Patrick Gale, who was guest author at our May 2016 retreat, said some interesting things about the relationship between life writing, or memoir, and fiction. In his masterclass, several of us asked questions about the struggle to write about ‘real life’ without compromising relationships and friendships between those who know the events and personalities involved in the story. Others were wrestling with how to fill in the gaps where parts of a story drawn from real life are simply not known.
Patrick was clear that his approach is always to make fiction from life. In his novels, a character, incident or theme will have its roots in something or someone real, often from the past. The idea for his most recent novel, A Place Called Winter, was sparked by a detail from his own grandfather’s life, and he said that the translation of a real event into something fictional makes the writing easier. The writer is liberated and can develop the story without fear of treading on toes.
The trick is to identify a theme, or take the kernel of the real life event, character or situation that intrigues you as a writer, and make it the basis of your fictional story. Push it as far from ‘truth’ as you can. Patrick suggested changing the gender of the main character, or setting the story in another place or country, or in a different historical period. These are all tricks in the writer’s repertoire and can be played with and tried on, like costumes from the dressing up box, until you find the right fit for your story.
Patrick made it sound like play. As writers, it is important to play as you draft – everything can be changed, but that early stage where you experiment, have fun with ideas, ask yourself ‘what if…?’ and just write to find out where the story will take you, is exciting. Several of our May guests took his words on board and experimented in this way. By the end of the week at least two had discovered that turning their ‘real’ material into fiction was exciting and effective.
We can’t wait to see the results.