Six Things I Learned Going from Memoir to Fiction


Invited guest post by Carol Bodensteiner

Long time readers may be surprised to find a post about writing fiction on this blog about life writing. While it’s true that my focus is on memoir, lifestory, journaling and other forms that draw upon actual experience to express personal truth, sometimes the freedom of fiction is more effective in conveying truth. Carol Bodensteiner found this to be true. She has successfully written in both genres and her experience moving from memoir to fiction has lessons for all.

I’d been a business writer all my life, so I was used to working with facts. Memoir was a logical first writing step. Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Girl, tells the stories of my childhood growing up on a family farm in the middle of the United States, in the middle of the 20th Century.

When I finally raised my head from writing, publishing, and marketing the memoir, I looked around for what I’d write next. I turned to family-inspired fiction, which I’d never written before.  My novel, Go Away Home, which I indie published in 2014 and was acquired by Lake Union Publishing (an imprint of Amazon Publishing) later that year, is the result of that effort.

The road from memoir to fiction brought many adventures and a lot of learning. Here are six things I learned along the way.

1) A family story can be a great launching pad to fiction.

Go Away Home was inspired by my maternal grandparents. My grandfather died of the Spanish Flu in 1918. Throughout my life, I’ve been intrigued by my connection to this major world event. As someone used to writing from facts, a family story gave me a starting point: A story I cared to write and people and places that were familiar.

Writing the story as fiction was necessary for many reasons. One was that I didn’t have enough facts to write it any other way. Of course I never knew my grandfather and even though my grandmother lived until I was well into my 20s, I never asked her a single question about him or their lives together. And she was not the type to share. So though the story began with family, it is fiction.

2) Don’t get stuck on the facts

Once I got into writing the story, one of the biggest challenges was letting go of the facts. Since the genesis of this story rose from people in my family, and I knew a bit about the people, places, and events, my inclination was to use those facts. But I quickly found that the facts didn’t work for the story I was ultimately telling. They didn’t create a good story arc. There was no drama. On his website, Write the Truth, Robert McKee said, “The weakest possible excuse to include anything in a story is: ‘But it actually happened.’”  Having gone this route, I believe him.

3) Do get stuck on the facts

Since Go Away Home is historical fiction, research was critical to creating the time period accurately. Clothes, transportation, hairstyles, technology, colloquialisms. The list of topics I researched and fact checked was long. Readers of historical fiction really care about the details. Writers must, too.

Research also helped shape the story. One example: Family lore was that my grandmother went to a sewing school. Research revealed that the town in question didn’t have a sewing school, rather that young girls apprenticed with seamstresses as a way to learn an important life skill and to meet a man to marry.  The idea that seamstresses were invited to their clients’ house parties had terrific dramatic potential, so I ran with that.

Another bit of fact to fiction. My grandmother took pictures, but the whole part in the book about the main character’s work for a photographer and her relationship with him is entirely fiction.  Most of the book is that way. Tiny fact. Huge fiction.

4) Planner vs. Pantser

Writers fall into two general camps: Planners and Pantsers. I wrote my way into Go Away Home, discovering the story through countless re-writes – by the seat of my pants. I always knew the end of the story; I didn’t know how we got there. In the first draft, the story started in 1900 and my main character Liddie was 10. In the second draft, the story started in 1915 and Liddie was 19. In the published draft, the story starts in 1913 and Liddie is 16. Believe me – those changes create seismic waves throughout the story.

Having used this highly inefficient “pantser” approach once, I’m reasonably certain that I’m a “plotter” at heart and will be more plan-ful in future writing.

5) Fiction is freeing

While I thought it would be easier to start with some facts because that was what I was used to, the reality was there was great freedom in starting with nothing. As the story developed (pantser), it became clear that connections were missing. I needed a scene to show my main character’s inexperience with men. No problem. I made up a guy. I found it was great fun to let my imagination run. Over and over, I filled holes with scenes that met a plot need.

6) New craft to learn

I learned a lot about creative writing as I crafted my memoir, much of which was also applicable to fiction. Dialogue, scene development, visual characterization – all come into play in both genres. Plotting was a new challenge in fiction writing, as I noted earlier. Developing multi-dimensional fictional characters was another challenge.

I used a number of techniques that contributed to creating the real, individual people living in my novel. I visualized people I know who were somewhat like the characters I had in mind. Writing exercises helped to identify key traits and to express them in fresh ways. I used Enneagram research to flesh out the positive and negative traits of various personality types.

From memoir to fiction, from craft to research, I will always be able to learn something new about writing, and for me, that’s great fun.

Go Away Home is available on Amazon in paperback and ebook formats.

Growing Up Country is available on Amazon in paperback, ebook, and audio book formats.

