We continue our work on the background of writing- inspiration and plotting, with how to turn real life into a story. First let me state all writers do this, you HAVE to do it. Still, you must always make clear when you get too close to reality, in a forward or author's note, that any coincidence to any persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Yeah, right.

 

 
Who me? I'd never do that!




We'll go over how to take a entire plot from reality and adopt it, how to make yourself the protagonist in various ways, then how to take real people and make them characters, and lastly how to take situati?yola-link-is-coming=trueons from your life and fictionalize them. 
 
Let's start with entire plots. If you're at this blog, I hope you read my novel Case of the Missing Millionaire. If not, it's a bit awkward to summarize. Basically a missing person case uncovers a web of sex-for-hire, blackmail, and murder. I admit part of my inspiration was The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett. In his story a missing persons case reveals a scientist onto something big and a cabal. So outside of a PI (though Nick Charles, Hammett's PI is retired officially at the story) and a missing person case, they aren't all that similar. So where did I get my elements? From this actual murder case, still unsolved.

I was an avid watcher of Unsolved Mysteries as a child. I didn't normally watch TV but at friends' houses I would catch this. Real mysteries fascinate me, and they are ever so much more complex from reality. In this case young Beverly McGowan was seeking a roommate. A con artist woman posing as a psychic showed up and days later Beverly's mutilated body was found miles away. Partially decapitated and with all tattoos but one on her ankle removed, it was amateurish. The psychic was con woman Elaine Parent, a British national who soon began using Beverly's ID and credit cards. Most strangely a poorly cross-dressed man used Beverly's ID and credit cards to get a ticket to London and secure a car there. The ID may be in use but only US$1,000 was ever taken. Elaine Parent was not know to have associated with any men. There are so many questions into this violent, senseless death that it begs for proposed theories. Can you see similarities? A murder, a con, London, identity theft. Those elements are the ones I borrowed for my story, and this is a great example showing how a very loose interpertation can take a real unsolved mystery and make it into a work of fiction.

That is how you first adapt a story you have heard/read about, one not from your own life. My mind kind of naturally did this, I wasn't even aware of this inspiration until after 3 years from first writing the novella, when I was adapting it into a novel. First you have to separate what to take from your own life and what not. DO NOT TAKE ANY UNSOLVED MYSTERIES FROM YOUR OWN LIFE. If it was a long-held mystery such as "Who is my father?" that you have solved, that's fine, but if you have a mystery with no answers don't write about it. That's what philosophers are for. Case in point, a man I dated 4 years ago for 3 months left my house one day, kissed me good bye, and vanished into thin air. To this day he's on the missing persons national register. Being grilled by the police as the last person to see him was horrible, and because I'd been planning to dump him and my friends knew it, I was under heavy suspicion. There's no way I could ever write this and not have it blow up in my face. I have another author friend whose father was murdered, case unsolved. If she tried to write about it the pain would be excruciating. So when you deal with mysteries, only write about unsolved ones you've read about/watched reports on. From you own life you can draw solved mysteries.



 
The real life inspiration for Mary Beth Anderson, Elaine Parent. True evil is apparently blonde.


  

Other than that, borrowing a plot from real life should be limited to grand adventures and revelations. That time you and your best friend showed up at the wrong party separately but at the same time and partied harder with strangers than your other friends makes a great story to tell your friends, but it's not an entire plot. The time you lost you job, sold all your possessions, went to Vegas, lost it all, but found true love? That's a story.

But wait, that's not how it happened! You lot your job, got your two weeks vacation in a check, went to Vegas, blew it all, and fucked this cute chick from Omaha but never saw her again. So to adapt the real into the spectacular world of fiction, remember contrasts. Either the start or the end should be extreme, if both are the story is even more epic. You're not just unemployed, you are damn near destitute. You don't just get laid, you find true love.  Fiction is our shared fantasies, when people praise it for being "gritty and realistic" they mean the character arcs and dialogue, not the plot. Maybe your story about befriending the Saudi student in college is moving, but unless you write in any epic realizations try making him a Martian extraterrestrial. Sad truth: if you want to sell your fiction there must be an epic premise or promise. Premise would be he's an alien; promise would be he turns out to be a real prince. So take real life stories and reshape them to have an epic premise or promise. With mysteries stick to the solved ones from your own life in the same way, or pick an unsolved one from outside your own life and propose a theory, changing major details so as not to upset the real people involved.

To get an entire plot you will want to change names and places. Add or remove a few players to make the plot flow at your pace. You can do this when writing your outline, the detailed summary of the story that's 10% the length of your total work that you write after you write you summary and character bios. If the people you add will be major protagonists and not secondary characters, put them in the summary and write a character bio.



