Using Reality as Inspiration for Fiction

We see it often on TV ― those Ripped From The Headlines! storylines. It happens so often that just seeing that particular catchphrase as a tag line for a crime drama has many of us involuntarily rolling our eyes. Again? Can’t they come up with anything original on their own? But as a writer, the question becomes ― how often do you use real life as the inspiration for your own writing?

There are some writers that overtly use real life as their inspiration. When historical fiction author Jody Hedlund wrote her novel ‘The Preacher’s Bride’, she based the main characters on John Bunyan (author of ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’) and his second wife Elizabeth. To be able to write this period piece accurately, Jody had to immerse herself in historical documents of the times. Did she exactly portray the historical figures of John and Elizabeth as they existed in 17th century Bedford? Of course not; there was simply too much missing information that those documents could not or did not provide. Thus the term historical fiction. Jody freely and honestly admitted in her afterword that parts of the story had to come from her imagination for exactly that reason. But, in doing so, she provided readers with a well rounded and highly enjoyable version of what the characters’ lives might have been like based on the framework of that existing knowledge. She used a real life situation to entertain and inform, and did so beautifully.

But for those of us who aren’t writing historical fiction, is it cheating to pull from the real life experiences of ourselves and others to prime the creative pump? We certainly don’t think so.

We’ve often used reality as our inspiration for writing. One of our favourite short stories came from a news report about the remains of a Union soldier recovered 146 years after his hasty burial at Antietam. Some stories have grown out of our own personal areas of expertise. Some have been inspired by a particular scientific technique that we found interesting; we then worked backwards from that technique to construct a crime we could solve using that tool. When you write crime fiction that is very much grounded in reality, current events and realistic crime is often a great place to start. Truth really is often stranger than fiction, so with such a rich palette before you, why not take advantage?

An interesting case in point happened last week, once again illustrating how (in our case) two brains are better than one when it comes to this kind of inspiration. I’m lucky enough to have a partner who is extremely well read and constantly stays well informed. Ann ran across a particular news story that caught her eye and she immediately sent it to me. In this case, it wasn’t the whole story that caught me, but there was one aspect of it that had the effect of virtually stopping me in my tracks. About five minutes and a half dozen back and forth e-mails of ‘what if’ discussion later, we literally had a rough outline for the first third of a new novel in our series. That one little detail had the capability of being a springboard for us into a short marathon of story planning that may lead to a new novel for us. In our case, it pays to stay well informed.

What about you? Do you think that using a real life situation is a crutch or a legitimate source of inspiration? Do you often find yourself pulling from your own experiences or real life to enhance your storytelling?

Photo credit: jamesjyu