Carol Bodensteiner – Bio

Carol Bodensteiner is a writer who finds inspiration in the places, people, culture and history of the Midwest. After a successful career in public relations consulting, she turned to creative writing. She blogs about writing, her prairie, gardening, and whatever in life interests her at the moment. She published her memoir Growing Up Country in 2008. Her WWI-era, debut novel Go Away Home was acquired by Lake Union Publishing, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. It launches July 7, 2015.

Carol’s online links

Write now: think of an interesting ancestor or other person who has influenced your life that you know relatively little about. Drawing on Carol’s experience, write a short story about how you imagine this person’s life might have been. Don’t worry about facts. Just let that story rip. Have fun with this!


Carol Bodensteiner said...

Thanks for inviting me to share my writing journey with your readers, Sharon.

Meredith Rutter said...

Helpful and fun to read about your process, Carol. Good luck with your novel and Lake Union!

Sharon Lippincott said...

My pleasure and privilege Carol. I plan to write a similar story -- different setting, but same concept of fictionalizing the facts I know about a couple of my foremothers. Your tips should stand me in good stead..

Carol Bodensteiner said...

Thanks Meredith. Each genre has its own conventions but there's also cross over.

Carol Bodensteiner said...

I look forward to hearing how it goes for you when you write about your foremothers, Sharon.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks Carol. I'll have to write two stories. They are entirely different. One g'g'g'm is reputed to have opened the first brothel in the Yukon. Truth or fiction. I don't want to know. I like the family myth. The other g'gm worked as a nanny for a year for the widowed son of a Texas governor. The 37 year-old man married her just before she turned 16. They had five chlldren in addition to his older two, then he died ten years later. Marrying her next husband was a catastrophe, but I owe my existence to it.

Carol Bodensteiner said...

Both fascinating stories, Sharon. You'll have fun when you let yourself go to the fiction side!

Anonymous said...

This was interesting to read, because I also transitioned from memoir to fiction. I created my fiction in much the same way as you described here. Except, my novel is a contemporary family saga. I used real family relationship issues that happened between three women in my family, which included me. But, I had to create new characters set around them who added more antagonist problems for the story. Thanks for sharing your process. It's good to know we writers aren't alone and lost in our computers with these processes.

Penelope said...

Find this particularly interesting since I am following a similar path - transitioning from memoir to fiction. However, I started as a fiction writer who transitioned to memoir and now back to fiction. Thanks for sharing your own experiences and look forward to re-reading the new edition of your book.

Carol Bodensteiner said...

loridr - I can imagine that writing based on contemporary family members would create its own set of challenges. Protecting privacy, being honest without hurting feelings, etc., because the players are still living. An interesting topic for another post on going from memoir to fiction.

Carol Bodensteiner said...

Penelope - I expect many/most writers eventually write both fiction and memoir before settling on a preferred genre. Did you feel constrained by facts when you took the fiction to memoir step? Thanks for reading Go Away Home in the first edition. Should you go the extra mile and read the second edition, too, I'd be interested in hearing what you think.

CMSmith said...

This was interesting and helpful. I hope to someday make the leap from non-fiction to fiction.

Carol Bodensteiner said...

You'll make the leap when the time is right, CMSmith. Have fun on the journey.

Sharon Lippincott said...

I'm loving this conversation. Thanks to all for your visits and sharing your thoughts.

jzr said...

A great post. Thanks Sharon and Carol. I've just ordered a copy and look forward to the read. Perhaps one day I'll attempt the leap you have so successfully made.

Carol Bodensteiner said...

Thanks for checking out Go Away Home, jzr. Good luck with your writing.

ShirleyHS said...

Sharon, you do all of us writers and readers a favor by sharing Carol's exciting story. Sorry it took me so long to open this post and leave a comment.

Let me brag on our mutual friend's success. Her book is now selling at #235 in the Amazon Kindle Store, her memoir (eight years after publication) has been selling very well also, and both books have incredibly high review averages. 4.7/5 and numbers (more than 100 reviews on the new book and almost 200 reviews on the memoir.

I found the enneagram research fascinating as a way to build a fictional character.

A really enjoyable post, Carol. I appreciate so much your generosity in sharing what you are learning along the way.

Carol Bodensteiner said...

Thanks for your kind words, Shirley, and for sharing the good news about my novel's launch success. These are indeed exciting times. I learned about Enneagram in a workshop designed to discover more about myself and found I learned so much about all personality types, that it was immediately useful in writing as well.

Geri Greene said...

Having discovered this post is a rich delight. My long and early association with Iowa is quite special with me. Just beginning to enjoy this tale with anticipation it will trigger some stories of my own. Congrats on your stories - I thank you~

Carol Bodensteiner said...

So glad you came upon this post, Geri. It's always a treat to meet another person with ties to Iowa. Thanks for reading my stories. I hope you enjoy them.