Saturday, December 15, 2018

Using The Downs in Life as Writing Inspiration

Many writers will use their own life experiences to inject some realism into their stories. This isn't just limited to those happy joyful occasions. Sickness, injuries, and emotional struggles also wind up in novels.

In some ways, this can be a release for writers. It can become a way to cope with, and give awareness to, larger issues in a writer's life. As a writer, I've used several real instances from my own life as story inspiration—including a hospital visit, a food allergy, and a bad work experience. And I've learned lots of lessons along the way.

In this post, I'll highlight several problematic questions that writers face when using those "negative" personal events in their writing, and then give some tips on how to overcome these difficulties.

Question #1: Can I write about this "down"? 

The first thing that should be asked when writing a negative life experience is "Emotionally, am I able to write about this?"

Writing about the bad stuff, especially emotional distress, can really stress out a writer by triggering memories of similar events in their own lives.

For example, early on in NaNo, I was writing a scene with my villain. Now, I had purposely decided that this girl was going to have a fault that I had when I was a teenager. Writing in her POV, I wrote down a feeling of hers—a bad sentiment that I had as well—and it made me super ashamed and uncomfortable writing it.

Now I do believe that I need to show others that this "sentiment" that I had as bad in order for people not to be caught in the same trap that I was in as a teen. But at the moment of writing, I couldn't emotionally handle it—I wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. I figured that if it's too uncomfortable for me, chances are that it's too uncomfortable for others too.

Now that might be true, but upon reflection . . . I couldn't let my inner demons stop me from doing good in this world. I needed to spill all the beans. So I did end up putting down those triggering sentences, but instead kept them in a deletions file so I could review them as I edited later.

So if you're unsure if you should use your own emotional struggles, I would say:

1: Let your wounds heal a little before you spill your guts onto the page. But when you do spill; spill all.
2: Keep a deletions page—you may decide to add in or subtract those more sensitive sentences later.
3: If it's still too uncomfortable or causes you distress—STOP. Rethink your character arcs if you have to.

Question #2: Is my description too graphic or not specific enough?

When writing scenes that include throwing up, wounds and other physical grossness, knowing when to show vs. tell can really make a difference.

Graphic descriptions often leaves readers disgusted because it paints a clear picture of something that is . . . well, gross. Human's don't naturally gravitate towards gross or sickening things, at least as a general rule.

Yet, if writers are too vague about what happened, people get too curious. There is a human intolerance for mystery—we constantly want need to know what is going on.

The best strategy is to strike the balance between gross and mystery is go down the middle, especially in the drafting stage. Start by stating plainly what happened without leaving out any major details. Beta readers should not have to ask "what happened?".

Here's an example of what I mean:

At the end of his declaration, he puffed a large breath into Janina’s face. She, being overwhelmed by the pungent smell of Saoirse-Tesni shrimp, started gagging and broke away from the lord’s grasp. Blindly, she stumbled into a pillar as she fought to keep her stomach from bringing forth her supper.

Then during editing, phrasing can easily be changed to add in some description and a little more showing. Most people have a good enough imagination to connect the dots if they are provided a few hints, but they need the dots first.

A good rule of thumb is to use more description if it pinpoints important details. In the case of physical symptoms, those little subtle clues that it's one condition instead of a million others. For example, if an author has a character who is coughing up rust-colored phlegm, it's a sign that that character has pneumonia. Whereas, if the author just left it as "coughing" or "coughing up phlegm", we don't know if the character is getting over a cold or has something more serious.

So if you're unsure about your descriptions:

1. Tell in the first draft, and then balance it with showing in later drafts.
2. Use description to pinpoint what the condition is and how severe it is.
2. Consult with your alphas/betas on how much description or showing should be done in those problematic scenes. During the drafting process, they represent your audience as a whole.


Question #3: Is my character's reaction common or relatable?

It is a great idea to make your character unique and memorable. But you can only take that sentiment so far. While you may have a really weird character trait or have had a bizarre thing happen to you; if a character is unrelatable, readers will be turned off.

