The memoir section in any book shop is made of writers who have done outlandish, shocking or terrible things (or had them done to them). These books are popular because those writers are the exception, rather than the standard.
Whilst it’s said real life is ‘stranger than fiction’, the reality is most of us have pretty straightforward lives. Some may even declare their own lives ‘boring’.
So how can we use real life to inspire our fiction? It turns out there’s plenty of ways … Check these out for size.
All of us have lived somewhere in our lives (perhaps many places!). This means we can utilize these locations to their best advantage in our fiction.
My latest novel, Kill for It, is set in Bristol, a city in the Southwest of England, UK. There were several reasons I chose Bristol …
- I know it very well. I’ve been visiting Bristol since I was a teen; my town is approximately forty-five minutes by train away. My adult son also lives there now. That means I know Bristol ‘like the back of my hand’ (as people in the UK say!).
- Bristol is known for its culture. As the fourteenth biggest city in the UK, Bristol is very busy and cosmopolitan. It is known for its universities and colleges as well as its vibrant music scene, art and media. It is also the home of Banksy, the reclusive and renowned street artist, film director and activist.
- Bristol was in the news when I was starting my book. As I started outlining Kill For It, Bristol hit the worldwide headlines. The statue of the infamous slave trader Edward Colston was finally toppled by BLM protestors. (The statue had been subject to condemnation and multiple petitions for decades before Bristol residents took matters into their own hands. The statue is now in a museum).
The combination of these three things made me realize I could use Bristol in my novel. Early reviewers like the fact the novel is not set in London too for a change!
Most of us will have lots of work experience. This real-life experience may include (but is not limited to): full-time or part-time employment; white collar versus blue collar work; Saturday jobs as teenagers; volunteering at charitable organizations; internships or unpaid caring.
Having real life experience of a particular job can be a great way of adding authenticity to our fiction.
Kill For It is set in the world of investigative journalism. The story pits young and upcoming journalist Cat against veteran reporter Erin. Cat is tired of not getting ahead at work, so comes up with a sickening plan to (literally!) grab the headlines. The only one who can stop her is Erin, but in doing so she must put her own life at risk.
The book draws on my own experience as a junior reporter in the late 90s/00s. I wrote for a variety of publications and sites (though I didn’t kill anyone … promise!).
The 90s and early 00s was a weird time for journalism. It was the age of the ‘dot com bubble’ as well as ‘The Millennium Bug’. I was also one of the last people to train before the internet changed the face of news and content forever!
I’d always wanted to write a story set against such a backdrop, so it was a real pleasure to write.
There’s one note of caution, however: DON’T imagine everything in a job stays the same decade to decade, or even year to year! If you have not done the job for a long time, you will still need to do some research to ensure your information is up-to-date.
Thinking about what you enjoy reading or watching yourself in real life can really help you ‘zero in’ on what you want to write in your own fiction.
Kill For It was inspired in part by Killing Eve, which I really enjoyed. I was lucky enough to interview Luke Jennings, author of the Killing Eve novellas, for LondonSWF365 in 2020.
He told me and the LSFers all about his work on the books and helping Phoebe Waller-Bridge with s1 of the acclaimed BBC TV series.
As an admirer of the psychopathic Villanelle, this lit the touchpaper in my imagination … so I was delighted when a beta reader proclaimed my antagonist Cat was ‘Villanelle’s twisted little sister’!
In addition, one of my favorite movies is Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014). In the film, Jake Gyllenhaal plays another psychopath: Louis Bloom, a con man desperate for work. He manages to muscle his way into the world of LA crime journalism where he blurs the line between reality on the stories he is reporting on.
Whilst Cat’s journey is different, the seed of the story is similar. In attempting to smash the glass ceiling, Cat will plumb depths no decent human should ever go to.
As writers, we all have personal experiences and opinions. We may even have started writing BECAUSE we feel the need to talk about such things.
One reason I write crime fiction is because Agatha Christie – the bestselling author of all time! – is a real ‘shero’ of mine. Even better, she even comes from Devon, where I live too.
When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s however, movies, TV shows and books most often featured male protagonists. This annoyed me as a young girl and I remember thinking I would write female protagonists if I became a professional writer.
In addition, I was a teenage mother. Because of this, I discovered very quickly that the notion ‘women can have it all’ – motherhood AND a career – was a lie. Even though I had great grades and a university degree, because I had a baby first it was extremely difficult to even get a job.
So, as a mother for over half my life now, I know how hard it is for women to juggle work and their responsibilities … Even when we manage it, it’s frequently held against us. After all, men STILL don’t get asked about their families or caring commitments like we do! I wanted to draw on this personal experience in KILL FOR IT.
That said, men are not the enemy in the book. KILL FOR IT takes aim at the system, not men. Whilst there’s at least one male character who is THE ABSOLUTE WORST, the point is not that men *as a whole* suck. Even female characters who don’t try and smash the system will lose their conscience and their humanity.
Of course, you may not have very strong feelings and opinions about a specific issue like I have. Other personal things you could mine for inspiration could include (but are not limited to):
Most of us have fears, or even outright phobias. They may relate to specific childhood traumas or anxieties, or they may be difficult to understand. These fears may be universal, or they may be very niche.
Secrets can be potent in storytelling. Most of us have them, so thinking about them can help us inform characters’ motivations in particular.
Moments you wish you could change
Regrets are common, especially if we did not act like our best self. However, even just wishing something unavoidable hadn’t happened can be good inspiration for our stories.
And to the other end of the scale … just as we might wish things could have been different, there will be perfect moments in our lives that can act as story fuel, too.
So, don’t worry if your own real-life experiences are straightforward or even ‘boring’. Chances are, you have plenty of lived experience you can use in your fiction to give it added authenticity and bite. Good luck!
Lucy V. Hay is a script editor, author and blogger who helps writers. She’s been the script editor and advisor on numerous UK features and shorts & has also been a script reader for 20 years, providing coverage for indie prodcos, investors, screen agencies, producers, directors and individual writers. She’s also an author, publishing as both LV Hay and Lizzie Fry. Lizzie’s latest, a serial killer thriller titled The Good Mother is out now with Joffe Books, with her sixth thriller out in 2024. Lucy’s site at www.bang2write.com has appeared in Top 100 round-ups for Writer’s Digest & The Write Life, as well as a UK Blog Awards Finalist and Feedspot’s #1 Screenwriting blog in the UK (ninth in the world.). She is also the author of the bestselling non-fiction book, Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays: From TV Pilot To Feature Film (Creative Essentials), which she updated for the streaming age for its tenth anniversary in 2023.