How Much of YOU is in Your Writing?

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

 

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Okay, let’s get down to the basics… If you happen to be writing a memoir, use as much of yourself as you want. But if you’re writing fiction you might want to rethink how much of YOU you put in your story.

I don’t mean your sense of humor or sarcasm or even little bits of happiness or sadness that has been part of your life, but you can take your PLOT or your CHARACTERS on the wrong path if you aren’t careful. Not that you aren’t the most interesting person in the world… but maybe, just maybe, your beliefs, passions, or politics might be the things that take your great story off the tracks. And remember, in ten years things may change, trends, ideas, even your beliefs. When that happens your story will look dated. But some things never change.

Let me explain.

I have been a huge fan of E. Phillips Oppenheim, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Anna Katharine Green. They wrote a hundred years ago. That’s 1918! Their stories are still readable. Sometimes you’d swear they were written last week. It’s the STORY that withstands the test of time. Stick with it. Don’t head down a road that half your audience might not want to go down with you.

I have watched some of my writer friends on Facebook mention that they will use the recent unpleasantness (AKA: the pandemic, the corona virus, the China virus, the Wuhan virus… whatever you call it) in their work.

Okay. It’s your call.

Writer Lady 2People used World War II, the Vietnam War, the Depression, -insert disaster here-, in their work. The memorable stories didn’t dwell on the event itself per se. They used it as a backdrop and then showed how their characters’ personalities dealt with the event.

Not that your characters might not do what you would do, but sometimes the story “sounds” like preaching instead of a fascinating character study or a unique story.

I once wrote a scene featuring one of my main characters when she recalled losing one of her beloved dogs. I wrote a rather long sub-story featuring everything I felt at the time of that loss. Funny thing was my character was driving home while thinking of this event. During an edit I came to that scene and realized that particular detour took my character off in another direction – a dead end. It had nothing to do with the main story and it didn’t necessarily enhance her character even though it might have been touching. It showed how hard it was losing that wonderful dog, but it really didn’t fit the spy novel I was writing. I cut it.

I do use people I know as characters, at least a slice here and there. Often I change their name. I do that mostly because I don’t want to embarrass them or anger them – lawsuits, you know. But I never make fools of them… period. And I never use someone I don’t like in a book. Why waste the ink?

I have used all our pets as minor characters in different stories. My wonderful husband, Richard, is definitely the basis of Fred Caulfield in my Gin Caulfield mysteries. I enjoyed using his strong personality so much, he will become a partner in her detective firm in upcoming books. But that is the extent of the similarity. I want Fred to be his own person.

Pencil 2As for myself showing up in the books I write, a little of me is here, a little is there, but I actually like to have my characters be themselves. I might like them because we are compatible, but not identical twins. And I definitely don’t want us to be Siamese twins joined forever, never having a life of our own. That wouldn’t be fair to my characters, after all, they are like one’s own children in a way. You might want to instill some values in them, but you really have to let them be themselves. Think of your friends, you like them because you have something in common, but if you try to change them, I bet you won’t have them as friends anymore.

So I let my characters be themselves, and as almost every writer I know has said: These people take on a personality of their own. If you as a writer just sit back and let them talk, you might just find they have a terrific voice. So shut up and let them do the talking for a while. We’ll get who you are by the story you tell. Trust me. Write on!

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Author: gbpool

A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (writing as G.B. Pool) writes two detective series: the Gin Caulfield P.I. series (Media Justice, Hedge Bet & Damning Evidence) and The Johnny Casino Casebook Series. She also penned a series of spy novels, The SPYGAME Trilogy: The Odd Man, Dry Bones, and Star Power. She has a collection of short stories in From Light To DARK, as well as novels: Eddie Buick’s Last Case, Enchanted: The Ring, The Rose, and The Rapier, The Santa Claus Singer, and three delightful holiday storied, Bearnard’s Christmas, The Santa Claus Machine, and Every Castle Needs a Dragon. Also published: CAVERNS and Second Chance. She is the former Speakers Bureau Director for Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles and also a member of Mystery Writers of America and The Woman’s Club of Hollywood. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” (The Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook is available.) “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line” in sunny Southern California. Website: www.gbpool.com.

19 thoughts on “How Much of YOU is in Your Writing?”

  1. Thanks, Gayle, for your incisive advice and comments. I particularly second Let them Talk because when we do allow our characters to become their own person and not insist they take on qualities we want them to possess, the characters become far more interesting. It’s a matter of listening, perhaps. I was “listening” to my sleuth one day and some old fella popped in to join the “conversation,” providing a minor character that filled a couple of holes in my plot I didn’t realize existed. Re your note on the pandemic, it’s interesting and not a little uncomfortable to accept we are now significant historical data to be researched by future novelists, like the Black Plague, and other eras. So great our group is sharing these pearls of wisdom. Our necklace is lengthening by leaps and bounds!

