For those of you who aren’t aware, I’m a mom to 10 kids (yes, 10, and yes, I delivered all of them). People ask me if I always wanted a large family and the answer is yes. But I didn’t plan on 10.
As a kid, I watched The Brady Bunch and always wanted to have 6 kids. I found that I loved being a mom and having kids, so we ended up with 10. We’ve now added 5 in-laws and 8 grandkids. So, yes, we have a very full house on holidays. I cook big dinners. My grocery bill is astronomical. When all 10 kids were at home it took 3 shopping carts. My life has been organized chaos. And I LOVE it.
Having this many kids gives me an abundance of material, so I can write from experience to make my fiction more realistic.
Real Life Helps in Writing Fiction
One Saturday my youngest woke up with a wheezing sound. It calmed right down when he got up and moved around so I figured it was a cold (we’ve had at least 500,0000 colds at our house just this year). Later that evening, the wheezing picked up again so we found the vaporizer, loaded it with Vicks, and let him breathe in the medicated air. That didn’t settle it and he started struggling more and more to breathe. At that point, I knew it must be croup but I didn’t have the ability to treat it.
Realizing the inevitable, my husband and I scooped him up and loaded him into the car to make the 30-mile journey to the hospital. We arrived at the ER and were immediately ushered into a room (a 3-year-old having difficulty breathing gets you into a room quickly). The doctor came in, listened to him, asked us some questions, and diagnosed it as croup.
He received a breathing treatment (which he loved–reminded me of the Cheshire Cat) and a steroid shot. After several hours, we were on our way back home with a soundly sleeping child who could breathe easily.
What does this have to do with writing? Everything.
We all have experiences that will lend credibility to our stories. None of us live in a vacuum where we do nothing, see no one, and have no experiences. The trick is to use our experiences to our advantage.
Using Feelings from Experiences
I may never use that particular experience in a story, but what I can use are the feelings I had.
For example, I’ve never had a child held hostage. I have, however, felt fear for my child’s life. I know what it’s like to worry that my child may suffer harm.
From my experience that Saturday night, I know what it’s like to watch my child struggle to breathe and feel like I can’t do anything to help him. I knew what he needed, but I couldn’t provide it for him because I don’t have steroids. So I could apply that fear and feeling of helplessness to my character whose child is being held hostage.
All Experiences Are Useful
No experience in our lives is wasted. I’ve actually used real life experiences in my writing. In my novel, Altared Plans, the main character meets her future-mother-in-law while dressed as a clown. Yep, that same thing happened to me. (I was volunteering at a local Special Olympics as a hugger and was in full costume when I met her).
In Heaven Scent the main character can smell her deceased mother’s perfume. Again, the same thing has happened to me.
The main character in The Upside of Down is a mom with a lot of kids who do things like cut their hair off and leave crayons in the dryer. Again, happened to me.
Our experiences shape our writing, which is why we are the only ones who can tell our stories. I’ve heard it said that if you put ten writers in a room together and give them the same writing prompt, you’ll end up with ten completely different stories. Why? Because of our experiences. The lens in which we view the world is individual to each one of us.
Listening to Others’ Experiences
I attended a party one evening and met a woman. She was recently engaged and was excited to tell all of us how she’d met her future husband. It was at a funeral. Not the usual place you meet someone to date, right?
I listened to her story and the wheels in my brain started to turn. I was in the middle of a story and I needed my main character to meet her love interest. I decided to have them meet at, you guessed it, a funeral. It all fell into place and I loved how their meeting took place.
Listening to your friends or acquaintances, or even listening to strangers on a bus or in the mall, can give you great ideas to use in your novel.
You can also listen to news stories or read stories on social media that can trigger ideas you can use in your own story. I’ve taken lots of notes of others’ experiences that I can then tailor to my own story.
One particular story was about a woman whose husband was killed in a car accident. His organs were donated and his heart ended up in another man. By some amazing coincidence, the woman met the man who now had her husband’s heart. Doesn’t that just make your spidey-senses tingle?
Listen to other people. They may give you a goldmine of experiences that you can use.
Make It Feel Realistic
When writing fiction, it’s important to make it feel realistic. Even in speculative fiction with dragons and wizards and worlds with three suns, the reader wants to feel like this story could actually take place somewhere. Using your experiences, or that of others, can help achieve that realistic feeling.
Even if you can’t use the experience, use your feelings to help you make your fiction fuller and deeper. Maybe you haven’t experienced the loss of a parent, but you lost a pet. How did that make you feel? What was it like to come home and expect to see your pet, but it was no longer there? Did you feel empty? Lost? Use those feelings in your writing.
The next time you’re sitting in the ER, waiting in line at the grocery store, or listening to your child explain the world’s longest dream, think about how you feel and how it’s affected you and then use that in your writing.