How to Decide whether to write your Life Story or turn it into Fiction

How to decide whether to write your true life or family story or turn it into fiction

If you’re considering writing your life or family story and are unsure whether to keep it a true account or whether turning it into fiction is better for you, this article may help you decide and show you how to do it.

I interviewed my client, Natalie Nixon about her family story, Blue Almond Eyes – An Australian story of forbidden love, where she shared her writing processes and why she decided to fictionalise her life story.The case study offers extra information, writing tips, videos and resources to help you throughout your process.

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The biggest issue holding people back is a lack of confidence in their writing ability or concerns about how they can tell their story. If you haven’t already got your copy of my inspirational and informative ebook, Write Your Life Story Without Fear, you can download it now and read it before you continue on with the blog. Click here to download…

 

INTERVIEW & CASE STUDY OF NATALIE NIXON’S BOOK,

BLUE ALMOND EYES

Please take the time to listen to our interview on WobblyWomanTV where Nat talks candidly about her writing process and her amazing story. You can watch in on YouTube or listen to it on the WobblyWoman Podcast.

 

 

WHAT IS THE STORY ABOUT?

Nat’s story is about her great-great-grandparents, Victoria who was English and Jimmy who was Chinese. “They suffered terrible racism and discrimination but they loved each other and were together for sixty years. The message is that no matter whether you’re black, or white, yellow or purple – love is colourblind,” says Nat.

When Nat first came to me she didn’t have very much information about her ancestors but she was very clear about the theme or message of the book. She realised that the challenges her family experienced throughout the generations had a universal theme and message. It was a story of how love transcends all adversity.

 

FICTIONAL MEMOIR

Fictional Memoir is another way of describing autobiographical fiction, when an author chooses to tell a real experience, or the full story of their life, as a fictional account. It is usually written like a memoir, featuring first-person narration from the protagonist that is meant to be the author.

TIPS FOR YOU:

  • What information do you have? This will give you a good indication of whether it is enough to write a true account of your story or whether you need to let your imagination go wild and write a fictional memoir
  • Write a basic outline of your story. You can list bullet points down the page or go into more detail. The idea is to get the most important information down to find the gaps and how then to craft it into a story.
  • What is the central theme or message? The topic of your book is what the story is about but the theme is the message behind your story. Is the theme universal? Who would your story most appeal to – a particular audience or a wider audience? Having an outline and a theme is helpful whether you want to write a true account or fictionalise your life story
  • Be open to where the story takes you! Writing about your life can be a cathartic and healing process whether it’s a true account or a work of fiction. Also, be prepared that the pen may take you on unexpected journeys. Nat’s first idea was to simply write about the forbidden love of her ancestors but realised the modern story she entwined with the historical one brought a richness and depth to the story.

 

WHAT’S YOUR WHY?

Your WHY will determine your voice, style, how you write the book, what should be left in or edited out, how you publish and market your book.

NAT’S INSPIRATION TO WRITE HER STORY?

While growing up, Nat was fascinated by her family story but her grandmother never allowed her to ask questions. She was told, “You might not like what you find.” Nat felt some embarrassment about her heritage while growing up. She was bullied and there were times she felt as if she was a second-class citizen because of the small-mindedness of her town. Looking back, Nat understands that “it was the sign of the times” but believes that racism is still alive and well today.

As Nat got older, she realised her heritage was “pretty cool” and “this is a good story” so began to research. When Nat’s son met and started going out with a Chinese girl, Nat realised the irony of the situation. “We’ve come full circle. I decided to have a go and turn the adversity into something positive and spread a message that we’re all the same.”

Nat’s WHY was first to record her family history and to honour her family. However, her universal theme inspired Nat to take it to a wider audience. Her intention shifted to helping or inspiring others through her family story.  Her family story is a symbol of something greater and more universal. “It was a story worth telling. My great-great-grandparents loved each other regardless of the colour of their skin, and the message is that with love, anything is possible.”

