How to Write Fiction Based on Real Life Events
Whether it's a historical incident or a family story, real-life events offer rich inspiration for fiction writers. However, they also impose many challenges in terms of plot development, creating characters and staying true to the events and people involved. You can write a story based on real occurrences by being willing to alter the actual events, transforming facts into plots and understanding the ethical issues that come with this source of inspiration.
One challenge of writing about actual events is the temptation to incorporate every detail of what happened into the story. Novelist Julie Schumacher says that even though your memories inspired the story, the act of writing puts distance between the memories and the finished product. Because the circumstances of real life and the imaginary world you're creating are different, the events and characters may change to fit the story. Although the final draft may differ from your original memory, being willing to deviate from the events will make the story more unified and enjoyable for readers.
Plot Versus Episodes
In fiction, plot is the order of events in a story that gradually build tension. Although there may be elements of tension in the real events, fiction writer Robin Hemley says that until you impose the order of plot on the events, they are just episodes, or pieces of a story. For example, Flannery O'Connor wrote "The Displaced Person" after a European refugee family came to work on her mother's farm. From this incident, she built plot by creating a fictional conflict between one such family and American workers who feel threatened by them.
If you're writing about a historical event or something that happened in another time period, research will be a key component of your process. Writer Caro Clarke states that fiction writers must create an authentic, accurate world without giving readers too much or too little information. It can be easy to make mistakes, but careful research can help you avoid anachronisms and factual errors. Novelist Sharyn McCrumb meticulously researched the 19th century life of Frances Silver for "The Ballad of Frankie Silver," a novel about the first woman executed for murder in North Carolina.
Writing about real life ultimately requires you to think about the people behind the story, especially if telling it could damage their reputations. Santa Clara University professor Ron Hansen warns that even if a project is fiction, stories that defame others or misrepresent events can be deemed libelous. You may want to be creative in your adaptation of the events if there's a chance someone could be hurt by the story. For example, if you are writing about a difficult experience a friend went through, you could keep the core event the same, but change the setting, circumstances and even the outcome.
Kori Morgan holds a Bachelor of Arts in professional writing and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and has been crafting online and print educational materials since 2006. She taught creative writing and composition at West Virginia University and the University of Akron and her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals.