View Full Version : Skeletons in your Writing

The Kidd
11-21-2009, 10:13 PM
Ok, I’m sure we have all had things in our past that we would rather forget about, but what about when they start popping up in your work? I recently started a new Urban Fantasy YA, and as I was starting the first few pages I had a train wreck (or was it?).

My fingers flew against the keys inventing a reason for my MC to be shipped off to Scotland, away from America. The reason? The MC finds her crush (Dustin) floating dead in a stream, his legs trapped by a rock fall. I stared in horror at the words on the screen , my finger hovering over the backspace button, and then that terrible muse of mine started talking.

“You know, it really works with the story. You can tie it in easily and have a good sub plot if you keep it. You may even have a better understanding of the story if it stays personal.”

I thought about it over night with my fiancé urging me to get back to the story. I think I’ve settled on keeping it but I wonder if it will be bad for my health. The thing is, and you have probably guessed, Dustin is a very real person. Or…he use to be. A semester before we graduated high school he was shot to death at a friend’s home.

Writers have always used experiences both good and grim to inspire them. Edgar Allen Poe (as I’m sure we all know) wrote countless poems dedicated secretly to his lost wife Virginia.

I suppose my question is: How common is it for a writer to use morbid experiences in their work? I'm not asking for you to share experiences that are uncomfortable, instead you can state if you have or have not used them in your work.

11-21-2009, 10:22 PM
I don't think I've ever used the exact experiences but I have used how they made me feel and given those feelings to characters.

11-21-2009, 11:02 PM
Extremely common. Using such experiences is what writing is all about. If it's inside, getting it outside and in print is always a good thing.

11-21-2009, 11:19 PM
Not yet. Not consciously.

I consciously try to avoid obvious parallels to my own life. Just keeps things simpler all round. But I'm sure there are skeletons there, hiding underneath the skin and muscle where nobody can see them. I'm almost afraid of my next book, because it will bring those bones pretty close to the surface and it promises to be difficult.

11-21-2009, 11:29 PM
I consciously try to avoid obvious parallels to my own life.

Me too. Nobody in right mind would ever want to read anything that boring.


11-22-2009, 12:13 AM
I couldn't do the awful ones justice. I want to write about them, but there is no way I could capture what I wanted to say. Others are good at that; don't get me wrong.

Otherwise, I use real life in my stories all the time.

11-22-2009, 12:46 AM
While purposely stay away from using my religious and political views within my writing, my previous editor said she could tell that I was a former catholic, went to catholic school, and I still have strong catholic beliefs. I told her she hit the nail right on the head, except I do not deal with religion in my work, at all. I deal with beliefs, but because my fantasy world has multiple gods, there is no one belief. She told me that to a former catholic, who went to catholic schools and college...it shows.

Not sure if this is the type of skeletons we are talking about, but she has made me question my writing and even change a few things up so MY beliefs are not showing and it is the Characters beliefs the story deals with.

I think no matter how hard we try, there is something of us in our work.

11-22-2009, 12:55 AM
I think no matter how hard we try, there is something of us in our work.

Something of the writer should be present in the work. But keep it at 'something' and not more than that. :D

The Kidd
11-22-2009, 01:40 AM
Thanks to everyone who gave me some in-put on this, and more is always welcomed. I just thought it would make an interesting topic, and it has been eating at me all night. I don't believe my readers will ever suspect that Dustin was ever a real person though.

Extremely common. Using such experiences is what writing is all about. If it's inside, getting it outside and in print is always a good thing.

This made me feel better. Thank you James.

Thoth, I get you on that one. Haha. I tend to do that to people also. There is just something in the way people write that gives them away.

11-22-2009, 01:46 AM
I always fit my own childhood into my stories.

11-22-2009, 02:51 AM
I don't think you can avoid it. It's a human being writing the story, and the human being has been shaped by a life up until the point of writing the story. Should one include explicit events that actually happened? Probably not, because it doesn't belong in the story.

