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How Do You Adapt Real Life Into Fiction?


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Please welcome author-in-progress Kristina Stevens to Writer Unboxed today! We were approached by WU contributor Jim Dempsey about Kristina’s journey, which has involved writing a novel that began as a memoir. How did she decide on that change? What did that change entail? And would we be interested in sharing the journey (yes!).

More about Kristina from her bio:

Kristina lives in Glasgow, Scotland where she works in education. Kristina has an MA in English Literature and has recently completed a six month mentorship programme for under represented writers with Arkbound Foundation.  Kristina is interested in outsiders and modern interpretations of gothic themes in fiction. She is currently working on her first novel ‘Outsider Complex’. Kristina is also a carer.

You can learn more about Kristina by following her on Twitter @kriss_outsider.

How Do You Adapt Real Life Into Fiction?

“All this happened, more or less.”

This is the opening line to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. The novel is a semi-autobiographical account of the bombing of Dresden by the Allied Forces in 1945. Anyone familiar with Slaughterhouse-Five, however, would struggle to define it as realistic or true to life. The novel contains time travel and alien abduction, not things that you would believe “happened, more or less.”

So although we can safely say that Slaughterhouse-Five is not a factual account of the author’s experience of war, it does contain truth, or rather Truth. Slaughterhouse-Five disrupts the traditional structure of the novel, and the often chaotic form of the chapters reflects Billy Pilgrim’s frame of mind, his trauma resulting from the Dresden air raids. The narrative is non-linear and scenes describing the bombing can present as incoherent. This confusion and futility is the ultimate metaphor of war and its horror.

Memoir or Fiction?

When I started writing, I wasn’t sure if I should write in the form of memoir or fiction, but I settled on memoir. I believed memoir would have the most impact as there nothing more powerful than literal truth. In this world of “fake news” and spin, I felt that to tell my story I had to be painfully honest and adhere doggedly to fact. However, through the process of writing, I have learned that honesty and truth can be conveyed sometimes more effectively and potently through storytelling and metaphor.

You might have noticed that I called my writing ‘my story’, but that changed as the story itself became more important than my place or ego within that. Memoir is by its nature an account of an experience or experiences as interpreted by the author. However, the more I wrote, the more I felt myself being pushed out the story. I wasn’t at the centre of it, rather it was developing its own volition. I thought I was writing about specific themes and ideas, but I began to see that the story was asking its own question: Where do I belong?

I realised that question was central to everything and had to be explored; it was the essence of what I was trying to say.  The day-to-day factually correct record of events and conversations became unimportant, even irrelevant. As I started to write, this concept of ‘Where do I belong’ began to grow more powerful, and I knew that in order to fully explore the story and the question it wanted to ask, the story had to be fiction and not memoir. This change freed the work from the constraints of memory and allowed it to grow and become its true self. By being less literal and chained to documentary detail, I was able to deploy metaphor and symbolism more effectively. By employing more ‘poetic licence,’ I was able to tell the story as it should be told.

When Facts Cause Clutter

As readers, we approach memoir and fiction differently, and our expectations differ. We see this when we discover that a supposed memoir turns out to be fabricated; we feel duped and cheated. However, we don’t feel the same anger if we discover a novel is based on true events. We might pick up a memoir, for instance, because we believe the author’s life mimics our own in some way, or perhaps we admire them for a certain achievement. It is the real-life lessons we are looking for, and so any details that add to its authenticity are to be valued. We approach reading fiction more like reading a treasure map: Every sentence is a clue or holds potential symbolic significance, and anything that distracts us from following the path to the treasure is a waste of precious time.

Likewise, when writing a memoir, providing historical facts can give the writing an air of authenticity, and this level of detail can make the story richer. In fiction, however, these details can act as red herrings or simply clutter. An example of how I had to adapt this in my own writing is when I described my biological father as having brown eyes and myself and two siblings as having blue eyes. In memoir, this is an interesting and unusual fact, and lends a degree of uniqueness to the family, makes them more human in their quirkiness. In fiction, however, we naturally ask: Why is the writer drawing attention to this point above all others? It must be for a reason as yet unknown. And this creates an expectation in the reader. So, in fiction, if I were to mention my father had brown eyes whilst his offspring had blue, the reader might respond by assuming that detail is significant. Perhaps they aren’t his kids after all? Is this the twist, the biological father isn’t actually the biological father? Did the mother have an affair or use a sperm donor? Does the father know this? Is it still a secret?  Is there going to be a showdown later on in the story? And so on. If this is then not developed or mentioned again the reader can feel one of two things: They can feel cheated that they were set up for intrigue that didn’t materialize or annoyed over the extraneous and distracting information, i.e clutter. So when adapting my book from memoir to fiction, mention of my father’s brown eyes had to go; they had nothing to do with the story.

When the truth actually detracts from the story

Sticking religiously to a complete history of documented truths can be detrimental to your story whether you’re writing historical fiction or a memoir. Real life is made up of millions of interlinking stories, but taken out of context and thrust into the vacuum of a single work, even facts can come across as trite, contrived, or extraneous. The trick is to know what threads to cauterize and where to do the cauterizing.

An example: When my writing was still memoir, I adhered to the absolute truth and described my family life. We had a relative living with us during the time I wrote about who was mixed race and used a wheelchair. This was a big part of my life at the time, and more so as his frustrations and struggles impacted all of us. But to include issues such as race and disability in a story with no significance to the story being told could be interpreted as tokenistic. My story isn’t about race or disability and so it felt uncomfortable to have these issues introduced but not develop any significance, and so the relative had to be written out of my memoir.

In adapting memoir to fiction, and to properly explore the life of one protagonist, others were also written out the story. For example, a female referenced in my memoir had a series of boyfriends, the last of them a drug user. Because of his criminal record, this woman had to be strip-searched at the airport when coming back from India. Despite this, when he left her for another, she was distraught. When I changed my writing to fiction, I realized that the succession of boyfriends and the drugs were irrelevant to the story’s central question, ‘Where do I belong?’ What was important—and what did intersect with my story question—was this woman’s reaction to the break-up. One composite boyfriend character was all that I needed. This then allowed for that relationship to be explored in more depth, revealing more about why the relationship broke down, and leading to insights about its impact on the protagonist and her erroneous beliefs.

Returning to Slaughterhouse-Five, if Vonnegut had written a traditional novel with a beginning, a middle and an end that gave an articulate but conventional account of war, would it have had the same impact? Would it have held our attention quite so much or made us question what is actually going on? I don’t think it would. Slaughterhouse-Five is so powerful because it makes us look at Truth from a different perspective. It challenges our preconceptions and beliefs about how we convey emotions and meaning and interpretation. It uses subversion and metaphor and surrealism, but the truth at its heart remains untainted, in fact it shines brighter for it.

Does the line between reality and fiction smear in your own work? Whether the scope of this smear is via a character, a situation, in a short story or a work of novel-length fiction, we’d love to hear about it in comments. The floor is yours!

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