Category Archives: Fictional characters

Only Child on when to write memoir or fiction

Sharon A. Crawford aka Only Child Writes. I promise I won’t repeat this photo each week.

I thought it fitting today to talk about writing – fiction versus memoir – when to use each – at least in my experience.

A short story or novel can come from something in real life – yours or someone else’s. It could be a news story, a classified ad, a personal experience, a friend or relative’s experience, something you see or hear, etc. But that experience is only the idea that kick-starts the story. For fiction, you need to use your imagination to create your plot and your characters.

For memoir, you gotta tell the truth – at least as you see it. This means real people, real events, although you may not remember exactly what everyone said. I’ve learned that as long as you are sure A and B were in the same place at the same time, they probably spoke – unless you know or find out they were feuding and not speaking. You can also check with others (family, friends) who knew the people involved and the scene in question for input. And if the people involved are still living you can talk to them. This is where it can get interesting because everyone sees the same event differently.

When do you write memoir and when do you write fiction? There is no hard and fast rule but here’s what I do. As those following this blog remember, my original memoir version got hit by family flak – they didn’t mind fictionalizing some of the stories, but some of the narrative they didn’t want in (this was from reading one chapter and based on some of the questions I had asked them). So I revamped the memoir to focus on my story, deleted the “objectionable” stuff and…got busy with the fiction.

So far one short story I wrote got its idea from something that happened with my relatives. And in another story, one character is loosely based on a relative and another character in another story originated with someone I once worked with. But that’s it – the stories are fiction and so are the characters. The real life events and people only planted the proverbial seed and the fictional took over.

Some stories have to be told as I see them. They just don’t work as triggers for fictional stories. They are too important not to narrate as they happened. With me it was being bullied as a child – both by a so-called friend, who I call “The Bully” in my memoir, and the nun who became principal at the grade school I attended. The two are important to what I was, what I experienced as a child and how I turned out as an adult. For example, if I had not been bullied I may not be so gung-ho on justice and fairness – which includes presenting both sides of the story. Heck, it is possibly a big factor in my becoming a journalist. It also may have something to do with why I think people who commit crimes need to be punished (although I think my Catholic upbringing in the late 50s and 60s has a lot to do with that attitude). However, my basic honesty and integrity came from my mother.

And I’ve tried writing short stories about kids being bullied but the stories never go anywhere and some read downright silly.

Rule of thumb: Write nonfiction – memoir, nonfiction article, whatever – about what is important to you to bring out into the open as fact. I know there are issues of will so-and-so sue me or get angry or? You need to consider these to a certain point. Don’t let them get in the way of writing your true story if you believe it is necessary to do so.

Like me, if you’ve already received flak and decide not to write it as memoir or personal essay, then use it as the trigger for fiction, and let your imagination soar with plot and characters.

My take on this. And I’m sticking to it.

What do you think?

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

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Filed under Catholicism in the 1950s, Family Flak Memoirs, Fictional characters, Libel in Memoir Writing, Memoir content, Naming Names in Memoirs, Only child memoir, School days

Only Child uses fiction to deal with life’s pain

Only Child reading one of her short stories

If you are writing a memoir/considering writing a memoir, but something in your life is too painful or might cause grief for you and your family, try writing it as a short story. Perhaps you or some other family member has an incurable disease. Perhaps you are dealing with a parent with dementia. Writing about a painful situation, even transformed into fiction, can be a healing catharsis, but it can also turn into the most powerful story. Almost anything is fodder for fiction. Just make sure it is fiction.

I do this. One short story evolved from a family member’s (not immediate) unexpected suicide. No way did I want to add to our family grief, but maybe I had some survivor guilt. I was also a suicide survivor (from 30 years ago) and for five years volunteered at a telephone distress centre.

The short story that evolved changed everything except the suicide fact and one character’s volunteering at a distress centre. The characters were younger, brother and sister, and the story was told from the sister’s point of view. It started with her big brother’s suicide and then went back to their life, including growing up with a mother who was an alcoholic and verbally abused her children. This definitely was not the situation in my family. In my story, the sister was filled with guilt and she felt that she should have been able to stop her brother, especially as she was volunteering at a telephone distress center. I made up the name of the distress centre and what “happens” at the fictional distress centre did not happen with my actual volunteering. For those interested, the story “My Brother’s Keeper” was published in the Canadian Authors Association Toronto branch anthology, Gathered Streams (Hidden Brook Press, 2010). Check out http://www.canauthorstoronto.org/anthology.html.

So, if you want to create fiction from fact, here are a few pointers about what to do/what not to do.

  1. Use only the incident/event as your idea to kick-start your story. The story must be fiction.
  2. Use fictional characters and events, not the actual people or their names. It’s best to have characters with different age brackets and different backgrounds than in real life.
  3. Change the setting, perhaps even the time line.
  4. Use your emotions to propel you forward, but also keep in mind that this must be fiction. You are using your emotions from the real happening to help you dig deeply when writing your story.
  5. As this is fiction, you can have a different outcome than the one connected to the real-life trigger event. Just make sure that the outcome works with the story.
  6. Make sure the story is fiction. I can’t emphasise this enough. Real life (mine) incident – one of my cousins blasted me for writing true stories about the family history. However, she said she wouldn’t mind fictionalized accounts. I’m not going to take that at face value. Readers have the knack for finding themselves or someone they know in fiction, even when it isn’t true. But we do absorb what happens in our life. And that is often the trigger for story ideas.

For another take on writing fiction from fact, check out Writing Truth or Fiction http://www.be-a-better-writer.com/truth-or-fiction.html The author here actually used a real character in her novel. And so do other authors. Here’s another take on this http://www.thebookladysblog.com/2009/08/26/writing-real-people-into-fiction/

For those of you in the Toronto, Ontario, Canada area, I’ll be teaching a Crafting the Short Story Workshop at the Runnymede Branch of the Toronto Public Library, Tuesday, March 6, 6.30 p.m. It’s free. You just need to sign up at the library. Check this one out at http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/programs-and-classes/categories/book-clubs-writers-groups.jsp and click on “Runnymede.”

Cheers.

Sharon Crawford

Only Child Writes

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Filed under Family, Fictional characters, Healing through writing, Memoir writing, Only child, Pain, Sharon Crawford, Short story writing, Suicide, Toronto writing seminars, Writing fiction from fact