I've had two close friends die, and I know I've used the reactions of the family in my writings. I've used the dead friends' fear of death. Not explicitly, but I've drawn from the well, and felt like a vampire of some kind. But it is okay to do it.

Mad Queen
11-22-2009, 05:46 AM
How common is it for a writer to use morbid experiences in their work? I'm not asking for you to share experiences that are uncomfortable, instead you can state if you have or have not used them in your work.
I use my experiences in my work as well, more often than not unconsciously rather than deliberately. I don't think it's something we can avoid, so just go with the flow.

Brutal Mustang
11-22-2009, 07:11 AM
I consciously try to avoid obvious parallels to my own life.

I was this way ... until my WIP, in which I'm digging into the deepest, darkest recesses of my own experiences. Feels like my strongest, ickiest writing yet. Heck, feels like therepy! And I might add, that because of the alien (sci fi) context in which I am writing these experiences, not even my closest family would likely realize they are mine. Plus many of the experiences are simply too intimate, you know, thoughts and feelings I have shared with no one.

11-22-2009, 08:31 AM
Ah, but then the parallels are not obvious. You're probably not just taking your own life experience and changing a few superficial details, because then they would recognize it.

What I don't do is take something that happened to me, and try to "fictionalize" it. But the experiences I've had and the feelings that go along with that will work their way into how my characters react to their own life experiences.

For instance, I wrote a young couple falling in love recently. They are not me and my husband in disguise, and the circumstances of their getting together bear no resemblance to any relationship I've ever had. On the other hand, it had a bit of a similar dynamic to my own experience, with an unacknowledged growing attraction that suddenly turned a corner into a very giddy, intense, committed relationship. I didn't deliberately do it that way, but I see now how my own experience informed the way I wrote that. But all the superficial details are different, and I rather doubt that anyone will be asking me if it's autobiographical.

I toyed with the idea of taking another experience I'd had, making it take a different turn than in real life, and turning that into a story. But I don't think I will. I would be too recognizable and then persuading people that it didn't really happen that way... Nope, not going there. However, if I'm ever working on something and it fits the characters that are living their own lives their own way, then I might use it. Or pieces of it.

11-22-2009, 01:58 PM
I don't understand the question.
You mean have we noticed the real world influencing our stories?

11-22-2009, 04:48 PM
I tend to write poetry based on my life experiences. I like it that way because I don't have to "tear" myself away from my work. I can be candid as I want to be. This is why I had such difficult time writing fiction even shorts. I ended up writing about myself in some form. The main characters were different versions of myself.

11-22-2009, 06:09 PM
they tell you to write what you know. My stories often go into those periods of my life when I was a lot more passonate and reckless than now. I also have depicted various horrible things I have witnessed, as well as examined horrible people, horrible object lessons on life and so on. Don't get me wrong, but I think a lot of writers are superficial because they are unwilling to look deeply into the world's ugliness. People seem preoccupied with being "polite" to the point where what they say really has no meaning (to them or anyone else). They think they need permission to examine sex, death, blood, gore, anger, mental derangement, or other ickky stuff, when really it's when you lay these things on the table, that your writing is strongest.

11-22-2009, 06:12 PM
There was a suicide in my first book, which was written at a time when I had more than one friend make attempts in very close intervals. That was incredibly personal for me, and incredibly difficult to write, but I think also part of why I was able to do it. It also helped me get some of my thoughts down, I think.

In general, though, I'd say it depends. It might be that you're ready to work on it, in which case it's a good thing and might be a very powerful addition to the story.

11-22-2009, 07:28 PM
What I don't do is take something that happened to me, and try to "fictionalize" it. But the experiences I've had and the feelings that go along with that will work their way into how my characters react to their own life experiences.


I suspect this is an individual writer decision. Many of the events I've used in fiction were taken directly from my own life and experience. Some of my best stories, or at least my best-selling stories, have been "fictionalized" only by changing the names to protect the guilty.

I suppose it also depends on the kind of life you've lived, and the experiences you've had.

