The ups and downs of turning real life into fiction – Jenny Stallard

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By Jenny Stallard

You’d think it would be simple turning your own life into fiction. All the research is done, right? Well, a little. But there’s a two-way learning process that I’ve been going through as I’ve written my debut novel, and it’s been fascinating, so I’d love to share it with you.♥

I began writing a column for Metro UK, in October 2014 – called Boyfriend by Christmas. The challenge was to write about my dating life, every week, until Christmas, when we’d see if I had met someone. A tight deadline, I know – and my own suggestion. No pressure then…

In my book, which came about after an agent read the column and pitched the idea to Penguin, I took the challenge a step further and made it an ultimatum from a girl’s boss.

I actually found (or indeed find) it easier in many ways writing about my own love life. There’s something of an invisible gap between you and readers when you’re a confessional journalist as they call us – as if somehow it’s not me I’m writing about.

Translating my own dating life into fiction was fun and challenging. What if people guessed these stories were ‘me’? Or at least based on my life? What if they judged? I realised that the book wasn’t all about me, like the column had been (shocker!). This wasn’t a memoir, it was fiction I had to create a woman who wasn’t me but who I related to enough to write a story around.

I’d been single for so many years, it was hard not to pour my own emotion in the novel. And there were times I think the emotion I carried served it so well – like flashback scenes, which somehow bridged the gap between my own failings in relationships and my character, Genie’s. Yes, working through a fictional woman’s love life can help you find clarity in your own.

Another challenge was the personal relationships – work and family. I’m very close to my sister, and Genie is close to her sister in the book, Cordelia. This sister, though, is more the ‘other side’ of me, parts of me that I wouldn’t put into Genie. Cordelia believes in love and I wanted her to fly the flag for a happy ending because we all know that girl.

Before Metro I was freelance and not used to being in an office with in-jokes and office buddies. It gave me fuel to create the office in the book and I’d be lying if I said there were no similarities at all.

Then there are the biggest crossover decision of all. While I was still single after my column’s deadline passed, would I give Genie a boyfriend by Christmas? If I did, here my story and hers would take such different paths. She would get her man, while I, a year on, am still single. Was getting a bloke the only happy ending she could have?

Nearing the end of the edit of my book, I was told Genie was a little too cynical. ‘But we’re all cynical, single women!’ I thought. But there it was in black and white. She was too cynical. I’d made her too like me. Perhaps I have put a lot of my own life into the story, not always managing to bridge the gap. But then I’d also hope that means my main girl Genie is as sincere and honest about her dating life as I’ve always been in print.

Jenny Stallard is a writer and editor who worked her way from cub reporter at a local newspaper to magazine features and is now commissioning editor on the features team at commuter paper Metro. It was at Metro she wrote her own column, Boyfriend By Christmas, which, while it ended with her ‘single and happy’, generated the idea for her first novel: Boyfriend by Christmas, with is out on November 19th with Penguin. Follow Jenny on Twitter: @SaintAllard

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