bare to rehash in print, might give another writer exactly the peace of mind and the closure they always longed for. Weigh the options involved, and then go from there.


My eldest daughter and I are a classic example of memory clash. She is old enough to have clear (to her) memories of when we lived right on the beach in Australia. What she remembers is in stark contrast to what I remember regarding several specific events. We have tried to work this out, but to no avail. Neither of us lied: our brains simply recorded those times differently. Make sure you and all the other survivors are using the same memory card.


Margot Finke's biography and index to Musings.

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