I wrote a novel that took a real scenario and imagined how it might have played out as fiction
I’m having a bit of a rough time with a quandary I find myself in as a novelist. Years ago a friend’s brother-in-law took his own life in a very difficult way, one that made a tragedy even worse. I did not know him and his widow was only an acquaintance from years ago. But her sister is an ex of mine and an important person in my life.
The idea that this could be the germ of a story came to me as I saw how the effects of this death reverberated out into the family, though I only experienced them through my friend. Because I do not know the sister and she lives across the country, I had no idea how her story played out. But I thought, how does a person reassemble a life torn to be pieces in one terrible moment? This was where fiction entered the picture; I could only exercise my imagination to piece together one scenario and follow it.
Despite the tragic subject matter, the story itself is a positive one as my character experiences a mind-numbing loss, makes drastic changes to her life and then slowly finds a future in her own life. I have done a lot of research on suicide, necessary to give it the respect it deserves and to not simply use it as a grabber to get a reader. In fact, the actual act is not the focus of the story and has taken place years earlier. But there is a problem beyond simply worrying about my friend’s reaction. The person who took his own life was involved in a very public scandal, not of his own making, that turned his world upside down. I do not know if this led to his death and in my story it is only one factor. However, the back story gives the novel it’s depth and context. The quandary, of course, is how far do I incorporate a back story that could be recognized by others, including the families?
It may never see the light of day
I decided to use the back story and anonymize it as much as possible. There were two primary reasons for this. First, to respect the families and friends of the deceased, and second, to show how this death was the result of a series of tragedies that left the wife (my character, not the actual person- this is fiction) exceptionally disconnected from the world. It made for a powerful story and challenged me as a writer far more than my earlier work. You cannot take on a serious subject like this without giving it your best.
Stylistically, the writing had to be very minimalist and the point of view mixes third person with the occasional circumstance where the protagonist speaks directly to the reader. This style balancing act combined with the subject matter are what, in my view, make the story compelling. But what do I do with it?
Artists who adapt from real life scenarios have grappled with this dilemma since the beginning of time. Even the driest biography or history contains a great deal of conjecture, conjecture that those close to the real life situation often have problems with. And these differences can lead to the loss of friendships and worse.
I honestly feel I’ve written something that shows respect for the survivors without disrespecting the deceased- in my story he is not a main character, though elements of his life show up in my lead character’s experience as she regains a perspective that had been shattered. My friend, who actually experienced the reality, was aware that I was working on the story but has no idea how it progressed, nor has she asked. When I initially told her what I was doing, I think she did not know how to take it. She had always been very supportive of my writing and was an early reader on my first novel project.
The issue of writing about a friend’s tragedy nearly led me to abandon the project but the story just wanted to come out, at least to be written. It may never see the light of day for readers. I honestly don’t know.
Basing stories on actual events is a common writing scenario
It is a favorite activity of critics to look at stories that reflect actual events, utilizing them as frameworks for something different but similar. In fact there are reference books that collect all the possible plots, given common human experience. Perhaps the most common example example is Romeo and Juliet, the time-honored tragedy of lovers forbidden their love by circumstances beyond their control. Endless books and films have explored this plotline, which always ends badly. The idea of grieving as a journey to a new understanding of life fits these molds on a positive basis. The character has a situation where an event undoes their life and they either choose to unravel or grow past it. Or some combination.
As I’ve mentioned here, I’m a pantser, not a plotter, but this does not mean my stories don’t have plots. If you start with an image or a scenario and improvise from there, a plot will unfold- there are only so many credible ways human nature gets through things. These are universal stories which resonate. The outcome that seems unrealistic is rarely compelling to readers, though like anything else, there are exceptions that crop up. But they are rare.
I am still working on rewrites of the book and will go through an early reader process. My plan after that is to show it to some people in the literary publishing world (agent and editor) for their feedback. If they feel they can place it, I’ll make my choices.