Again, going down the middle is the best way to attack this question. Alpha/beta reader feedback can also help in that regard.

Here is an example from that same scene that I shared earlier:

He nodded knowingly. “And what was it that made you so unwell, Princess?”

“Ummm . . .” Goodness, how to tell a man that his gift was what made her sick! “Shrimp, my lord.” She blurted out.

He looked at her quizzically.

“Saoirse-Tesni shrimp . . . to be exact.” She winced at her biting honesty.    

He looked at her steadfastly, as if waiting for an explanation.

“It’s the only shrimp that I cannot eat. There is an ingredient in the curing process that my body rejects. I don’t know why . . . it just makes me ill.”

A lot of people have experience with food allergies and food aversion, so I believe that readers will not find Janina's gagging and nausea to be unusual. But the fact that it's a specific food makes it unique to Janina.

The scene from which these snippets came from was based off of a true story.

When I was a kid, my mom would get "salad" shrimp all the time. We're talking shrimp the size of those in ramen cups. All of a sudden, I developed some sort of allergic reaction to that particular shrimp. Now bigger shrimp, clams, oysters, crab, lobster . . . those had never bothered me before or after that . . . .at least not until very recently. But literally, even if I ate less than ten little shrimp, I would be throwing-up-my-guts sick. Not fun. Later even the smell was enough to send me out of the room.

Just shows you how you can use practically anything from your life as writing inspiration :)

A final tip: Make this count!

Negative life events have a huge role in shaping and defining who we are as people. Sometimes, they really can affect us negatively and make us worse people. And sometimes, they make us into better people.

Strangely, especially in this media-crazed generation, people will emulate characters from books. So, we need to make absolute sure that our characters give hope and a good moral example to our readers. Just like we shouldn't let negative events in our lives stop us from our goals, we also shouldn't let our characters let their negative events stop them either.

And now it's your turn! What "negative" experiences from your life have you used in your writing? Is there any other problematic questions that you would like answers to? Chat with me in the comments! 


  1. Such good tips, Catherine! I’ve thought about this several times, and I agree: sometimes we need time to heal before we can write it down.

    1. Thank you so much Nicole!

      Yes! Like any kind of wound, if it isn't allowed to heal before it's stressed, it can worsen it....

  2. My biggest problem is not having characters be relatable. I just want every character to be perfect, but no one is. Great post, Catherine! I really enjoyed reading it!

    1. I can understand, Clare! We all want our characters to be the moral leaders, the great examples to look up too...and yet, sometimes the imperfections actually help!
      Thank you so much!

  3. Lovely post, Catherine! Some of my greatest stories happened from me writing through times of pain - and the fastest healing followed with those stories. Only thing I'll add is, sometimes we have to face our discomfort head on to ever truly deal with it. Not always, of course. We should ask - "Why is this making me uncomfortable?" Is it because it brings back memories I'd rather not deal with - maybe we need to push through those feelings and sort through them, no longer ignoring them. Or maybe it's because we are dwelling on something that is unholy? If that's the case maybe we should learn how to forget it, or deal with is in a sensitive manner. There are so many other scenarios of course, but discomfort in and of itself is not a reason to not write about something.

    1. Thank you Keturah!

      I can definitely understand your points, and I agree with a lot of them. Writing can heal a lot of the time. Sometimes we need that lance. But I'm of the opinion that we have to be prudent when we push through pain. I like to think of emotional pain like a chronic injury - we have to balance between letting it go stagnant and not getting stronger but backing off enough to let it heal.

  4. This is something I very much believe in, because it makes the book more personal to you, therefore making it mean more to you and feel more deeply emotional to the readers. I've written several deeply personal things into some of my novels, and it endears the novel that much more to me. :)

    1. That is so true, Bethany! We writers tend to put something of ourselves in our writing, and this is definitely one of the more common ways to do that. Connecting to readers is one of our primary goals too!

      Me too!!

  5. Never had any of those problems. We just make comics.