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Jill. I guess we are all part of history. We just need to know how to capture the pertinent aspects. And you are right about letting our characters have their own voice. Write on!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Setting the scene is always important, but we have all read books that gave too much info when it wasn’t necessary. An historical novel has a lot more leeway, but a contemporary piece can have too much description. But we should leave a few hints to what the world is like while we are living in it. Thanks for dropping by, Paul.

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  2. You’ve given us a lot to consider, Gayle. As my current WIP takes place 100 years ago in a region beset by political turmoil and a pandemic, I would be remiss if I didn’t draw on the parallels with the present. However, having established my characters over the course of now four novels, I have to remain true to them as well. As for present-day fiction and what some of your Facebook friends propose to write, I wonder how ‘readable’ the books will be a decade from now, especially if the thread they follow turns out to be wrong.

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    1. Your books treat the past very well. Your description of the Russian pogroms brought that era to life. I worry about people making cell phones a major character in their books. Of course if the cell phone has a mind of its own… But that’s another story.

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  3. In general, I know I tend to add at least a little bit of me to my protagonists–especially if I can fit dogs in the story! And of course I’m the most interesting person in the world, as you suggested, Gayle, so… Well, I try to make my protags as interesting as possible while keeping what goes on in their lives, and their dogs, worth reading about!

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    1. Linda, your books with dogs as a piece of the story are always a joy to read. You give your protagonists a cause or goal that must be sought. That’s what makes them so much fun.

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  4. Excellent post, Gayle, and as they often do, has me thinking. I tend to like mental side jaunts my characters take, my thinking is gets the reader closer to knowing them. But your point about “dead ends” is a very real hazard with that. And so agree, the story, and in particular, the “people” part of the story is what stands the test of time. Personally, I often prefer ignoring aspects of current day life, not enjoyable, so why drag them into my plot(ha,ha)

    Thank you for another informative and thought provoking post…and starting me thinking about a couple things to help me improve my current seemingly never to be finished WIP (smile)

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    1. I have mentioned before, Mad, that your description of the California desert towns are so good, I feel like I could walk the streets. Not everybody does that as well. And you are right when you say you don’t dwell on the everyday stuff. All it does is take up valuable space. I wish some newer writers would remember that.

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  5. What great points you make, Gayle. I find I use -often unconsciously – just a a little touch of an incident from my own life. But I always, as you say, sit back and let my characters talk and they carry on the scene in directions I would never have thought of. It’s a bit like cooking: add a soupcon of this, a touch of that. But I try to stay out of the picture.

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    1. Like you said, Rosemary, we do add a bit of ourselves, but letting those characters find their own voice is so rewarding. And maybe some of them are a bit like us, too.

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  6. Thanks for the post on getting our writing right! I know I instill a bit of my ethics into my short stories and kids’ stories. I just can’t help it. And I think it’s really fun to see people I know in your books. (Some authors have contests to see whose name might be a character.) (PS: I have been a recipient of this in yours and two other authors’ books.) What fun to buy a few copies, then give them to friends. I love when they call to say, “Did you know that YOU are in this book?”
    I look forward to reading more of your books, Gayle, be they mysteries or mystery collections. As you said, “Write on!”

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    1. I use real people sparingly, but if I do choose to use a friend or family member or even a celebrity, I always make sure to show the great person they are.

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  7. For thirty-six novels, I’ve practiced creating characters who were not me, following the acting adage that your character will never come to life until you lose all awareness of the self. All my books were written in third person limited. That being said, novel #37 took a different turn. For the first time, I wrote in first person and it was based loosely on myself as a young lad…eight years old in a Southern Noir Mystery. I say based on myself, but with a different name and I added a series of murders, which was pure fiction, but it was still my early life. My beta readers are calling it my best work…ever. Who knew?

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    1. Ken, Thanks for joining in the discussion. My spy novels use my dad as a character with a female writer in the mix who is definitely my dad’s daughter, but I do let her carve her own path even if some of them I know quite well. Glad to hear your latest book is appreciated. Sometimes we do have a personal story to tell and who knows it better than we do?

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  8. When people ask me what inspired me to write a particular story, I can usually come up with a response. But when it comes to my first published short story, “A Not So Genteel Murder,” I have no idea what sparked the plot or the characters. And it’s probably my favorite of any story I’ve written. In other stories, my characters are composites of me and other people I’ve known, but they’re definitely their own people. One very important difference: I do not hunt down murderers!

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    1. At least we hope we don’t end up hunting down murderers, Maggie. I used to be a private detective in real life, but no dead bodies, at least not ones I had to deal with. But it is fun to create a good character out of new clay.

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