Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Laundry Scene: Creating Fiction from Reality

(Note: I recently cut this entry down because it was so much longer than the others. If you'd like to read the longer, more detailed version, please e-mail me at or post a comment here and I will be glad to send it your way.)

Some readers have asked me how I created the scenes and characters in Just the Way You Are. First, let's start with how I did not create them. A natural impulse of someone trying to write fiction might be to write about something that really happened and change the names and maybe a few details, and call it fiction. This is how I wrote one of my very first novels, one that will never ever see the light of day. (NEVER EVER!) I wrote it when I was fourteen and bored with my life. The story was about a girl who looked suspiciously like me, acted suspiciously like me, lived in a house in suspiciously the same location as mine, and had a family suspiciously like mine. Then she had experiences that were strangely just like mine were. I just changed all the names of the characters. Sometimes I got really creative and changed the hair color, too. Oh, and the other main difference was that the guys the main character liked (who were identical to the guys I liked in my own life) actually liked her back.

This is a good way to get started in writing, but it isn’t fiction until you start deviating from real life. Really writing fiction is more complicated than changing a few details. The more I write, the better I get at completely creating scenes and situations and characters from scratch. (At least, I think I do.) But every writer still borrows details from reality every now and then.

I like to use the first scene I wrote with Catha/LaNae in Just the Way You Are as an example of a process you can go through, because the way I did it is very straightforward. The first scene I wrote with her was not the first chapter in the book. It was the one where Emmett is in her dorm room chatting with Mandy, and Catha/LaNae believes that he is actually there to visit her, since he had shown an interest in her before. Then it slowly dawns on her that he is chatting with Mandy because Mandy is the one he came to see.

But the first thing I started with was the other characters and the general idea of the story. I already knew about Emmett and his dating habits. I already knew Mandy the space-case roommate, because I’d previously written a short story about her. (Her story does not appear in the novel.) Neither of these were people I pulled from real life, by the way. They started much the way this scene did—with some basic ideas, and then watching them to see what happened. I drew the general situation from something similar that I experienced when I was in college. I thought that with the right starring character, it could be an interesting scene. And so, Catha/LaNae was born.

The conversation material concerning raisins came from a discussion I had in early high school with a Real Boy. I do not know why we talked about raisins. I don't remember what we said about them. But it made it into my journal, and it was something I could use later when I needed a ridiculous conversation for this scene.

So far we have snippets of a few different occasions in my life, plus three unique characters. The clincher of the scene comes when Catha/LaNae gathers up all her laundry, hoping to get Emmett’s attention because he will feel obligated to carry her load for her. Now, this is something she did on her own. It's a real thrill when you get your characters to a point where they just start acting independently of anything you have planned for them.

People who don’t write fiction often don’t understand this aspect of fiction writing, and probably wonder what mental issues we writers must have. For those of you who are more scientifically-minded, you can think of it almost like a formula. This happens to this character, and so she does…this. If it had been Jane or someone else in the same situation, she would have behaved differently. Try the same experiment with yourself: If you were in this situation, what would you do? Now put someone else you know in the same situation. They’d do something different, wouldn’t they? When you know your characters well enough, you know what they’ll do. Then it’s just a matter of writing it down.

But using details from life is something that a fiction writer can never entirely get away from. Our writing, no matter how vivid our imaginations, is a product of who we are, and we are products of the lives we live.


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