11-22-2009, 07:42 PM
I agree. It's not a question of right or wrong, but how much I'm willing to expose myself.

I have not lived the kind of life that is memoir-worthy. But it has still been peppered - like most everybody's, I imagine - with all kinds of noteworthy incidents and gut-wrenching experiences. And I really don't want to face anything like: "There's no way he would have done that!" or "Did you seriously do that?" or "Did you write that to get back at your kids?" or ... Well, you get the idea. So when I use my own experiences, they pop up in such vastly different circumstances that even I don't see it half the time. ;)

11-23-2009, 01:53 AM
I have an incident in my novel that happened in real life years ago, but the actual event had a happier ending than in the book - 2 friends in a car crash, where the front of the car gets entangled in an old growth tree. In real life, both friends survived, although the driver had a permanent limp; in the novel, one of them dies.

11-23-2009, 03:53 AM
I think fictionalizing morbid/disturbing/difficult real-life events is a way of processing them. At least for me. I don't do it often, but it's hard when I do.

11-23-2009, 05:09 AM
That happened to me recently, only I didn't notice it until working on a revision.

There's a corpse. The corpse isn't even physically there, someone is remembering finding the corpse, and they think the deceased's name. It turned out to be the name of a friend. A resident of the hospice center I worked at, that I found dead. The nurse made me clean and prep her body since I was the bottom rung medical staff. Just...that was not very nice of my muse to put in there. I couldn't write anything for a few days after discovering that little bomb.

11-23-2009, 05:09 AM
I think we all do it to some degree. Maybe not an 'exact' experience per say, but we will transcribe the emotion and other factors into the story. If we were to take a step back from our works and looked at them objectively, i'm sure we'd see many parallels between some elements in our stories and our 'skeletons'.

11-23-2009, 05:09 AM
I've written about lots of stuff that has happened to me. The more painful, embarrasing, stupid or illegal, the better - for the story, not necessarily for me at the time. There's not much I wouldn't magpie from my own life, with the exception of credit card details. :D

11-23-2009, 05:44 AM
As Mario Vargas Llosa so eloquently put it, "Writers are the exorcists of their own demons."

The Lonely One
11-23-2009, 06:29 AM
Not having read all the responses I'll say this:

If you (general 'you') think your stories have nothing to do with your life, you're just wrong, plain and simple. You may not know you're doing it, but IMO that's BETTER, because it isn't contrived. It seems like your story 'came out' and then you realized what it was. This is best. Better than saying "I'm going to write a scene about how I felt when my father left my mother" because that's just self-indulgent journaling bullshit. I mean, write a memoir if you'd like but don't call it fiction.

We all write about our lives, our experiences, what we know and have seen or felt or smelled or tasted, because we cannot escape ourselves. It's illogical to believe we can separate ourselves entirely.

So yeah, I think things come up when you don't expect them. Sometimes they work their way in and you're none the wiser. Some you may not know until 10, 20, 50 years later. Some you know after the words are on the page.

I'm writing a novel based off of the world my brothers and I created when we were kids. I tell myself the characters aren't my family, that I'm changing them for the story (and that's what I tell them), but if I'm honest the truth of how I feel does come out. It's a truth I sometimes feel bad about. But it's the best stuff in the book so I have to keep it, right?

Hardship is a part of any person's life. A writer is no exception. My opinion is to go with those things because they are very honest and people can connect with those sorts of things.

Rhoda Nightingale
11-23-2009, 07:43 AM
My two cents:

Writing about your own life and your own struggles can be a great thing, and it will ring especially true with your readers if they can tell you're coming from a place of honesty. However, I'd shy away from writing about hard things that you may not have come to terms with yet. I'm thinking of something specific about my own life (which I'm not going to share), and I'd love to plug it into a story one day, but.....not yet. If that makes any sense.

Serious Desi
11-23-2009, 10:43 AM
I agree with the posts that say a little bit of the writer always gets into the story.
Personally, my and my MC have nothing in common except the love of pit-bulls.

