1. Exaggerate. This is my twin sister Judy, my roommate during our college years. She and the cats she’s holding inspired my first picture book, Cats on Judy, which began with a simple observation: the cats always slept on Judy’s bed. The story’s resemblance to reality ends at that point, though. No one could really sleep with “one [cat] in her arms and one on her head,” let alone “one on her knees and one on her chest” and “one on her back and one on her feet.” When I wrote those lines, I stretched the truth beyond the believable to the intentionally silly. The clever illustrator, Judith DuFour Love, added two cats to the picture each time one of those lines appeared, giving Judy six tumbling, frolicking cats and making the story even more preposterous.
2. Focus on an emotion. My son Jimmy has always been a singer. Now about to head off to college, he looked like this around the time I wrote Sing-Along Song. Jimmy inspired me not only because of his love of music but also by helping me remember my own musical childhood. My six sisters and I sang while we did the dishes, performed for visitors, and arranged musicals in our backyard. Remembering those experiences helped me imagine a safe home, a loving family, and a child who knows the joy of singing along with whatever the day brings.
3. Write from a different character’s point of view. See the white streak in the water in the middle of the picture? That’s the canoe my husband and I were paddling on a family camping trip, pinned against a clump of trees in the fast-flowing Buffalo River. In an article in the 2009 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, “Fiction Inspired by Reality: Put Some Life in Your Work,” I wrote about my search for a way to make a story out of that challenging situation. In my unpublished middle grade novel Nothing but Water, I shifted to the viewpoint of a girl who watches her parents’ canoe capsize and then must take charge of her younger brother in the wilderness.
4. Change the time frame. In her Friday post, Mary Ann mentions compressing events. You can also change their sequence. In order to make the canoe crash story be that of the protagonist and her younger brother (rather than that of their parents), I reversed the sequence of two actual events so that the parents are forced to leave their children alone.
5. Extrapolate. In a young adult novel I began for National Novel Writing Month, I’m exploring what might have happened if a high school stunt had gone further. Judy and I (yes, we’re identical twins) switched classes once: she passed my impossible swimming test; I flunked her surprise English quiz. As payment, she made me go ice skating with a boy she no longer liked and didn’t have the heart to break up with. In real life, we were afraid to try another switch. In my novel in progress, one switch leads to another, relationships intertwine, and the twins are forced to untangle a convoluted muddle of emotions.
6. Make it up! That’s what we writers do, right? At each turning point, look for a logical, believable, different direction that moves your story forward. Give yourself time to think and room to play around with options.
Keep polishing those nuggets! Your story will sparkle!
Writing Workout: Mining and Refining
Choose any of the methods above to turn your real-life story into fiction. Look at each event as a turning point. Imagine all the options you can. What if a character makes a different decision or misses an opportunity? What if good intentions lead to unexpected consequences? What about events beyond the character’s control? Here are a few more suggestions.
- Change the setting. Put your characters and their problems into a different time or place.
- Create a misunderstanding.
- Impose a deadline to add tension.
- Focus on a small event and blow it out of proportion.
- Introduce a witness who sees something that should be kept secret.