Anecdotal Experience.

“Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.”
~Isaac Asimov

Are these characters based off people you know? Are you writing from personal experience? Are you sure that didn’t happen to you at some point during your own life? Are you parlaying your own feelings into a story about someone else? Ask any writer if these questions have been tossed their way, and the answer is likely a resounding YES. Writing is such a deeply personal endeavor, and so it’s only natural that people would assume there are ties to our own experiences, our own lives, our own stories. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s the opposite. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes it’s the opposite. But whatever the case, it seems to be a commonality no matter what tale unfolds across the pages. And it got me thinking: just how much of ourselves do we transfer, whether deliberately or subconsciously, to our characters?

When I wrote my first book, there was a connection with Emily, the main character, immediately. Even before a single word was splashed onto the Word document, I understood what made Emily tick. What made her soar. What inhibited her, what pushed her, what changed her. And so when it came time to start my second book, I was a little nervous. Sofie’s story is one I’ve felt strongly about since the very beginning – since the moment the idea for it popped into my head, actually – but because her situation is so vastly different from mine, I was worried about being unable to do it justice. Three novels later, I look back on that apprehension and am glad, so truly glad, that I didn’t let it stop me. The thought of not having Sofie and her cohorts in my life is … honestly, it’s unimaginable. And do you know what? Even though the stories that weave through her life are not ones I’ve experienced personally, the connection is still there. I actually think it’s even stronger because of that. Our experiences do not exist in a snow globe, bubbled away from the rest of the world. Even though the specifics may differ, the feelings and emotions often intertwine. Sofie is her own person and her story is hers to tell, but yes, there are pieces of her heart that reflect mine. Just because her life hasn’t been pulled from my own past doesn’t mean I don’t understand where her thoughts are. And just because her journey is one she travels on her own time doesn’t mean it hasn’t helped me heal, helped me hope, helped me grow. We may not share the same life experiences, but I like to think we share many of the same perspectives. I like to think we share the same spirit.

And then there are the literal anecdotes. While most of the scenes in my books are entirely unique to the characters, it’s always fun to throw in tidbits from my own life. Like when Emily had an orientation activity in college where her group had to arrange themselves in age order – the caveat being that nobody was allowed to speak. Like when Sofie’s mom put a note in her school lunch every day. Like when Sofie’s parents arrived two hours early for every single one of her sister’s dance recitals so they could sit in the first row. Like when Lila’s senior thesis project was almost destroyed, thanks to a hard drive that randomly – and instantaneously – stopped working. Like when Sofie and Brandon watched American Idol together every week. Like when Sofie was in awe of the musical Wicked and when she recounted her very favorite episode of I Love Lucy. Like when Sofie’s birth mom relays this story about one of her children:

“Dan and I brought the kids last year, and Katie had a conniption when somebody at the next table ordered a full lobster. She said it was – direct quote – an aquatic tragedy. Dan had to wait in the car with her while the boys and I finished eating.”

I may not have used the exact words “aquatic tragedy,” but I definitely freaked out one time during a dinner at The Crab Trap. It didn’t matter that I was only having pasta. It didn’t matter that we were all on a family vacation in Ocean City. I spun my chair around in the middle of the restaurant, refused to look at any table, and eventually got so upset that my mom offered to sit in the car with me while everyone else finished eating. Oops? Ha.

So yes … even though I’m not adopted, even though I don’t have any children yet, even though I’ve never adopted a baby or experienced many of the other things Sofie has, I do feel intricately connected with her. I feel a bond with all the characters in this story. No, they are not directly based off anyone I know, but they do include bits and pieces of them. Of me. They are not me, but they are a part of me. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

How about you? Do you weave in personal anecdotes to your writing or is every scenario completely fictional?

8 thoughts on “Anecdotal Experience.

  1. I loved your entries about Sandy Hook– very touching and beautiful.
    And yes, I know what you mean about incorporating real-life tidbits into your characters. Also, although you may not have children or directly experienced adoption, you understand the universal experiences of love, belonging, etc. That’s what creates good, memorable characters :-D

    • Thank you so much. I was having a lot of trouble articulating my thoughts on it, so your kind words are most appreciated.

      And – such a great point. Those universal experiences and emotions are what help us all relate to one another, so it’s only natural that the same would be true for the connections we build with our characters. In that regard, it really is like there’s a piece of every author in the lives that play out on the page. :)

  2. Haha, so true. People are always suspicious of fiction writers incorporating truth, and nonfiction writing of incorporating fiction. Can’t win!

    But yeah, as Kate said, our “truths” are what infuse life into our words, our stories, our characters. That’s vital, pun intended.

    Although, haha, I just finished reading GONE GIRL, which was pretty freaky, so I really hope all of it comes just from really good imagination… :P

    • Vital indeed. I think you can often (though not always) tell a lot about authors by the characters they create. Even when the situations are different, there’s a piece of the writer’s heart woven into every word, every action, every reaction.

      I’ve heard so many rave reviews of GONE GIRL lately. Will have to check it out!

  3. This is a very insightful way to look at the creation of characters in fiction writing. I find the whole process of fiction writing very fascinating because it’s one I’ve never been able to master. I’m all about documenting life and that doesn’t require much creative thinking at all. I admire people like you who can do it so beautifully!

    • Hi, Lisa! Thank you so much for stopping by and for the kind words. I’ve always been fascinated by the process, too — it’s what drove me to give it a whirl in the first place and what continues to motivate me every day! I am completely meticulous when it comes to most things, but when I’m writing, it’s like my mind just has the freedom to wander. It’s a joy!

  4. First of all, I love your new template! Beautiful!!!

    As for the rest of the entry, it was so fun to hear about how your personal experiences affected your writing. I love when authors give us little tidbits like that — especially when we learn their origins. And as a writer, I enjoy throwing things like that in there to round out the story, give it a little personality. I’m waiting for the day when someone recognizes one of those tidbits and says, “Hey! I remember when that happened!” (Like the infamous grapefruit globe incident, which I’m sure my mom still remembers and would recognize if she read this book…)

    • Thanks again! I had a lot of fun playing around with it yesterday.

      I couldn’t agree more – it’s always so interesting to hear how a writer’s life factors into the novels, even if it’s just a small mention in the book. Makes you look at the scene through a different lens, you know? LOL and I totally thought of your grapefruit scene when I was writing this post. You have to tell me what your mom’s reaction to it is!

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