Transferring Life to Fiction


Ways Your Experiences Can Spark Compelling Stories

Getting deeply personal is part of the process of writing. Translating our real-life experiences into compelling stories shows how you can take inspiration from your life. I do it with traveling, with experiences I had with my grandparents, or other times I'v had and blend them with fictional elements to create immersive stories.

I've been to 48 countries around the world, I've gathered endless ideas, encounters, sensations and adventures that spark my creative instincts. But it's not enough to simply put true events on the page. We must transform even our most fascinating life moments into narratives that feel fresh and alive for readers.

Get Distance & Perspective

Immediately writing about a poignant personal event often leads to a lack of insight. Let your experiences marinate. Revisit them later with an open, curious mind. This allows unexpected connections and revelations to emerge.

Mine Your Memories

Pay attention to the key images, conversations, emotions or controversies that surface again and again when remembering impactful times in your life. These recurring motifs likely contain seedlings of great fiction if nurtured carefully.

Ask "What If?"

Once you identify key moments from your life to explore, use your imagination to take them into uncharted territory. What if things had gone differently? How might the characters react in surprising new scenarios? This brainstorming allows real life to launch totally fictional tales.

Focus On Meaning

As with travel, fiction shouldn't just catalog surface details. It should uncover deeper human truths. Examine your own past for pivotal themes related to identity, relationships, purpose, mortality, morality, spirituality, politics and more to add resonance.

Why even bother fictionizing truth?

Recording events verbatim without fictional polish tends to produce something boring and without an emotional arc. But inject imagination into accurate scenic backdrops? Deepen conversations by revealing subsurface emotions? Raise stakes by concocting tension? You've captured the crackling dramatic current that holds a reader's attention.

The Key Ingredients:

Sensory Details

When translating real environments into fictional realms, the deepest reservoir of descriptive material comes from your sensory memories - the sights, sounds, scents, textures and even tastes associated with impactful life events. I still vividly recall the adrenaline-spiking aroma of roasting chestnuts on Florence's Ponte Vecchio bridge while studying abroad at 19. Or the honey-rich incense haze veiling the blue-tiled domes inside Istanbul's Hagia Sophia basilica on a lone backpacker's pilgrimage at 25.

By cataloging the vivid sensory signatures tied to your travels and adventures - whether a crunchy baguette tearing between teeth against a Parisian cafe's melody of clinking cups or the whispery brush of elephant grass against bare calves while on Kenyan safari - you gather the tangible details that immerse readers within fictional realms derived from real-world experience.

Emotional Resonance

But vibrant imagery alone fails to fully hook readers. Your life-inspired fiction must resonate emotionally if you intend to entrance audiences rather than merely inform them. This requires identifying pivotal themes embedded within your personal memories - exile versus belonging, disillusionment versus hope, confinement versus freedom or any universal motif.

For example, my debut novel Life Between Seconds fictionalized a friendship between an Argentine septuagenarian and an American vicenarian.

Yet punctuating this youthful tale of flaky bohemians was my own sobering homesickness for the familiar but also inspired by the differences of my travels through Argentina — thereby introducing the complex push/pull between rootedness and restless escape that dynamizes the narrative but also demonstrated myself as the odd one, not the place I was visiting.

Imaginative Invention

But recalling sensory impressions and even broader themes constitutes mere reporting. Where's the fiction? This is where reworking real-world experiences into fictional accounts requires brazen acts of imagination - the delicious "what if?" factor that transforms any life event into a new creation.

The key is brainstorming "yes, and" ideas that thrust your characters into escalating conflicts, building one invented complication upon another.

What if those two old college pals backpacking Europe missed a train connection and had to spend one terrifying night sleeping under a bridge as inebriated threats echo from the darkness? What if one friend's infatuation with a local waitress in Vienna ignited unexpected jealousy in their girlfriend?

Endless possibilities exist to amplify memory into heightened fictional drama.

It Doesn't Need to Be Real to Be Plausible

Reality provides the plausible foundation but unrestrained imagination completes the architecture that enables real-world inspiration to manifest as engaging stories.

With the basic techniques below, you can convert any well of personal experience into vivid new fiction:

• Inventory memories via dominant sensory details - Was that hillside more redolent of sage or jasmine? Did temple chants echo metallic or wooden? Sharpen recollections.

• Pinpoint emotional themes within pivotal life events - What overarching motifs like belonging, mortality, morality emerge?

• Brainstorm "what if" ideas to thrust characters into escalating conflict - Missed trains? Romantic rivalry? Snowball challenges.