TUESDAY WRITING TIP – TURNING A MEMOIR INTO A NOVEL

Recently, I had a question from Diane on this blog about how to turn a memoir into a work of fiction. Diane asked:

Kindly advise what steps I can take to turn my memoir into a work of fiction.

Turning something biographical into a novel is something I have been pondering for a while.

Several years ago I promised a dearly loved terminally ill friend that I would tell her story. Apart from having to allow myself time to grieve, I’ve also been held back by concerns about how a true story might damage my friend’s childrens’ already difficult relationship with their father, and how it might upset them to know what their mother went through.

But her courage was so inspirational and her human spirit so strong that I want to be able to share it with people. I have been thinking carefully about how I can honour her memory and tell her story honestly in a way that won’t cause upset to the people she loved the most.

It’s only recently that I’ve made the decision to write a novel told from the point of view of one of her children, possibly with some excerpts from my friends own diaries where people and places aren’t named.

I think I have worked out how I can tell Sue’s story with love and respect and inspiration. So Diane and anyone else who wants to turn a true story into a work of fiction for whatever reason, these are my tips on how you could do it:

  1. Step away from the true story as much as you can. Try and sift the essential elements of what your story is about from the detail of what really happened.
  2. Write down the main things (action points) that happen in the memoir/biography. Decide what’s important to you – what do you want to keep in your story?
  3. Decide where your story is going to start and where it’s going to end – this could be different from what actually happened in real life.
  4. Do a plot plan for your story with a beginning, a series of events leading to the climax (the high point of your story) and a conclusion tying all the threads together. Plot your story as you would a novel.
  5. Decide which characters to include in the work of fiction. In a memoir there are usually lots of people mentioned because real life is full of encounters, but you can cut some of these out if you are writing fiction. It can get confusing if you have too many characters or too much happening.
  6. Do a character profile for each person you want to include in your story, but make their background and details totally different from real life. Completely change names, places of residence, appearance, number of siblings, number of children, possibly even gender. Do what you can to make them unrecognisable in your story, whilst still being real people. It’s the essence of the people you want to capture in your story, not their detail.
  7. Use these characters to create fictional things in your story and you can blend these with the true events.
  8. Rework your plot outline to include true and fictional incidents you want to use. Perhaps change the order of events from what really happened.
  9. Try and sum up in a paragraph what you want your story to be about. Leave out any incidents/action that is not related.
  10. Get someone who knows you well to read your writing to make sure you have moved away enough from the true story.
  11. Try and feel your story and allow it to take you in new directions. Don’t fight against these changes because they are not what actually happened.
  12. Find the truth in your story in the power and complexity of your characters rather than the detail of actual events.

Diane, I hope you find these tips useful. Good luck with rewriting your memoir and to anyone else attempting the challenge of turning fact into fiction.

If you have any tips of your own on how to turn fact into fiction, I’d love you to leave them in the comments section of this blog for others to share.

Dee:-)

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12 thoughts on “TUESDAY WRITING TIP – TURNING A MEMOIR INTO A NOVEL

  1. Hi Dee,
    Thanks for the fabulous tips on how to turn reality into fiction. Your advice not to fight the changes taking you in new directions is great to raise and really resonated with me. Particularly as while writing a short story recently, based on true events, I found my plot taking off on its own into new territory and characters, and even though I wanted that to happen, I found myself fighting it just the same, fearing I’d move to distant from what I’d plotted and knew to be true. Excellent advice, and a good reminder to me. Cheers, Chris

  2. Fascinating post, Dee.

    There is a genre of autobiographical novel, but by claiming it’s a novel still leaves the author vulnerable to “accusations”.

    I would prob. argue that any memoir takes on a fictional/subjective element and that should be recognised.
    We all filter shared experiences through our own eyes.

    I agree with no. 6 Sometimes it’s fun to amalgamate real people into new characters and then you will create something entirely different. Combine the nagging of one with the heroism of another.

    maybe as writers, we have to acknowledge we will upset people and be prepared to wear it.
    Perhaps by keeping memoir close to ourselves and commenting on our own feelings, then showing but not commenting on other people’s actions, we can achieve our version of the “truth”.

    This is a topic that I find so interesting.
    Alison

  3. Hi Dee, great advice- as I finish my novel that’s been on the go for over three years – yes first draft finished today!!! I now need to see where fact meets fiction and what is really relevant to the story’s main premise. Hopefully my family will tell me that…a bit tricky- it took me awhile to steer from fact into the territory of fiction but took what I wanted to show and that’s the true illumination…I tessellated time to make the book.

    Thanks Dee- enjoy your blog so much- but still have to fess up that I can’t plot or won’t…

  4. It is a really interesting topic isn’t it Alison?

    What first inspired me to discuss this issue was a comment on this blog from Diane who had been told by her writing teacher that she had to rewrite her memoir as a novel (not sure what the reason was) but I can see why some people would rather write a memoir than a novel. I suppose that the kind of novel I’m talking about here moves away from autobiographical and really only uses certain elements of what actually happened.

    I think it’s really tricky to try and find the balance between writing the truth and avoiding being sued. I think you’re right though. If we show what happened rather than commenting about our own feelings, I guess this lets the reader experience the truth from a more objective perspective.

    One of the things I enjoy about writing novels is walking the fine line between fact and fiction.

    Dee:-)

  5. Hi Lorraine,

    Congratulations on finishing that first draft. Sounds like it has been an epic battle and I look forward to reading the result.

    I’m glad you enjoy my blog. Remember in writing there are no rules…it’s what works for you. Just because I like to plot, doesn’t mean everyone else has to:-) I just like to throw these topics up for discussion. I love hearing how other people work.

    Dee:-)

  6. Hi Dee,
    Thanks for these Tips and explanations for fictionalizing a memoir.
    I used similar ideas and processes when writing my Crime Faction, Sayonara.
    Your tips will be invaluable for someone starting out …Karen:))

  7. Hi Dee,
    Love your articles, especially how to turn a memoir into a novel. I have just helped launch ‘Precious Freedom – A True Story of the Polish Underground (AK) WWII’ – Kazimierz Gawor. I was his writer and loved the process of turning his amazing story into a ‘novel’ – well everyone who reads it says it is like a novel and they can’t put it down. Should be made into a movie as he even escaped from the Russians over the rooftops.
    Your article was very relevant. Thanks for the great stuff you share with us

  8. Hi Joan,

    Wow, Precious Freedom sounds like an amazing story – I’ll definitely put it on my reading list.

    Congratulations on your new release and thanks for your lovely comments about my post/s

    Dee:-)

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