TIPS FOR YOU:

  • First, WHY do you want to write your book? That will determine whether you want to record your life or family story for personal reasons or whether it should go out to the wider public.
  • What’s the legacy you want to leave?
  • Don’t write for revenge. Revenge doesn’t read well and it doesn’t respect the reader.
  • Note that your WHY can change throughout the process of writing your book. Be open…

 

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RESEARCHING YOUR LIFE OR FAMILY STORY?

First Nat talked to family members to remember their family stories. Then she used ancestory.com to gather more information.  The Australian government organisation of, Births, Deaths, and Marriages was also useful. Nat said,  “It took months to find [Victoria and Jimmy’s] marriage certificate. I wasn’t sure if they were even married.”

“I found out that my great-great-grandfather was educated because there was a signature on his daughter’s birth certificate. It was a really exciting piece of the puzzle.”

Nat also saw a clairvoyant and took a photo of her great-great-grandmother in the hope of finding out more information. The clairvoyant told her that Jimmy’s family in China had a fabric business and she used that information to embellish the story.

TIPS FOR YOU:

  • Write a list of all the people you would like to interview and contact them. Most people love to reminisce!
  • You can ask them to sign a document giving you permission to use their information in your book. This covers you but not everyone is comfortable doing this. You can decide whether you show them your work or not prior to publication.
  • Prepare your questions and really think about what you need to know for your story
  • Ideally, video or record the interview if your participant is willing. This is useful to fact check because things can get misconstrued and it’s also a wonderful record of family stories to pass down.

 

TURNING THE SEEDS OF AN IDEA INTO A STORY

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HOW DID YOU START WRITING YOUR STORY?

Nat had the beginnings of a few chapters but was stuck on how to turn her ideas into a story. I loved her story but she only really had the seeds of a story.

Nat admits that it was difficult to start and finish the story and that it was more work than she thought. She began by writing starts of chapters.

We did a Book Planning Session to brainstorm her ideas and turn them into an outline for her story. We had a great time talking through possible plots, conflict and the development of characters. The most important thing to remember here is to be open to the creative process and allow for change as you write.

In our Mentoring, Nat learned about fictionalising life story, story arcs, starting with a strong hook, setting up the conflict, building the conflict through dialogue and action, identifying the climax and working out a resolution.

Nat had two narratives running through her book, so it was interesting to weave the historical story with the modern one. This was an idea that evolved over time and worked beautifully in the end.

There is an art and craft to story writing. Nat learned writing techniques such as “Show Not Tell” and “Writing in Scenes” as well as getting rid of redundancies which made her writing tighter. She said, “Once I got my head around things like that, it was easier.”

Nat came to me with a seed of the story and I helped her create an outline, develop the narrative by padding out the details and teaching her useful self-editing tips.

Read my blog on How to Pad out the Details of your Life Story 

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TIPS FOR YOU:

  • I’ve often heard writing teachers say, “Just because you have a story doesn’t mean you should write it.” They are saying this because there is more of an art and craft to constructing a story than people realise. You have to shape your story rather than offer a string of memories.
  • Read the types of fiction books you want to write
  • List the books you love to read and consider what makes them enjoyable. Deconstruct them. This will help you during your writing process
  • Understand that narrative elements help to bring your story alive. They include:

characterisation

plot/story arc

setting

dialogue

action

voice

style

theme

 

CHALLENGES TO WRITING OR FICTIONALISING YOUR LIFE STORY

WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE?

“Time,” said Nat. “It was hard to get going. I went to the office which made me get out of the house and just do it. Even going to a cafe is a good idea because it’s too easy to procrastinate at home.”

This is such a good point. Everyone wants to write a book but can’t seem to find the time or manage their time to start or finish it. Having a mentor to guide and keep you accountable works.

