Kathleen Delaney, author of Murder Half-Baked and other books, retired from real estate to pursue writing full time. She’s here today to whether authors are really telling stories about themselves or people they know.
Murder by Syllabub, fifth in the Ellen McKenzie series, is available in bookstores now. Purebred Dead, the first in the new Mary McGill series, was released in August 2015 and Curtains for Miss Plym was released in April 2016. Blood Red, White and Blue was released in July 2017 and was a finalist for best canine book of the year in the Dog Writers of America annual writing contest.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a workshop entitled The Psychology of Writing. It was designed primarily for writers but was attended by beginning writers and those who were interested in the subject. I was fortunate enough to be on one of the panels. Our topic was events in our personal lives that spilled over in our writing. We had a variety of experiences shared and a variety of ways we treated them. Putting a personal experience on paper can be nerve racking. One of our participants wrote a book about her son’s almost fatal bout with brain cancer. Painful, yes, but also cathartic for her. He agreed to share his story, and a great book that would be helpful to a lot of people was born. But other experiences are just too personal to be laid out on paper the way they happened, and they often are just that, experiences. They are not a story.
Case in point. A number of years ago I attended an intense writing workshop that lasted a couple of days. One of the women in the group had an experience she wanted to make into a book. It seems she had been in a cemetery where a number of her family members were buried. One of her ancestors had fought in the Revolutionary war and she believed that one day he spoke to her. He asked her to write his story. She wanted to know how to go about writing it. The easiest way, and probably the best way, was to fictionalize it, but she didn’t want to do that. She also had very few facts about his life and wasn’t sure how to get more. I don’t know if she talked to a ghost or not, and it really doesn’t matter. What does is, she didn’t have a story. She could have written her experience in an essay form for her family or made an entry in her diary but as a piece of either fiction or as a piece of history, her experience stayed just that, an experience.
Which brings me to my next point. A fiction writer, at least this one, doesn’t use personal experiences as they happen. He, or she, weaves them into a story as part of the plot, changing them as needed. For instance, in my first series, the Ellen McKenzie real estate mysteries, I introduced Ellen as a woman in her early forties, freshly divorced, new real estate license in hand, trying to start a new life. I had been divorced at about that age after twenty five years of marriage and five kids. It was a traumatic time in my life so I could understand how Ellen felt. However, she wasn’t me, a fact that made us both happy. Some of her experiences as she learned her new profession may have shown what my life as a real estate agent was like, but the facts of the experiences were different and I was very careful to pattern no characters after anyone I knew. I did know what someone like Ellen would feel, what her fears were, and the uncertainty she would feel as she started a new career and that I used. What I never experienced, however, was finding a dead man in a closet. I’m never found a dead man, or woman, anywhere.
Authors often use their own experiences, or those of people they know or have read about as a sort of jumping off point, but change the circumstances so that they cannot be recognized by the people who have gone through them. It’s the same with people. I am often asked if a character is so and so. It’s not but we all have certain personality traits, weaknesses, strengths, and quirks. Authors will observe and file away these little traits then pull them out when needed. No one I know portrays anyone they know. First, it’s hard to write about a real life living person. You really don’t know them, what they are thinking, what they feel, but you know the ones you write about. They think, act and react the way you want them to. Mostly. Second, you don’t want anyone to think they will end up in your book as the villain. There isn’t one of my friends or relatives that thinks of themselves as an ex murderer and wouldn’t appreciate it if I portrayed them that way. But assigning those little quirks we all have to our on the page characters help to make them real. They give the characters depth. The retelling of experiences that have left the author with some kind of emotion give the story a reality that may not be possible otherwise.
Is that psychology? In one sense, I think it is. But what I’m sure of is that understanding what makes us do something, how we react under stress, what makes one of us fearful in one situation, another brave in another, what makes us love and what makes us hate, makes us better writers.