Our guest today is Kathryn Craft , the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling  and The Far End of Happy . Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads writing workshops, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers.
For more than a decade I sorted through the chaos of my first husband’s suicide, seeking order through short narrative arcs. I assumed I’d one day write a memoir—that life would serve story—but instead grew to appreciate more fully the way story can serve life. The day I realized that the best way to show how the standoff had seared our lives would be to constrain the story to its twelve hours, I was well on my way toward novelizing. This post reflects some of my learning about the process.
Tips for Novelizing True Events
We writers draw inspiration from our own experience all the time. We can’t help it—the events of our lives, how they made us feel, and what we’ve learned from them have created the very perspective from which we write.
[pullquote]Story is a series of carefully constructed, thematic, and escalating pressures brought to bear on a character in pursuit of a goal. Life isn’t. [/pullquote]That real-life influence can be oblique, as when I wrote The Art of Falling. I didn’t need to suffer Penelope Sparrow’s crippling sense of body image to understand the way our bodies can betray us; my body had miscarried two deeply desired pregnancies.
In my novel releasing this week, The Far End of Happy, the real life inspiration is more straightforward. From my work as a freelance editor, I knew that predictable pitfalls abound when novelizing true events. Here’s how to steer clear of them, should you decide to give it a go.
- Compose using every instrument. Chances you’ve already shared this real-life event verbally, perhaps time and again. “I can’t believe that happened to you,” people may respond. “You should write a book!” Now that you are, resist the temptation to rely upon your reader’s vicarious interest in “what happened.” Even if you “tell” the story well, it won’t be enough. Telling is like singing a bard’s melody—why stop there when literature allows you to evoke emotional experience with the power of the entire symphony?
- Dig deep to characterize yourself. If one of your characters will be a thinly veiled version of you, don’t forget to give him a personality that will carry his story. You may find you need to do a lot of journaling to devise backstory motivations, identify deep needs and closely held beliefs, and conjure a story goal that will make this character pop. Dig until you uncover all of your hidden vulnerabilities. Then summon your courage, because your reader wants nothing less than for you to lay them bare on a public page.
- Re-envision life’s coincidences, accidents, and near misses. Story is a series of carefully constructed, thematic, and escalating pressures brought to bear on a character in pursuit of a goal. Life isn’t. Near misses and pulled punches will only frustrate your reader, who will hear in your character’s sigh of relief, “That was close—thank goodness I don’t have to change after all!” The reader intuitively knows that in order for a character to embrace change, you-as-author will have to put the screws to him—even if he represents you, or someone you’ve loved.
- Forget what people “actually said.” Such quotes can feel like inviolable bits of history, but reporting them rarely allows you to harness dialogue’s full power to further story, deepen characterization, and deliver subtext. If you must cling to a line of dialogue (ahem as I did, through several rewrites), be prepared to roll up your sleeves. Setting it up to work the way you hope may take more work than you think.
- You’ll still need to orchestrate your character set. Authors fictionalizing true events tend to fall back upon actual people rather than work to create characters that can best exemplify the conflicting perspectives that will bring the story to life. If one of your characters is failing to push your protagonist along her arc, either deepen her motivation, invent a subplot in which she can illuminate your premise anew, or give her the boot.
- Feed your imagination. You’ll know what I mean the first time a beta reader suggests a plot change and you are tempted to reply, “But that’s not how it happened.” If you choose to embrace fiction, none of it ever really happened. This writing is meant to be creative. So listen to different music. Scribble. Scrapbook. Re-arrange events until you’ve created an emotional arc that screams, “This is a must-read!”—even if the bear didn’t really steal your picnic lunch and your boyfriend didn’t lose a finger bopping him in the nose.
Unconvinced on that last point? Remember: your reader did not choose to read a biography or a memoir. She chose a story off a shelf that includes Kingsolver. Gaiman. Flynn. She expects that “even though” and perhaps “because” some of your events were true, you have access to the raw material that will soon transport her along a road similar to the one that changed your life—but this time, aided by the full benefit of that engrossing alchemy of the real and the imagined known as the modern-day novel.
That doesn’t mean your work is any less “true.” It just means that you are a novelist who understands that sometimes the accumulation of fact is less compelling than evoking emotional truth through story.
Have you drawn inspiration from real life events or experiences? What pitfalls have you encountered? What successes?