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From Real Life to the Written Page: Using Others’ Experiences Along With Your Own

Ever read a story that felt unrealistic? I sure have. And I’ve seen it too many times to count in TV shows and movies. For example, the unconscious patient with the hospital bed rails down. Right. I’m sure it’s a hassle when filming, but it’s not reality. These kinds of errors can make a reader lose suspension of disbelief.
How can you avoid this? By writing from your own experiences, “what you know,” and from others’ experiences, “what you can find out.” Joanna Penn says, “But whatever we write, bringing our own personal experience to the page only enriches and deepens the experience for the reader.”

Personal Experience vs. The Experience of Others
It’s easy to think what you know isn’t unique enough to use, but that’s rarely true. I’ve worked as office staff in a Boy Scout office, an aide in a college library, a telephone operator, a service representative, an educational assistant, office staff in a warehouse, a blogger, a web store manager, plus have done fill-in work in numerous offices to cover vacations. Any of those work experiences could be used as a job for my own characters. List your jobs. I’d be surprised to find we had many in common.

On the other hand, our oldest daughter works as a nighttime security guard. She tells stories ranging from humorous, through disgusting, to downright scary. If I want to use this for a job for one of my characters, however, I won’t merely rely on her stories, but will ask tons of questions to get my facts straight. I probably will do research on other security guard experiences, too. In the end, I’d ask her to read through what I’ve written to make sure I haven’t done some obvious faux pas. I’m sure you have friends and family with unique jobs—consider if any of their positions might be right for a character or two of yours.

What about volunteer experiences? I have over ten years of overseeing volunteers for a writer’s organization—that could translate into a character of mine being a manager overseeing employees. In addition, I’ve done newsletter editing for a number of entities. I’ve also been on a medical mission trip to Haiti where I helped organize medicines the nurses needed for patients. Maybe I’ll have a character who volunteers for something similar.

Travel Experiences
And that reminds me of travel experiences. In Haiti, the language is Creole and although it’s been more than fifteen years, I still remember how to say, “How are you?” (Koman ou ye?)

Other countries I’ve been to are Aruba, England, Italy, Greece, Montenegro, and Thailand. I can’t write as a native of any of these places, however, my characters can be visitors like I was. Once I cooked Thai glutinous rice, but it didn’t turn out at all well. Reading a novel by Dorothy Gilman reminded me of the need to soak the rice first. I’m grateful she had her facts right in Mrs. Pollifax and the Golden Triangle!

I know people who have never been out of the state they live in. I’ve been in 49, and lived in five. Did I use several of my states in my novel, ALONE? Of course, I did. And I based my fictional small town on two different places—one I visited and the other where my sister lived for over twenty years. It’s the kind where I walked into the one and only grocery store and was asked if I was related to Kathy. Yes, they knew her that well.

The Sky’s the Limit
What other experiences can you use? There’s no limit. In the above novel, I used my love of cooking, the waist-length long hair I had in my twenties, a VW bug I drove as a teen, and much more. A prayer was modeled on one my husband says. A nurse friend answered questions about a drug my character was given.

Want to include animals in your story? Besides having cats, dogs, hamsters, parakeets, gerbils, and finches, I’ve collected eggs from my friend’s barnful of chickens, ridden ponies and horses bareback on several farms, and caught frogs. List what pets you’ve had or ones you’ve experienced. Maybe one will be just right for your character. Or maybe she is fearful or hates a specific animal.

How about hobbies? In our early married days, my husband and I participated in car rallies, did macramé, and collected matchbooks. My in-laws were rock hounds. My brother-in-law rides a Harley. Our youngest daughter is a gardener and my go-to person when I want to know, “What is this plant?” Your characters should have hobbies, too.

Take the Good and the Bad
How about illnesses, injuries, and surgeries? I used my own fainting and a broken bone, a child’s exercise induced asthma, and the loss of my mother to cancer in various stories. In the past several years, I’ve added several ambulance trips to my experiences. Your characters won’t always be well either.

Don’t forget chores, good and bad habits, and personality traits. Yours and those belonging to people you know can provide material for your characters.

You may not be prejudiced, but I bet you have friends and family who are, or who have experienced prejudice. I like assigning egregious comments about others to my villains.

I’m sure you’ve failed at something at least once. It doesn’t feel great. Your characters will fail, probably more than once. What will they do about it? Something you do? Or something you’ve witnessed?

On the other hand, you’ve had your successes. Your characters need those too.

How were you raised? Permissive or strict parents or somewhere in between? What were your comforts? I love this comment from Jonesy in the movie Hunt for Red October, “I think when it gets confused, it kind of runs home to Mama.” What makes your character run home?

What do you love? What do you hate? Your characters will have their own likes and dislikes, too.

Author Deborah Wiles says, “Story is everything. It’s all around us, and it’s every breath we take, every thought we think, every word we utter, every experience we have.” Make sure you use your experiences in your writing.


SM Ford writes fiction and nonfiction. When she was thirteen, Sue got hooked on Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense books. Sue has been an eclectic reader as long as she can remember. She loves assisting other writers on their journeys and is a writing teacher, speaker, mentor, and blogger about writing.

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