No Magic Formula   9 comments

May 11, 2020

How soon is too soon to include a real-life event in a fictional story?


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That’s a Personal Question

A personal and individual answer is necessary for something like this. I don’t think there’s a single answer because writing is incredibly personal. What bothers me might not bother you. Or it could be the other way around.

I admit I have kind of thick skin. Journalism teaches you to be that way. I have to watch myself not to interview friends who face tragedy. It’s second nature. But I do know when it’s inappropriate, so I don’t know that I’ve ever actually done it, but it’s occurs to me when some things have happened. And sometimes, that talent has been useful. I know how to ask questions that cut to the heart of the matter.

A Very Personal Example

Some friends of mine lost their daughter to a serial killer. I was still in high school and didn’t know them until 10 years later. I knew them about another five years before their granddaughter started asking questions. I was her youth leader in church and the questions she asked deserved to be answered, so I sat down with her grandmother and interviewed her. I did it for her granddaughter, but Annie said telling her story helped her because she finally got some closure.

That was nearly 20 years ago and I still haven’t put it in a story. It’ll be too soon until Annie passes from this world. It’s too personal to someone I care about and I would not want to hurt her.

Protecting the Not Guilty

About 25 years ago, my husband sat a jury for a Murder 1 trial. The brief story is an Alaska miner was having problems with an abusive neighbor. He and his wife were headed to breakfast at a roadhouse 120 miles from the nearest police station. Coming out of grizzly country on a 4-wheeler, they were both armed for their own protection. The neighbor sat on the screened porch of the roadhouse and assumed they were coming to shoot him, so he started shooting at them first. They hit WG’s wife and he took a bullet to the shoulder. In the meantime, the neighbor’s wife exited the roadhouse by the other door and started shooting at WG from behind. Confused, injured and bullets whizzing around his head, he shot the neighbor six times and killed him.

The trial was really fascinating because it showed the difference between the law and reasonable human behavior, and my husband learned about the power of the jury system to get justice.

I wrote article about the trial within six weeks and it was published in a magazine. I’ve played with writing it as a fictional story several times. The thing is, I wouldn’t want to write THAT story. I’d want to base a fictional story upon the real-life event, but I wouldn’t want to stir up crap against the man who did the shooting because opinions vary. I would want to change some of the details protect those who were found not guilty.

Opinions Vary

So that story was ready to be written in six weeks, but not ready to be fictionalized even now. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ve just got too many stories and I’ve not found time to write this one.

Both of these stories have come up in writing workshops. Some writers recommend writing those stories, never mind anyone’s hurt feelings. Others have said “no, no, no, never write those stories”. Opinions vary and I’m not sure there’s an appropriate waiting period on writing based on the personal tragedies of other people. Then again, there might be some useful explorations involved in reading about them. It’s just not that easy to know.

What about BIG events?

Walt Whitman wrote two poems about Lincoln within a couple of months of his death. Both are acclaimed as classics and tributes to Lincoln. Sometimes current events compel writers to delve into them immediately.

I was asked this week if I would write about cordonavirus. My answer was that I started writing about a flu epidemic more than two years ago and it just happens that the topic features fairly prominently in my current WIP (Winter’s Reckoning, due out this autumn) — not because of the current situation. I planned from the beginning to write a biological weapon into the series; it just happens that now is the time to write that part of the story. Will the story be better because of what we’re learning from coronavirus? Possibly, but my story isn’t actually based on CVD19, so I must pretend it doesn’t exist in my books. And frankly, I’m not willing to fictionalize this particular virus until we’ve had some space from it to find out what it really does. Imagine if I’d fictionalized it and declared millions of people died from it. I could certainly do that based on the 1918 Flu pandemic, but CVD19 doesn’t currently look like it will result in millions of deaths like that historical virus did, so letting a bit of time pass keeps me from looking foolish.


Of course, current events are seeded throughout my writing. Some are referenced as they really occurred, some are fictionalized and some are given new meaning by the memories of those characters who survived those events. Sometimes those events used as a model happened yesterday and sometimes they happened decades ago.

When to use a real-life event in fiction is a very individual decision, personal to the writer or the people involved in the event and it will vary according to circumstances which will be different for every writer.

Posted May 11, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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9 responses to “No Magic Formula

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  1. An interesting post. I write historical novels but the people involved all passed years ago so there isn’t the sort of worry and anxiety about raking up old feelings you mention here. I agree it is to soon to write about Covid-19. I am avoiding forward looking fiction right now until we have more certainty. It’s to big to ignore from an economic perspective in a look forward.


  2. I agree that sometimes it’s too soon to write about recent events that might upset people still living who were involved. I’d rather stick with the past.


  3. I think it’s easier to write about current events from a future perspective. This is probably the only case where hindsight is actually valuable. It’s certainly much to soon to write accurately about our present problems. We don’t know enough truth to make it sound authentic to someone who will read it in ten years from now.


  4. I had a friend writing a book with ISIS as the bad guys. Of course, by the time it gets written, ISIS will probably be a footnote in history, so I suggested changing the name to something fictitious. (I think he’s dropped the project for now.Too many things on his plate.)


  5. Oh, I didn’t know about those Whitman poems! Now I have to look them up.


  6. You know the photojournalist people are standing in the rubble of someone’s home before the tornado is ten miles away, asking them “How do you feel? Where’s your dog?” A whole neighborhood and a live TV audience watch a 17-year-old kid high on acid wave a gun at a cop. Bam. Kid’s momma is on TV while they haul her son off in an ambulance. OJ and the Ford. Jeez. Some stories too close to home, though, I get that. I have a friend with a couple of real-life gut punches that are, unfortunately, hilarious outside looking in. But I couldn’t while he’s alive.


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