All writers borrow from real life occasionally. Some may steal a snippet of conversation overheard in the grocery store line. Others may borrow a distinctive mannerism from a long-ago teacher. Our experiences as a whole help to not only fire our imagination, but sometimes fill in the gaps for us.
With graduation season looming, this is a great time of year to read Commencement, by J. Courtney Sullivan, which I
thoroughly enjoyed. It is a terrific portrait of friendship, as well as a
lovely reminder of the halcyon days of undergrad life. That being said, I felt
as if I was peeking into the author's mental underwear drawer. It was such an
intimate portrait of life at Smith College, clearly peppered with many, many
true life details. When you turn the last page, you feel as if you've been
matriculated from Smith - the reader knows it inside and out. All its
time-honored traditions, both big and small, ridiculous and rich, are exposed.
Overall, it made for a deliciously layered read. But I still squirmed at the
obvious pockets of reality. More importantly, I wondered how many Smithies were
reading it and squirming.
When a book is set in a real place, or depicts real events and people, there is
always a tightrope that must be delicately trod. There is a deep sense of
responsibility to get every detail right - or else the wrath of a reader - who
swears your two block walk to the ocean really takes four blocks and that
ruined the whole book for her - may fall upon you. Of course, I feel that onus
in my fictional locales as well. Much planning is required to convince a reader
your setting is real, and even more detail for them to imagine it from scratch.
But I don't ever want the reader to feel as though they've peeked into my life.
I've got a friend who constantly lobbies to be used as a character in my books.
That is NEVER going to happen. Oh, he'd make a terrific character, don't get me
wrong. But his larger-than-life personality would be too tempting to inflate
into a caricature, and I'm quite positive hurt feelings would ensue. All the
book sales in the world aren't worth that happening.
On the other side of the coin, I'm about to release a book about a wedding
planner. Yes, I've got years of experience under my belt, and I've worked in a
few actual vignettes. The difference (and what I hope will protect me from any threat
of litigation) is that I don't believe they are singular experiences. Yes, the
high maintenance mother of the bride complained the size of the meat at the
reception was different than what she had at the tasting three months earlier.
I worked it into a funny scene. But I'm willing to bet there are fifty caterers
out there who've harbored this same complaint. The point being that it isn't
just my real life on display; rather, reality in general.
Do you use real people and experiences in your books? As a reader, has any book's obvious dip into reality made you uncomfortable?