I've noticed though in everything I've tried to write my main character has to take responsibility for something he shouldn't have too, which is something I've had to do.

I think it's all up the the writer.

11-23-2009, 10:52 AM
The skeletons are the only thing that makes my writing worth writing.

Without them, the skin and everything else are just a flaccid shell.

Stijn Hommes
11-23-2009, 04:15 PM
I've never used personal experiences in my writing, at least not to the point I recognized them. That said, writing about bad experiences might actually have a therapeutic effect on you; why else would therapists promote talking about such events to get them off your chest.

Unless the uncomfort this causes seeps into other aspects of your life, I'd recommend you slug on through.

11-23-2009, 10:20 PM
Some events stay with you, or they do with me. When I was seven, my favorite aunt died. She lived with us, was only twenty=one, and died at home, completely unecpectedly. Almost fifty years later, I still rmember her body, still remember having no true concept of death, wondering why we couldn't wake her up.

About six years later, their was a severe car wreck at a crossroad just half a mile down the road from our tiny country town, and some of us jumped on our bikes and arrived only a couple of minutes later. Three people were severely injured, blood was everywhere, etc.

But there was one woman, a front seat passenger, who hadn't been wearing a seat belt, and her face went through the windshield, and she was half in and half out of the car. One eye was pretty much gone, her nose was flattened into an unrecognizable pulp, her face was a bloody mess, and she was dead.

Other cars stopped, then teh poilice and ambulances arrived. The dead woman was quickly examined, and then the medics went on to treat the living. A police oficer pulled the dead woman back into the car, in roughly the same sitting position she probably had before the wreck, and covered her with a thin blanket. Blood quickly soaked trhough the blanket, and formed something of an outline of what was left of her face.

It' hard to forget something like that.

Our hoouse sat well back off the single road in town, and was surrounded by cornfields, a thick, weedy area, and a granmill that shut down at five. A railroad ran forty yards to the south. . .and for abouot five year, from teh time I was seven until I was twelve or so, we were routinely terrorized by at least two men.

They would come several times each year, peek in the windows while wearing frightening masks, bang on the doors at thre in the morning. We were country folk and still had an outhouse, and one night my great aunt made a trip out there and was attacked. We got out there in time to see her attacker running off, and she was fine, other than a ripped dress and a nasty bruise on the side of her face.

I was terrified of the night. And then, when I turned twelve, I got fed up with being afraid. I couldn't get to the twenty-two or the shotgun I owned without waking others, but I could get to a bow, so I waited until midnight, strung teh bow, and slipped out my window.

I can't beging to say how scary it was out there. I saw nothing for two night, or maybe three, and then I did see a man, nothing more than a shadow, and, God, I started shaking like you wouldn't believe. But I shot at him. A long shot, and in teh dark, but I came close enough to make him yell and take off running. . .and loud enough to wake my grandpa. . .which menat I got caught doing something pretty dumb.

But after a couple of weeks, he let me move my rifle and shotgun into my own room, and I was considerably less afraid. I went back out several times, but saw nothing.

I'd like to say it all ended there, but shortly thereafter we woke up about three in the morning on a rainy, miserable night with the house fully on fire. We barely made it out, and my mom was burned severely enough to spend more than a month in the hospital.

I can still taste that rolling black smoke that seemed alive as it curled out of the flames, and I inhaled enough to poison me, had trouble breathing for several weeks, and my entire left arm broke out in boils.

We got out with nothing except what we were wearing at the time.

You can't forget something like that, either.

As I got older, I put myself into a lot of dangerous situations, but it's those childhood memories that remain the strongest.

I think Flannery O'Connor nailed it when she said, “Anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life."

This is certainly true in my case, with these events, and several others.

The events of our childhood make us what we are, shape our lives forever, and it seems, well, wasteful, not to write about them.

11-24-2009, 02:56 AM
Wow, James, you had a dramatic childhood!

Now you've got me wondering if Flannery O'Connor actually knew people as odious as the ones in her stories. She's a wonderful writer, but I really dislike spending time with the people she writes about.