How Much Are You Willing to Share About Your Stories? Author Confessions Time

By Jordan Dane

I’ve been an avid reader since I was a kid in elementary school, but as I grew older, I wondered how authors concocted their stories and how much of their own experiences became a part of their fictional stories. Vivid scenes can put you into that moment with the characters. Exotic sights and smells can put you there, even if you’ve never been.
Now with each book that I write, I know the answer—at least for me. I feel like I’m treading on dangerous ground to reveal too much. I run the risk of pulling a reader out of my books because they may know where elements come from. But maybe telling some of my secrets might enrich a reader’s experience, like saying my stories are inspired by real headlines or true stories.
My first HarperCollins Sweet Justice series book, Evil Without A Face, had been inspired by a horrific near miss abduction by a young girl who had been virtually seduced online by a charming human trafficker. The girl had her computer only 6 months, a gift from her parents. The clever trafficker set up an elaborate scheme, involving innocent adults who he lied to, to trick this girl into leaving the US even when she didn’t have a passport. The FBI thwarted the abduction in Greece, minutes before the girl was to meet her kidnapper in a public market. The Echo of Violence (Sweet Justice #3) came from a real life terrorist plot to hold missionaries for ransom.
But those inspirations aren’t what I’m talking about. I’m referring to the small creative morsels that you pepper into your stories that are your secrets, no one else’s. So it’s confession time and I’ll start.
There’s a line in No One Heard Her Scream, my debut novel:
If she wanted to engage the only brain he had, all she had to do was unzip it and free willy.
I channeled that line through my character and didn’t even remember writing it, until one of my sisters asked about it. It came from one of my vacations when I visited Vancouver and took a day trip to see where they filmed “Free Willy.”
In my debut YA with Harlequin Teen, In the Arms of Stone Angels, I wrote about my 16-yr old Brenna Nash getting extra credit for dissecting a frog and earning extra credit for extracting the frog’s brain intact. Well, Brenna may have gotten the extra credit in the book, but I never did. I jabbed at that frog until it’s head was shredded. The brain popped out whole, so I asked for the credit. After my teacher saw the wreck I made, she only gave me a grimace and a heavy sigh. (There are quite a few more kid stories of mine in this book, but I’m stopping here.)
Sometimes I use real people that I know in my books as “fictional” characters. They know I’m doing it but they roll when they read what I wrote. I crack up too. The priest and Mrs Torres at the end of The Echo of Violence, for example. Yep, people I know. One of my favorite book reviewers for my YA novels entered a contest of mine and won being named a character in my upcoming release – Indigo Awakening. O’Dell shared some of his quirks in an email and after seeing that list, I thought he would make an odd villain. He can’t wait to read the book.
So now that I’ve given you a peek behind the curtain of Oz, is there anything you care to share about your own writing? If you’re a reader, have you ever heard or read stories about what elements have been connected to the real life of an author?

14 thoughts on “How Much Are You Willing to Share About Your Stories? Author Confessions Time

  1. I’ve often used stories based on real people I’ve known in my books. And as often used stories based on who I had wished to be when I was younger. My planned career at 19 was to be a Marine sergeant, get promoted to officer and live out a 30 year career retiring as a Colonel and becoming a Blackwater type. Instead I ended with two broken ankles and quick ticket home at 19. At 33 I joined the Alaska Defense Force (the state run militia) and quickly made the rank of Sergeant and was a detachment leader for a coastal recon unit. That experience became a somewhat tragic character in my best selling book 65 Below.

    Recently I’ve embarked on a terrifying ‘what if’ scenario that I’m trying to make as real as possible by placing a close facsimile of my own family into it with the clone me as the protagonist. Now by the time this all gets done I don’t know how much reality and how much pure fantasy will be in it, but one thing that already has me nervous is the fact that the reality of war is that people die. And if I’m making my story to include my own family, and someone happens to die, how would they take it if/when they read it? How much potential trouble am I willing to get into to make the story real?

    Things that make you go Hmmm…

  2. I use real life experiences in my books all the time. Either newspaper clippings have inspired elements in my story, or I’ve personally had the experience that I assign to my hairdresser sleuth.

    The car accident I was in made its way into one of my stories. The sibling dispute in Shear Murder is based on an issue between me and my brother. My current WIP was inspired by an incident that happened between my husband and I and our neighbor. And so on. How can we not include personal elements in our stories?

    Even my upcoming Drift Lords paranormal series is based on real events. The series involves sinister theme parks. We go to Disney World all the time, and I’ve been to the theme parks in California, Hong Kong, and Copenhagen that my fictional places emulate. So any genre is amenable to including real life experiences.

  3. Basil–Gutsy move on using family in a plot like that. Not sure I could do it, but I can see how the writing could put you emotionally there. You’re an experienced writer who would know how to avoid the pitfall of being too close to the portrayal to be objective, but I’ve seen instances where authors can’t fictionally stray too far afield because they know the real person or they ARE the character and would never do something. That can limit the plot. YOU I’m not worried about however, Mr Imagination.

    In my last YA, ON A DARK WING, I wanted to have a boy in a wheelchair as a lead character and a best friend/secret love interest for my girl. Tanner was fictional but I infused feelings about how it felt to be in that wheelchair by asking for real stories from my cousin who’d been paralyzed at 21 & confined to a chair. I included some of his stories in the character’s point of view. And the emotions I had guessed at for my character were spot on after I read my cousins thoughts. Infusing a fictional character with instances of real events or emotions can work too.

  4. Nancy–Thanks for sharing your insights. When I was a reader, I never knew how much an author exorcised their own demons, explored their own internal struggles, or included funny personal stories just for their own chuckles. Some of these things for me will never be made public because they’re too personal, but pushing myself into dark places–whether I’m trying to dig into the head of a killer or mining for my own issues–add something to my work that I will continue to pursue.

    There are common themes in my writing that I would like to understand more too. Maybe writing is therapy. Ha!

  5. Most of the “real life” stuff in my novels are more emotional places, like you said in your comment, than actual people or events. I find mining my personal issues and fears to enrich my characters very rewarding, if somewhat difficult emotionally.

    Although this most recent novel has a lot more overt similarities to my life than any other I’ve written so far. The main character has a twin brother with a snarky sense of humor, and a nurse for a best friend, just like I do.

    I’ve worried about people thinking those characters are my family members, just because of the superficial similarities. For me a character starts at who they are, not what they do, so I’ve never worried about the characters becoming like the people I know in real life.

    What a great post!

  6. I love your comment, Elizabeth. I like evolving characters. Even if they start out as people we know, they become their own person soon enough. Best wishes for your writing too.

  7. Jordan, many years ago I was a pastor in a small town church that had an unusually large number of women members with alcoholic husbands. Once, while counseling with yet another family in crisis, the horrible thought crossed my mind that this family would be better off with this jerk dead.

    Obviously, I shook that thought off and did my job, and that particular family had a happy ending, with the husband checking into a rehab center, getting clean, and ended up becoming a preacher himself.

    But that idea simmered way back in the shadows of my mind for years, and is now, 30 years later, back in my WIP about a small town pastor who acts on that impulse and becomes a serial killer.

    My only concern about telling this is admitting that such a thought crossed my mind while I was a pastor. (But pastors are human, too)

  8. Interesting Dave. I have similar experience, currently being an active Lay Minister. When the folks at church read my books, some of them act a little differently.

  9. OMG, I love that Dave. Yes, I can see how a flash of a thought would go through your mind out of concern for the family in crisis. Definitely a human thing.

    However your author brain kicks in because we all encourage our minds to go there. I believe this is our extreme empathy in action–the dark side of our ability to imagine a horror in order to deal with it or write about it.

    Incredible honesty, Dave. I respect that. It will serve you well in your writing. Exactly my point. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Basil–I get those looks as a woman writes crime fiction and goes to dark places in my books. I’m a very happy person and easy going, but people are shocked to see what I can tackle in my books.

    In one of my favorite reviews a man wrote that my books “are as cozy as a set of brass knuckles.”

    I think in another life I would have carried a weapon. Just sayin.’

  11. I have a dear friend who writes sitcoms, and what’s really funny is catching bits from my own life portrayed on TV–once they even used my last name! It always makes me laugh when I catch one of these moments on the tube. I also shamelessly mine my own experiences for my books.

  12. Ha! That’s great, Kathryn. That might make me record the show. I used to live next door to a TV anchor woman who occasionally broadcasted from her home & we were featured on a special she did on Feng Shui. We were the “what NOT to do” segment. They were great neighbors.

  13. Most of what I write is based on real facts, with a twist so not to provide the real places, times and names.

    I am not worried about the ‘what if’ when people find themselves in there. What I fear is the ‘what when’.

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