Turning Real Life Into Fiction

by Susan Breen

People always laugh when I tell them what my novel is about. The Fiction Class is the story of a woman who is trying to heal a difficult relationship with her mother, even as she teaches a fiction class to an assorted group of characters in Manhattan.

 What’s the joke in that?

Well, I am a woman who had a difficult relationship with my mother, and yes, I teach a fiction class for Gotham Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan, and so it does seem as though I am basing my novel on my own life. Which sounds like it might be cheating a little bit. How hard can it be to write about things that actually happened to you, or people you actually know? Isn’t that skipping a step?

What I found out, however, was that basing a story on people you know can be tricky. The problem is that real people do not tend to lead lives that follow a narrative structure. Most of us go day to day, doing more or less the same thing, and although we do make choices and have dramatic moments, those moments don’t always come where they might in a good story. This was the very issue I had in writing about my mother—our relationship had tension to it, but that tension went on for years and years and there was no dramatic moment of understanding for either of us. I never smacked my hand against my head and said, “Aha! Now I understand.” Instead, over time, we came to get along with each other better. This is how life goes, but how do you make a story out of that?

Let me give a little background. My mother and I were very close, but when she got sick and needed full time nursing care it became necessary for her to move to a nursing home. The move made my mother feel angry and me feel guilty and the result was a lot of tension. Every visit to her was torture. But that all changed, unexpectedly, when I got a job teaching at Gotham Writers’ Workshop. I only taught one day a week, but I loved the class and my mother loved hearing about it, and unexpectedly, we found peace with each other in discussing fiction and writing and dreams. After my mother died, I was heartbroken, but I also felt blessed that my mother and I had gotten a second chance to be friends.

I wanted to tell our story, both as a way of keeping my mother alive, even if it was just on the page, and also because I was consumed by the whole experience. I felt I had something to say and I was certain the novel would flow right out of me—how could it not when I was so impassioned.  The title came to me immediately—Mother of Mine. I wrote down fifty pages in about a week. And then I came to an end. There was nothing more to say. I had some good scenes, but there was no drive to the story; it was reading too much like a diary. It was sort of boring. I was so aggravated, I put the pages away. But then, one day, I found myself reflecting about the main character, who was, of course, very much like me.

In the early version of the novel, Patsy (yes, that was a little ham-handed, but that’s what I named her) was 46 years old and married with four children. Frankly, I had not done a lot of thinking about her; I figured I didn’t need to do any character dossiers because I knew what I would do in any given situation. I didn’t need to make anything up, did I? But now I found myself frustrated by the limitations of writing about myself and I wanted to charge it up. Then a weird idea popped into my head.

What if the main character had a name that was completely unlike my own, a name that was so different than Patsy, or Susan, that it might change the way I looked at her. What if she had a name that was completely inappropriate? A name like, Arabella.

I’ve always loved the novels of Georgette Heyer and Arabella is one of my favorites, but I could see how someone might be upset if her mother had given her that for a name, particularly if she were a slightly oversensitive person. It would be embarrassing to be named Arabella if you were living a non-romantic life, I thought; and the sort of mother who named her daughter Arabella, would be suggesting a whole set of expectations that it might be hard for her daughter to live up to. I was intrigued. Just changing the detail of the name helped me get some distance from the character, and once I had that distance, I could begin to see other dramatic possibilities.

What if, instead of being a married mother of four, Arabella was younger, and single? What if she were an only child? In real life, I have a very devoted brother, but by taking him out of the story, I took away Arabella’s safety net. If things started to go wrong with her, she’d have to fall back on her own resources. She’d have more at stake. And then, if she were single, it opened up the possibility of romance. There were now plot possibilities that were simply not there for my original character. Now I had a character who was enough like me that I felt I could describe her well, but she was different enough that she intrigued me.

So now, having had some success shifting around the Arabella character, I began to look at the mother. What if she were not so obviously like my mother. How could I keep the elements of my mother that I wanted to keep—her bravery, her orneriness, her sense of humor—but add an element of drama to the novel?  In real life, my mother loved reading, but had no interest in writing a story. But this fictional mother might want to write something down, I thought, especially if she had secret loss she had been grappling to understand her whole life. My real mother never met with a fortune teller; never had the experience in Mexico that my fictional mother has, but it felt right to me. It was the sort of thing my mother might have done.

One of the biggest breakthroughs came when I began to think about Arabella’s fiction class. Originally I had expected her classes to go the way mine do, which is to say that everyone gets along fairly well, but I began to wonder what would happen if Arabella was having trouble with her class. Perhaps her students were not as agreeable as mine usually are, and so she would have to struggle more, but in the struggling she would come to learn things about herself. So, for example, there is often a student in the class who thinks she knows more than I do (and she is probably right). But what if I made this student aggressive, and had her actually take over one of the classes. How would Arabella react to that? By making the students’ characters more extreme, I gave Arabella something more to run up again.

The advantage of writing about things that you know is that you are writing about things you feel strongly about; the disadvantage is that you can know the subject so well that it becomes bland and uninteresting. By jazzing up your familiar characters with unexpected details, you can jolt new life into your characters and take your story into unexpected places.

This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine.