Real Life in Fiction

If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway.
–Stephen King, from On Writing

     In my short story “Eye Contact” a woman texts her husband a kiss “mphwaa,” (or something like that—I need Megan here to remind me of how to spell it) and then goes into a hotel and commits adultery.  This this string of letters meant to be a textual kiss is something that my real-life wife actually sends me.  This character in my story has my wife’s sister’s red hair, and probably her taste in shoes and handbags.  The character is also a pharmaceutical rep, a job that wife used to do, and a job that my buddy’s wife does now.  It’s a profession which I know just enough about that I might be able to lay down the relevant details neccessary to convince a reader to fall into what John Gardner called, “the fictional dream.” 

     My wife used to be a little obsessed—I think she’d admit—about who was who in my stories and what parts of the stories had actually happened to me.  I tried to explain this to her, but I think that it took her discovering the little details of our life in my stories for her to understand how it all worked, at least how it works for me. 

     If my stories were milkshakes, then here are some of the ingredients:  actual details of people I know and places I have been, situations I have personally experienced, heard about, or seen on the news, and everything I can dream up.  All of that gets tossed into a writing blender and eventually out comes a story, part real life, part imagination.  

     Among readers, I’m recognizing two poles: one pole is where strangers reside.  These are people who don’t know me and who have never been to Winamac, Indiana where I grew up, Bourbonnais where I went to college, or any place else I have lived.  These people read stories with no suspicions about what character might be who, as if each character has a real-life secret identity.  Somewhere between the poles are the people who know the writer just well enough to think they know who is who.  I think these people are the most dangerous when it comes to logical leaps off the wrong end of the boat dock.  They might see the coach in my novel Love on the Big Screen and think that my fictional man is the actual coach I had when I played basketball (mostly watched from the bench) at Olivet Nazarene University.  The truth is, I’ve known a lot of coaches (having been one for eight years) plus there are all those coaches I’ve watched from afar: Bob Knight, Bob Huggins, Rick Majerus, Rick Pitino, etc. and so when I write a coach, I’m thinking about what will serve the story that is unfolding before me.

     Opposite the pole where total strangers gather round, is the actual person who is rumored to be a character.  I have a friend with the last name Zaucha, a name I used in my novel for it’s capability of transforming into the nickname “Zuke.”  I wrote that friend and asked him if he was cool with me using his name.  If this friend thought the character was him, then he’d rightfully be able to say, “Bill has told a lot of lies about me.”  And if my book was nonfiction, he’d be right.  I used Zuke’s name for a reason I just shared.  The rest isn’t him and someone who says I’ve said X or Y about him would be wrong.

     What’s set me to thinking about this?  I think it’s been that I’ve got a few author’s visits planned, and some emails have come in about some of my stories. I can see that people are going to leap to conclusions about who is who in my books.  I’ve heard writers say they aren’t welcome in their hometowns anymore and maybe this is where I’m headed.  I don’t think it should be a surprise that my stories are often happening in the Midwest, that many of the details I can lay down are ones I’ve either witnessed, heard about or actually experienced—maybe for example powering that little boat I used to cruise the Tippecanoe River on—and so I’m hoping not to face too many accusations that a story like “Eye Contact” suggests that my wife is dying her hair red and sneaking into hotels.

2 thoughts on “Real Life in Fiction

  1. I’m a doctor. I never let the facts or any real people get in the way of a good story.

    Dr. B


  2. I seem to remember the lesson that you taught in the National Writing Project class being similar to the Milkshake approach.

    As I recall, it involved taking a personal or place you knew a lot about and matching them up with a person or place that was fictional or just an unlikely combination. Am I right?

    In any event, I loved my story about my grandma at the GreenDay Concert.

    You’re a great writer, Bill! I enjoy reading your thoughts and trying to encorporate some of your tips into my writing!


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