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Writing about Real Life

As writers we are often asked where we get our ideas. This usually refers to the plot, a major event, or the characters. And that is a whole other question. Sometimes we get asked if we have experienced what we write. If asked with a wink and a nudge it means the intimate moments.

I do put things in my books that I have actually experienced or people close to me have experienced. Not whole scenes, just snippets of real life. It makes it so much more personal somehow when I remember the sight, the sound, the feel, the smell.

Like a mother and daughter make a daisy crown in the middle of a field in The Lady Flees her Lord. My mother did it with me, and I did it with my girls. The fact that I am writing about the 1800’s doesn’t make that memory any different now than it would have been then. The scene is not really about the daisy chain they make together, or the buttercup the little girl holds beneath her mother’s chin, but as I was writing it, it brought back some happy feelings and I hope will come through the reader.

In No Regrets, Lucas my hero uses a dock leaf to ease a rash from a stinging nettle. This herbal remedy has been around since the British wore woad, I suspect. (er.. I haven’t checked) But I did it for my sister. Friends did it for me. And in this way tiny little bits of my history get woven into my novels.

At one time, women wrote a lot of letters. They told their correspondents about ordinary things: shopping, the weather, what they ate, what affected them, their hopes. Recently a whole collection of letters and bills and such were found dating back from the 17th century on to the present day. All collected by one family, including a saucy poem. That collection is an amazing window on a by-gone world. A time capsule, if you will.

Our own lives are boring, but peeking in on other people's can be fascinating.

Most of us don’t write those kinds of letters these days. We don’t need to. The world is a phone call away. We shred our bills, blue box our notes, and email our correspondence. My guess is that the emails will disappear, the same as 8 track tapes did and there won’t be much writing from ordinary people 200 years from now.

Of course there will be memoirs and biographies of famous people, but since I have the chance, I will continue to put snippets of my ordinary life into my books, provided it fits the story, and even though I didn’t live during the period I write about. The sky was blue then and the grass was green and we know there were daisies.

Do you keep old letters? Do you put pieces of your own life into your stories? I’d love to know.


  1. Great post, Michele. During all the coverage of Tim Russert's death, I heard the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin lamenting the lack of letters in today's society and how shows like Meet The Press will help to fill in that void for future historians. The electronic age has robbed us of one of society's most important tools for communicating--the letter! Doris had uncovered a treasure trove of letters in Rose Kennedy's attic that were the foundation for much of Doris's writings about the Kennedy family.

    It's great how you were able to use a wonderful childhood memory in your work. You are right--things like that are truly timeless!

  2. Thanks for this sweet and thoughtful post, Michele. I too wonder at the lack of letters in our world, but maybe blogging is taking over that realm. Regardless of the medium, people do like to talk about their lives and days. Letters are more charming, though.

    Yes, I put lots of experiences frm my real life into my writing, sometimes without realizing it. Imagine how sneaky that old subconscious can be.

  3. I still write and keep letters! I have two really good friends and we write pretty consistently to one another. It's fun to get something in the mail that isn't a bill or junk mail, and let's face it--there's something wonderful about sitting down and writing a letter to a good friend.

    Email works too, but I prefer letters :)

  4. I've found that I keep in touch much better with people I email. I may have nothing left to show for it, but at least I maintain the contact.
    My father was a great letter writer, and I wish I had more of the things he wrote. I think I get my desire to write from him. I remember every Sunday night, he'd sit in his room at his old typewriter, banging away as he wrote to his mother in West Virginia. I wish I were that diligent, but his life was more regimented than mine has ever been. Some nice thoughts there, Michele.

  5. Great topic. I think as authors we get the question - how autobiographical is your story? And we know they are all a little bit, but it's the details you mention that are the best examples of how we incorporate "real life." Yesterday a friend recounted a conversation she'd had with her hubby and I immediately told her, "Wow, that's a great line. I'm going to use it in a future novel." Fortunately, her husband probably won't read my book and even better, she said okay.
    I've been taking notes on things my toddler does and says because my next wom fic novel will have a toddler in it. Some things you just can't make up!

  6. Wonderful post, Michele!

    Like Christina, little bits and pieces from my real life have a way of sneaking into my stories. In my book set in Venice, I have a line describing a "profusion of orange peels and cigarette butts" floating in one of the small canals. A friend who has family near Venice read that and said, "That was personal experience, wasn't it?" Yup. Sure was. :-)

    I have saved letters I received from my nieces when they were younger, and I used to have about a dozen love letters my first husband wrote to me before we were married. Now I do almost everything via email, however, I have kept a journal for almost ten years, and maybe someday all those spiral notebooks will be discovered in some relative's attic. Samuel Pepys of the late 20th, early 21st century?

  7. Ladies it is amazing how similar and how different we are. I also have letters tucked away that were written to me when I first came to Canada. Must dig them out one of these days and look back. I know none of mine survived, but these I did keep.

    Good for you Danielle. That warms my heart.



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