 
Of course, don't go wild making every aspect extreme or you get this crap


 
Now when you take a story from your own life, be it an unsolved mystery that fascinates you, or a journey you undertook, the natural inclination is to make yourself the protagonist. Do it! Go for it, ignore all those idiot teachers who say you never should. You can change gender (be careful with that), or change the age, height, weight, marital status, and career, but the way their mind works should be yours. You need to get inside your protagonist's head and what better way to do it than give him/her your own mind? Find what helps you relate. Hammett's Nick Charles is praised as his best protagonist because it freaking IS Hammett. His first protagonist, the Continental  Op, is older, short, paunchy, and this made him a bit clunky for Hammett to write. His second, Sam Spade, was brusque, aggressive, and earthy. Both these men had attributes of Hammett, but Nick Charles had the age, the body, the work history, the suave charm, the rich life partner, and tendency towards alcoholism and swinging. Find how close to yourself you need to get and go with it. Just change the name for fuck's sake, and give him/her a different job OR change relationship status. Nick Charles was a married retired man where as Hammett was a divorced writer living with his ladylove Lillian Hellman.

You can even write yourself into a 100% fictional plot. However, if the plot is pure fiction and not based off real life never exceed the 60/20 rule: your protagonist can never share more than 60% of your mental attributes and history/personal experience, and never more than 20% of your physical attributes. Otherwise it becomes painful for readers and they tend to feel as if they are peeking into your own personal thoughts.

Of physical attributes the ones you should keep your height if yours is unusual, gender, and the age range should be your current or a past one. Height is fairly important. All my heroines are tall. I'm 5'11" with a 36" inseam. I can't buy clothes off a rack, only through catalogs and websites, and high heels make me 6'2"-6'3" on average. I understand the challenges of being a tall woman (there are weird ones: petite old ladies at the grocery store will always ask me over a man to get something from the top shelf, for example. Also tall men don't like us tall girls. My average male lover is 5'9", and I have never seriously dated any man over 6' dead even. My friends who are 6'3" or 6'4" always date women 5'4"-5'7"). I could never imagine life as a short woman. One of my best friends is 4'10" and could never imagine life as a tall woman. If you're a 5'7" woman you're tall enough you could write a 5'9" or 5'5" comfortably. If you're a 6' tall man you could write a 6'3" or 5'10" character comfortably. But if you're on the edges of the bell-curve, stay there. Gender  is a no-brainer, and age is important. If you'e 27 you know what it's like to be 21, 13, or 8, but trust me, you have no clue what 30 is. At 27 I thought I knew, but now that I'm 31 I laugh at my former self. Being 30 sucks. Not as much as you fear but it ain't as great as you hope.



 
While Marly Jackson is tall and shares many of my vices and attitude, the physical template I based her on was Lena Olin. Just try to picture Lena wearing a frumpy suit and glasses.


 
It's trickier to take other people and make them characters. Who do you select? Good anger management for a writer is to take someone you hate, make them a secondary character, and kill them in a horrible way. For that just change the name, make some details such as hair color, type of home, marital situation, and make them different, and go nuts. But what about a major character based off someone you know? First, why do you want them? Is it because they have some extraordinary attribute that is captivating? Or is it just because you have a crush on them, or something similar? If it's the latter you need to change them and make them extraordinary. Maybe you have a personal attachment to them, but why should your reader care? 

Next, consider who you're using. If it's someone you know and the characterization will be flattering, ask their permission and give them thanks in your author's note. Change the name, but otherwise only change as much as you need to do to not piss them off. If it's someone you know and hate, or it won't be flattering, change just enough to not be convicted in a court of law. Change their name, make them older or younger, change their hair color and style (better yet change their race!), and change their home, and marital status/sexual orientation or vehicle.Keep their habits but if they involve a specific item change that. If they're a nail biter you can keep that, but if they're hooked on speed make them a coke fiend. If they're addicted to Diet Coke make them a Mountain Dew hound. Lastly if it's a famous person...change the name, how they got famous, but you can't cover it. Howard Hughes by any other name is still a fascinating odd coot.



 
Such use of famous people works best on comedy or satire


 
All these things must come at the planning stages before you write. Our last situation may occur then or while writing, it's up to you: including real life situations. These are the small ones, think of the drinking stories you share with your friends. You should stick to the stories of you, family, friends. Stories from pop culture count as those one line premises you need to adapt into a full story, a kind of fan fiction. So we're focusing on those little stories. For example, once I punched out a world-famous very-hated heavy metal drummer. I tell this story often to friends who are always amused, and I'm waiting for the story where it fits. You should too. Never shoe-horn in a situation into a story where it doesn't fit. My story would fit a character who drinks and parties wildly yet is not headed for doom (as I did in my 20's) and I have yet to write a story with that kind of character.

Now if your story has a character the situation fits, go for it. If it involves anyone famous change names and details. I would probably make mine an equally hated fictitious actor and change from location from a bar to a private party. In yours, just as with using real friends/family/enemies as characters if it involves them get their permission or change enough details they are not clearly recognizable.



You mean writing takes this much work? Then how the hell did Snooki have a book? Credit


 
The last 3 situations here work best for when you already have a plot, and I hope you can see just how complex plotting is. We have one lesson left in writing 101 which will be a short one and deals primarily with one last facet authors have to deal with, avoiding lawsuits. Until then, I hope your creative juices are flowing and the ideas you come up with are being processed, built, fleshed out, and stored in a way that will keep you prolific for ll your days.