How to Turn “Real Life” into Bestselling Fiction: 7 Do’s and Don’ts
by Ruth Harris
As I would find out when I wrote Decades, creating a novel based on “real life” is much more than simply recounting the story. Having no guidelines at the time I wrote Decades, I stumbled through the process, made many mistakes along the way, and, through trial and error, figured out some do’s and don’ts.
Do be a good listener—and don’t gossip
Decades is a story of a passionate triangle. Coincidentally, I knew all three people involved, two much better than the third.
The three were: a restless husband, the insecure rich girl he marries on his way up, and an attractive fashion editor, the younger “other woman.” Two of them told me “their” versions.
Because they knew they could trust me not to gossip, they felt free to confide their innermost thoughts and feelings, thus giving me perspective and insight I would never otherwise have had.
They didn’t know—nor did I at the time—that years later, haunted by their story, I would fictionalize every identifying detail in order to turn their personal dramas into a bestselling novel millions of readers could relate to.
Don’t depend on “It really happened”
Writing a novel based on real life presents the same challenges as any novel—the need to create believable characters and a dramatic plot—with the added twist of having to structure the formlessness of everyday life into the demands of fiction.
To my surprise, what “really happened” often turned out flat on the page or was simply unbelievable. What I invented was better.
Do change names—and biographies
I changed names but soon learned it wasn’t enough to change Mark Adams to Michael Allan. A more radical name change—to Peter Simon, for example—guaranteed MA’s privacy but had the secondary effect of liberating me from intrusive reminders of the real Mark Adams/Michael Allan.
Freed to create brand-new biographies for each of the characters, I changed their physical appearance, ethnicity, education, jobs/careers, personality quirks, and socio-economic backgrounds.
Do help your reader relate to your story
In real life the fashion editor was a stylish single girl with a high-profile social life. The novel required a more relatable character.
I discarded glitzy fashion-world details and created a woman more characteristic of the times. She marries young, has two kids, divorces the husband who was her college boyfriend and learns (the hard way) how to conduct herself in a challenging and competitive business world.
Don’t ignore geography
The real-life story took place in Manhattan but I discovered that the setting was too confining and I added scenes in Florida, Nantucket, and the Caribbean. A variety of settings allowed me to show how the characters behaved away from their usual routines at home.
Trust me, a week in the Caribbean with a wife is much different from a week in the Caribbean with a girlfriend in the middle of a steamy affair! For the novelist, pure gold.
Do pay attention to the power of unintended consequences
As the novel, its plot, and characters took shape, it became clear that what began as a casual affair between consenting adults would result in catastrophic unintended consequences.
I ultimately created a teenage daughter who, torn between her charming, straying father, her loyal, devastated mother, and the come-hither lure of contemporary culture—in this case, the go-go Sixties—made a decision that would upend lives.
Do identify the larger significance of your story
Halfway through the draft, I realized that the age difference between the married couple, the younger “other woman,” and the teenage daughter led to portraits of three transformational, mid-20th Century decades—and to the title.
None of this came easily or quickly, but by the time I was finished, the characters had taken on their individual, fictional lives. The plot moved with its own energy to a far different conclusion from the one in real life, and I was able to portray massive cultural and social changes in an entertaining and story-appropriate way.
Ruth Harris is a million-copy New York Times bestselling author and a Romantic Times award winner for Best Contemporary. Her emotional, entertaining novels have been published in hard cover, paperback, and ebook editions, and were prominent selections of leading book clubs including the Literary Guild and the Book-Of-The-Month Club.
Ruth writes about strong, savvy women who struggle to succeed and, when sometimes they don’t get what they want, find something even better along the way. Critics have compared Ruth to Nora Ephron and Joan Didion and called her books “brilliant,” “steamy,” “stylishly written,” ”richly plotted,” “first-class entertainment” and “a sure thing.”
Ruth’s eBooks are available on Kobo.