Mining Your Own Business

by Miko Johnston

That’s not a typo, it’s a play on words, inspired by a stream of advice I’ve gotten from many writing experts on a touchy subject. We’re told, write what you know. Does that include exploiting who we know?

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How far are you willing to go to write a tantalizing mystery, an emotionally powerful drama, or a deeply moving character study? Would you base it on an actual incident or situation in someone’s life and its effect on them? I’m not talking about libel, but morality.

A piece in your news source of choice might inspire you to write a “ripped from the headlines” novel. Legitimate public information is fair play for adaptation, such as a criminal case or someone’s media appeal to raise attention to an issue. For example, some couples have had children in hopes of providing bone marrow or other vital tissue to save a stricken older child. In addition to non-fictional accounts and memoirs written by family members, many authors, including Jodi Picoult, opted that storyline for novels. Dramatic, yes. Is it exploitive?

What if something noteworthy happened in your own life? You might write a memoir detailing the experience and how it changed you. Or you could draw on the event to fashion a scene, and more importantly, for the emotions it evoked, whether it’s the pain of loss, the thrill of first love, the shock of violence or post-traumatic stress inflicted by a drastic incident. When I write about grieving or passion, feeling afraid or distraught, it comes from my own experience, but I do so voluntarily.

We base our characters, at least in part, on people we’ve known. We imbue them with that person’s physical characteristics or personality traits. Say you’ve given your sleuth, a Vietnam vet, the same war wound as your brother, and his nemesis flashes the pasty-faced smirk of your loathsome ex-boss. Those qualities illustrate the characters, but don’t define them.

Great writers incorporate their lives into their stories. They tend to base some characters on family members and people closest to them, portraits which are often unflattering and unkind.  Writers also mine tales from family and friends for source material. My own series of historical fiction novels began with a rumor about my grandmother. Stories about transformation, triumph over tragedy, and overcoming loss are rich with potential. As an example, a brilliant, successful woman marries a man who never divorced his first wife – and his family knows that when he walks down the aisle – makes a great storyline. What if she was your best friend? Or if a couple in your family, grappling with an intellectually disabled son who’s growing stronger and more aggressive, are agonizing over whether to institutionalize him?

In Betsy Lerner‘s excellent book, “A Forest For The Trees”, she urges writers to use whatever they can in their own lives to enrich their story, including incidents in the lives of the people closest to them. “If you are going to be honest and write about all the untidy emotions, the hideous envy, and disturbing fantasies that make us human, how can you not offend your loved ones, your neighbors and community?” A New York Times piece by James Parker, contributing editor at The Atlantic, endorses the practice of “invading” other people’s lives, but only if you can elevate it above exploitation; the purpose must be empathy.

For me the issue goes deeper than adapting an external experience. We can take plotlines from personal sources and show how one might feel in that situation, but what about someone far removed from ourselves? Each day I’m exposed to people whose experiences, based on their race, religion, ethnicity or sexuality, shape their world view, which differs vastly from mine. Are there places within a person that are too intimate to go, too unreachable to know?

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In 1990 I worked on a conference sponsored by an organization of scientists who explore the repercussions of technological advancement. They chose as their conference  theme: Can We Do It? How Do We Do It? Ought We Do It? As a writer, I ask myself the same questions in understanding the social implications of storytelling, crafting diverse, authentic characters and emotionally compelling plots. Characters and plots that ring true to those outside the world I create as well as to those within.

A fiction writer’s goal is to produce a logical and believable manuscript, populated with characters, many who’ll be familiar to us and a few who thankfully bear no resemblance to anyone we know. We can borrow from their histories or instead, as Parker says, “invade” other people’s lives; strive for realistic portrayals or take Lerner’s advice to “be honest” enough to “offend”. That leaves me wondering: Is it proper to take the experiences of those we know best for the sake of a good plot?  Is it possible to mine the depths of emotions, or the most intimate thoughts, of someone so dissimilar from us?

Can we? How? Ought we?

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Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers in Residence, is the author of three novels in the  A Petal In The Wind  saga, as well as a contributor to anthologies including  LAst Exit to Murder. She is currently pages from competing her fourth novel in the series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband, who graciously helped her revise this post. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

Photo by Keira Burton from Pexels  

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

10 thoughts on “Mining Your Own Business”

  1. Fascinating and tremendously helpful post, Miko. Many thanks. Your guidelines and the questions you pose give me a lot to think about as I fictionalize an actual event and its consequences that affect the main (true) character. Congrats on finishing up your fourth book in the Petal series, I look forward to reading it.

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    1. Thanks, Jill. I’ve struggled with these issues for years. Exploiting the pain or humiliation of another sounds wrong, but isn’t that how we tell our stories?

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  2. What a thought provoking post. It makes me wonder about all the many books I have read. How much of those stories were based on fact? As for me, I might put a snippet of something I learned from someone whether they are family members or friends or just something somebody I didn’t know all that well told me. I have used family members like my dad in my spy novels, but all the stuff shows him as the hero the guy was. As for using pieces of someone I dislike in my books… No. I don’t want them cluttering up my prose. And frankly, my imagination distilling the world around me turns out far more interesting stories. I want to create my fictional world even if many of the same things might have happened to real people. That’s life. We all have a lot in common… the good and the bad.

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    1. The examples I gave are real-life and I’ve chosen not to write about them. Like you I’ve put snippets in my books based on people I’ve known, or borrowed their “shell” – used their physical appearance and filled it with my own character. You’re right about us having a lot in common, but I find what’s different can be more interesting than the similarities.

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  3. I’m always coming up with ideas, whether or not I use them, but they mostly do arise from things in my own life, or things I’ve seen that I thought should have been handled differently, or things that were handled great! I love your analysis in this post. It’s got me thinking ideas again…!

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    1. I’m glad it got you thinking about the subject. Whether we choose to exploit people or situations, or not, deserves some forethought.

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  4. What a thoughtful and thought provoking post, Miko! On first thought, my characters are completely fictional (except for some experiences or thoughts from my life)–but are they? Definitely think I don’t want to ever write anything to hurt someone…and don’t think I have. Thinking back now…. You’ve gotten those mental cogs revolving…good thing!

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  5. Thanks, Madeline. Years ago when I began writing my novels, a few co-workers asked me if I included them as characters. I always told them they were too ordinary, even boring – I did it with a smile, but we all know it’s true.

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  6. Most of what I write comes from other people’s lives – well the parts I find fascinating. But when I re-work them into my stories I adapt/change/disguise as needed. I think the manner in which we handle – or ignore – the ‘juicy bits’ is a matter of personal integrity – and conciance. Great food for thought, Miko.

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    1. I agree, Rosemary. Using a sliver of a person’s life, or a compilation of slivers, is different than exploiting someone’s misfortune.

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