How (and when) to turn real life into a novel – Kimberly Belle

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By Kimberly Belle

“You should write my story.” It’s a sentiment writers all over the world hear at dinners and cocktail parties. Sometimes the stories are interesting, or at least have a few interesting parts, but more often than not, it’s a story only interesting to a party of one: the person telling it.♥

What happens, though, when you come across a tale worthy of retelling, one that sparks a story-fire in your fingers? Transforming real life into fiction isn’t as simple as regurgitating what happened. Real life doesn’t come with built-in plots and character arcs. It rarely has a neat beginning or a satisfying humdinger of an ending. Most experiences will need a bit of massaging, of stretching the truth for dramatic impact. But mixing fact with fiction isn’t always easy, especially when the real-life story somehow involves you.

1.Think of real life as inspiration, not the story.

A few years ago, I had a front-row seat to my friend’s divorce, and it was not pretty. An unscrupulous husband, a battered wife, and two children caught in the middle. It had all the elements of a good story: a sympathetic heroine, an evil villain, and more conflict than I could squeeze in 90,000 words. But at the same time, I knew it was not enough. My friend’s tale, as tragic as it was, was not unique. I needed a hook, one in line with what I’d decided the novel’s overarching theme to be: that behind closed doors, things are very different than they seem. The story morphed into one about a little boy’s disappearance, and my friend’s experience started as a seed that grew into the boy’s mother.

2. Protect the privacy of your real-life characters.

During the divorce, I learned things about my friend’s relationship she wasn’t exactly eager to share. Domestic abuse is often like that — a couple’s dirty little secret. I didn’t want to go airing her dirty laundry to the world, so I gave her a disguise, a head-to-toe makeover with a new name, new hair, a new way of talking and thinking and walking. I changed details in her background, gave her a different job, and added skills and hobbies she doesn’t have. By the time I was done with her, she was virtually unrecognizable and so were her children.

3. Don’t get too attached.

When I came up with the idea for a missing child, I had to change big chunks of my friend’s story to make it fit the larger one. At first this felt inauthentic, and I fought against straying too far from her real-life events. I was too close, too emotionally attached to her story. It was only once I stepped away from the manuscript that I saw what it needed: a different divorce timeline, a series of fictional plot twists, a million different details that added all together, all of which resulted in an entirely different narrative. And bending my friend’s story also meant bending her in order to motivate her actions. Ultimately, I had to let go of the real-life drama and cherry-pick the parts that added to the overall plot.

4. Give your story room to breathe.

In real life, my friend’s story takes place in Atlanta, but my novel is also set in Dahlonega, a former mining town an hour north of the city. I sprinkled in a slew of fictional characters — a cop, a best friend and mentor, another mother from the class. This other mother gets her own chapters, too, and she has her own story to tell—one that has nothing to do with domestic abuse or divorce. Threading in all these extra layers didn’t just protect my friend’s privacy; it amplified her story and my message in a way that what happened in real life didn’t.

5. What’s your point?

Not all fiction has to end with happily ever after, but things need to tie up in a satisfying manner. There needs to be a point, a reason for everything that’s happened up until The End. For my story, the point was about finding forgiveness, about moving on, about figuring out a way to get along for the sake of the child, even though this isn’t even close to what happened in real life. In order to get there, I had to think about what it was about her story that made me want to tell it— not the actual events, but the overall message. What is it I was trying to say? It wasn’t even close to the story I started with.

In the end, all the character makeovers, stretching of facts, plot twists, and subplots gave my story a much more substantial framework, one that lifted up the message rather than tied it down with real-life anecdotes. The characters lived their own fictional lives, and the plot barreled forward to a very different conclusion than what happened in real life. And in my own small way, I was able to give my friend the ending she deserved.

Kimberly Belle is the international bestselling author of three novels: The Last Breath, The Ones We Trust, and The Marriage Lie. A graduate of Agnes Scott College, Kimberly worked in marketing and nonprofit fundraising before turning to writing fiction. She lived for over a decade in the Netherlands and currently divides her time between Atlanta and Amsterdam. Her fourth novel, Three Days Missing, is out now.


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