Putting yourself into your fiction

07 Feb
Cover of Sharon A. Crawford's mystery short story collection

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford’s mystery short story collection

The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes.

–          André Gide

If you write horror stories does that mean you have to run around with a chain saw chopping up people? If you write mysteries with serial killers does that mean you have to be a serial killer? What about romance writers? Children’s authors? How much of who you are factors in with what you write?

I’ve wondered about that lately because many of my short stories and the prequel novel are on the dark side – both in content and the humour sometimes used to tell them. But my stories also go to the other side of the creativity fence – I use emotions such as hope, love, gratitude, joy, generosity, empathy, even happiness (usually at the story’s end). In other words I make my characters human, characters who often have to overcome great odds to get some sort of hold back on their life and the lives of their family and friends.

For example, in my short story “Unfinished Business” from Beyond the Tripping Point (Blue Denim Press, 2012), the main character Lilly, has something traumatic happens when she is 12 years old. The consequences force her to run away from home at 15 and her life becomes one of too many men and never staying in one place for long. During that time she gives birth to a daughter, Trish, and her motherly instincts kick in, especially when Trish turns 12 and wants to see where Mom was born. The journey back holds bad memories for Lilly and when they arrive at her old home and the cause of the trauma shows up, mistaking Trish for Lilly, Lilly changes. She has to save her daughter from the same fate she had, and in doing so, she can get rid of the albatross she’s carried around on her shoulder, and change her life and her attitude. Besides the dark side of what happened to Lilly (and for the record, did not happen to me), the story shows hope and the indomitable spirit living somewhere in most humans. Lilly just needed strong motivation and mother love was it.

So, if you aren’t a serial killer or a sex fiend, how do you write about these areas and others you haven’t lived through yourself?

  1. Read, read, read on the topic. For serial killers, I’m reading Peter Vronsky’s book Serial Killers and I admit I watch Criminal Minds on TV. I do find the latter is more inventive in their serial killers and motives than some of those in real life. I say “some” because as the saying goes “truth is often stranger than fiction.”
  2. Other Research – interview experts. I’m not saying interview a serial killer but perhaps a profiler or a police officer familiar with catching serial killers.
  3. Put yourself (mentally and emotionally, not actually) in the mind of your character. How would they react to such and such? What is their story? Their background?
  4. Go inside yourself and draw out what is there that you can use? For example, did your parents die suddenly from, say a car crash, when you were a child? Did your father desert the family? Were you bullied in school? Did you grow up in poverty or do you live in poverty now?  Do you have a disability that affects your life? Do you have an affinity for certain people or types of people? For me, it’s the underdog – the one who has a lot of bad going on in their life. In other words, someone who has to overcome much and has a hard time doing so. Will he or she do so? That is what you have to figure out in your story.

The bottom line is this: what you write encompasses you, your life, your feelings – but it doesn’t mean you have to be a serial killer or even a mom. For the record, I am a mom, although my son is now in his mid-thirties; I was a single parent but had lots of parenting help from my ex; I was bullied as a child; my dad died after a long bout with cancer when I was 16; I suffered from depression some 30 years ago, and poverty is no stranger to me. But I don’t wield a chain saw – too heavy to hold and I’ve tried – but to trim trees and shrubs.

How much of you is in your fiction?


Sharon A. Crawford


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