Memoir or Fiction? There’s something for Insecure Writers to get more insecure about. If we are to write about our own experiences, how far do we go before it becomes a memoir?
I’d already started thinking about this as a topic for this month’s IWSG because of an article by Anne R Allen back in the summer. Then the IWSG newsletter gave this month’s prompt:
Have you ever slipped any of your personal information into your characters, either by accident or on purpose?
Nip over to their blogs and see what they’re talking about, as well as other Insecure Writers here.
So, memoir or fiction?
I sometimes think I’ve developed a good background for writing fiction, because I’ve dabbled in so many things over the years. I tend to include activities I’ve done, though I transfer them to other places and elaborate on them.
My favourite daydream when I was a teen was to win the Ladies Show Jumping Championship at the Royal International Horse show on my wonderful skewbald horse Zingaro. The Ladies Show Jumping Champs are real enough. So was the Royal International Horse Show, now at Olympia, indoors, then at White City, then Wembley, outdoors in their wonderful stadiums. (Apparently the footballers objected to the horse’s hooves on their famous turf, but they objected to javelins and shot-putts from the athletics, too.)
I’m going back a bit. Zingaro is entirely fictional. Maybe he’ll get into a book one day. I never had my own horse, a fact which someone missed entirely when I posted once about ‘my imaginary stable of horses’. How can you miss the word imaginary in there? But expanding on real life to turn it into fiction is not a problem for me. (See my review of the One Dollar Horse for an excellent example of horse-mad daydreams by a good author!)
The Viridian Series
It’s not a problem for my space adventures—or is it? I’ve mentioned before that Big Pete and the Swede are modelled on some guys I knew at college. I didn’t keep in touch with them and I have no idea what they are doing now. I am not using any real life incidents in relation to them. But if I was, as Anne Allen points out, I would have to be careful not to leave myself open to accusations of libel. Or defamation of character. I think the guys involved would be flattered at their prowess with women and asteroids, personally, but you never know. If one of them was a squeaky clean CEO of a major company, then he might object. Actually, the names could be a problem, since I know two people with the Swede’s assumed name, and deliberately chose Pete’s (as he did) to be as ordinary as could be – there are probably hundreds of Pedro Garcias in the world.
But none of my space adventurers are describing any factual event or situation that I have ever been in. It’s definitely not memoir. (I wish!)
The Princelings of the East
I don’t think my guinea pigs, Fred and George, and all the rest of them named in the Princelings books are likely to complain at my using their real names. The problem with the Princelings books is that Fred and George, the guinea pigs, were named after Fred and George Weasley. A large number of my guinea pig-owning friends have named theirs after similar characters. One pair name theirs after airplanes, which is why Nimrod is a female. There are neither my own real life experiences nor any personal details of mine in the Princelings books. It’s another wish fulfilment exercise, really. Despite the problems they have, I think I’d rather live in their world.
White Water Landings
My Dad’s memoirs are another thing entirely. They are his real life experiences, as dictated by him for posterity, because someone suggested he should. Occasionally when I was transcribing them, I wondered whether I should name some of the people, those he made some ‘interesting’ comments about. Would Peggy Breeze’s descendants mind knowing the men at Croydon airport nicknamed her ‘cold front’? Would some of the people named and disliked mind at all? Well, they probably aren’t here to complain. But that was how my father felt about them, and he is entitled to his feelings, even if reprehensible.
Even in this book, there are no personal details of my own, save in the biography at the back. My eldest brother has a few facts mentioned, but then he was alive by the date the book finishes. I did check them with him, though. Maybe that’s the key thing—if there’s any doubt in your mind,check.
Memoir or fiction?
I think repeating or reliving an argument (or similar), in a different context, is not memoir, but you should be careful not to enable people who know you to say, “ah, (s)he’s talking about xxx.”
This experience was one I turned into a short story and entered in a competition. The feedback was along the lines of ‘nicely written but a plot cop-out’. It still gives me the shivers to know how fate saved me from losing my home—or my life.
Using our experiences (especially when in dangerous or difficult situations) is surely the stuff from which interesting stories develop.
In fact, it would do some of us a lot of good to go out and live a little, instead of spending most of our time inside our own heads!
What do you think?
7 thoughts on “#IWSG October – Memoir or Fiction”
Hi Jemima – you’re always writing … and submitting – which is excellent … your father’s memoirs sounds fascinating … I wish my parents had left us their thoughts on life … cheers Hilary
I think this is a great article. Our personal lives with family and friends can make interesting stories.
I’m with you–incidents and things I know about show up in my books. But nothing is as it was when it happened, because it’s all been run through the meat-grinder of my imagination 😀
My IWSG Post
I so agree. When a story develops out of a personal experience, people relate to what we write.
All the best.
Pat G @ EverythingMustChange
I agree with you. Mainly, I use more of my emotional responses to events than the events themselves.
Great post topic! I have written some of my own experiences and friends and places from my hometown of Plymouth into my books. The friends LOVE it. I had heard so often that I should write what I know. So I have, at least in some part. I think it has tied me to my writing and made it so much fun… Love the picture with the Santa hats. So cute!
Thanks for the shout-out, Jemima! I agree. Use the memories for emotional truth, but not for revenge or “reliving the argument.”
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