TIPS FOR YOU:

  • Block time in your calendar. Find chunks of time to write, early mornings, commuting, lunch hour, late at night or weekends
  • Know Thyself! Understand what will work for you
  • Tell other people about your writing commitment and get their support
  • Use the Pomodoro method where you write for 20 minutes at a time. The QLD Writers’ Centre offers a Writing Friday service for free where you physically go into the centre and write for timed periods with breaks in-between. OK, it might be forced writing but hey – do what you must to get the job done
  • Check out apps such as Write or Die that force you to write or you will lose all your words

 

DEFAMATION AND NEGATIVE FEEDBACK?

In the interview, I asked Nat whether she was worried about negative feedback. “I thought a few people might recognize themselves in some characters. There’s always the thought of “what will people think,” said Nat.

This is what stops a lot of people in the first place. We had a number of discussions about the real people and how we characterised them in the story. But for Nat, the drive to write the story was more than worrying about what people would think.

TIPS FOR YOU:

  • Consider whether your words could be hurtful?
  • One of the biggest reasons people fictionalise life stories is to protect themselves from defamation and the right to privacy. Or you may do it to protect your family members if the story is controversial. Fictionalising it can also help to avoid defamation but you have to make sure that you change more than a name. If people can recognise themselves and it causes them a loss of reputation or income then they can sue you. Please seek legal advice if you are unsure.
  • First, write your story how you want – the truth according to you or fictionalise it how you want (just get it out)
  • If you want to write a true account first try to get permission in writing (if you can) as this can save you a lot of headache in the future.
  • If this is not possible – ask yourself, “Is this really necessary in the story?” or “How can I say this without using that person’s name or identifying them.
  • If you cannot possibly write your story without including the challenging parts, I suggest you read up and research defamation and right to privacy. A good place to start is with Helen Sedwick, an American Attorney. She has a great book out called, Self-publishers Legal Handbook.
  •  You cannot be sued for stating facts. If you are writing about someone who has been convicted of the crime you may be writing about, you are not defaming them. It is a fact according to the law.
  • If they haven’t been convicted, this is where it gets tricky and you need to seek legal advice through your publisher or through a literary lawyer.

In Australia, we have organisations such as:

Arts/Law Society

The Society of Australian Authors

 

THE REWARDS

WHAT WERE THE HIGHLIGHTS OR JOY OF WRITING YOUR STORY?

After three months of mentoring, I saw an improvement in Nat’s writing. We discussed the development of conflict and characters, getting rid of redundancies, show not tell, use of voice, pace and tone, verisimilitude (which is about keeping the story real considering it was a historical fiction). I showed Nat how to incorporate dialogue and action to improve the pace.

Nat said she was surprised at times when reading back over what she’d written and often smiled realising her writing “was pretty good” and that it was a great story.

While Nat used the limited facts she knew about her great-great-grandparents, she loved letting her imagination “go wild” but always remembered to bring her writing back to her central message.

TIPS FOR YOU – FROM NAT

  • Just do it. Get started and you’ll be surprised by the outcome. It was a story I felt I had to write. I was passionate and proud of my family. That drove me.
  • People are interested
  • Australians love a good life story
  • You will develop your confidence through mentoring
  • You never know who you might reach and what your message can do for them

MORE TIPS FROM LEEZA

  • Realise that writing is rewriting
  • Always come back to your WHY and your big picture!
  • Get support
  • If you start writing it as non-fiction and it doesn’t work, then change it to fiction or vice-versa. Experiment!
  • Trust in the process
  • Enjoy the process

You can find Nat’s book, Blue Almond Eyes on Amazon here and the print version will be out in November 2018

 

WHAT’S THE NEXT STEP FOR YOU:

Click on the link which best suits you…

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Have ideas but haven’t started writing yet.

Your manuscript is finished & you need feedback!

“Help! I need guidance to write my book!

 

Feel free to contact me for a no-obligation chat to discuss what you need and how I can help you or direct you on the right path.

Happy writing

Cheers

(Note: Images are from Pixabay and Depositphotos)

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