4 Reasons to Use Real Life to Inspire Your Story

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Lately, I’ve been impressed by the abundant fodder available for inspirational stories. Have you been following the weather-related effects on day-to-day life these past weeks? The wildfires in the Colorado Springs area. A major storm that passed through the Chicago area across Indiana to the Mid-Atlantic causing massive destruction and long-term power outages. It reminds me of some circumstances John Steinbeck used to plot Grapes of Wrath.

I’m not referring to the conditions of California’s migrant workers that prompted his political perceptions. What struck a comparison for me is his use of actual current events as backdrop to move his story along.

We live in interesting times. There are advantages to be gained in referring to current, real-life circumstances or using them as themes or settings for a novel:

  • Connection with readers. Readers will connect to a novel about an actual occurrence in their lifetime by recalling their own reaction. Automatic tension exists in a real-life event, ready and waiting for you to incorporate. For instance, a story about a family’s struggle to overcome the loss of home, belongings, and possibly recorded memories following the Colorado wildfires evokes the emotional anxiety of forging forward while grieving what’s gone.
  • Informative. Most people don’t have time or the inclination to follow-up on recent occurrences. How much do you know about life in the Gulf since Katrina? Would you rather hear statistics or read a story using the catastrophic event as the setting to get the full scoop?
  • Historical record. Research is readily available. A story you write that references an actual occurrence, blessed or harsh, has the potential to establish a record of fact and humanity for posterity. American History isn’t as high a priority in public schools as it was a generation ago. Your story can fill the gap.
  • A story of redemption. Most important, through fiction, you have the opportunity to weave a redemptive thread through your story in a way that encourages readers to seek the Source of true hope.

Independence Day was two days ago. Our country has weathered much, and the overcoming spirit, by God’s grace, is still alive today. These are my musings as I pondered the many beyond-our-control happenings and imagine the effects on a human level. They can be utilized in almost any genre, including children’s fiction.

Where does your imagination take you when you think about real-life events? What advantages, benefits, and drawbacks do you see in writing about them? What novels have you read that used real life events as a linchpin to the story?

42 Responses

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  1. Emii says:

    And for the things that we just can’t find any power to change for whatever reason — the refugee problem we have over here, for example, our government refuses to let them in — I can do what I want in my story world. I can present my ideas in a way that might just take hold.

    There is something awesome in that.

  2. Your first point definitely resonates with me. The movies and books that affect me most powerfully are the ones in which I place myself in the situation described. I’m a big fan of well-written, well-researched historical fiction.

    When I write about (or around) current events, I imagine how I, or others, would react in that situation or could have reacted to grow and change from it. Or serve others from it.

    Happy weekend, Mary!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Caroline, how true. Putting yourself in the current situation not only helps you recognize the emotions involved, but also connects those emotions to nuances of the social climate surrounding the current event–little elements that could be missed when writing about the event generations later.

  3. Lynn Moore says:

    I think that ‘connection with readers’ is a strong draw for children. They may become engaged emotionally with a story through personal experiences, fears, hopes, dreams, or even humor. Sometimes children’s literature gives kids words to express sensitive or otherwise difficult things that they struggle to communicate. Sometimes it gives them the springboard to tell of their own experiences. (Yeah! One time I . . . ) Other times it is just a delightful connection to the world of the child’s imagination.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Lynn, thanks for the valuable input from your years of teaching experience. Let’s give tribute to children’s authors whose books help children in these ways.

      • Lynn Moore says:

        Several years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Kate DiCamillo (Because of Winn-Dixie, 2001 Newbery Honor Book). She smiled at the auditorium of writers, teachers, and librarians. She told us (and I paraphrase)that she had learned the day before that her books had themes — things like loneliness, friendship, and acceptance. Then, she said that she was only writing a story. She said who would have known that her writing had themes?
        I think that is the key to powerful writing — to write heart-to-heart. Then, the reader (child or adult) is engaged in the reading.
        DiCamillo also told me later that she got up at 4 a.m. in the mornings to write before her day job until she made it as a writer. : )

  4. The drawbacks would start with the need for 100% perfect accuracy in the tellng of the events. The research would have to be perfect and witness testimony would have to be verifiable.

    A missionary told me the following story, and I’d love to use it someday to flesh out a great book.

    There was a village,on an island in the South Pacific, and part of the island is home to a large Muslim community and a smaller Christian community. In this community, everyone got along quite well and problems were discussed and dealt with respectfully, because the villagers did not want to fall into the pit of trouble that swallowed up many other multi-faith communities. One night, the Muslim elders came to the Christian elders and asked them to take their people up into the hills as there was going to be a festival and the Muslims didn’t want the Christians involved. Given that the two groups always were respectful of each other’s wishes, the Christians felt complelled to be good neighbours and so they all went up into the hills so the Muslims could have their festival in private.

    The Muslim people had their festival near the beach while the Christians slept peacefully in the hills.

    That night, December 26, 2004, an earthquake hit Indonesia and sent a catastrophic tsunami across SE Asia.

    The Christians in the hills came down to find ALL their neighbours gone. The village was gone. Everything was wiped out to sea. But each Christian in that village lived through the tsunami.

    I would LOVE to tell that story.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      True, Jennifer. Accuracy is mandatory. And depending on the event, there is the danger of portraying a real-life situation through story from a biased view. This isn’t as problematic when writing about it a generation later.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jennifer, that book needs to be written. I hope you do it!

    • Ann Bracken says:

      My husband’s cousin was on that beach that morning. I’m trying to get him to tell his story, but he shudders at the memory. One of the things he did share was the kindness of people. Someone pulled him in a second story window as the wave swept him down the street. Another gave him clothes since the force of the water tore his off his body. When he went back to the beach he found he’d lost everything, except his passport, and realized God had provided him with what he needed most to get home.

  5. Michelle Lim says:

    Great post, Mary! I once saw a book premise on two missing kids in a Hurricane. What an awesome idea to create a crime in the middle of chaos.

    My first novel took place in an inner city setting that looked at teenage homelessness. The city I chose to feature was Milwaukee and at that time they had four shelter beds for homeless teenagers and over 200 in the city. It tied in romantic suspense. One way I’ve used real life situations in my writing.

    Great ideas for us to keep in mind!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Ooh, Michelle. Two different examples, both intriguing. Did you find research material and the human factor easy to acquire for your novel?

      • Michelle Lim says:

        I did a lot of research for that first novel. I also took two trips to Milwaukee to help me have a sense of the lay of the land, since the subplot POV character was homeless and I needed to have the movement throughout the city accurate. Additionally, I talked via email to someone who was a social worker at one shelter and drove by to see what it was like.

        That book will someday be rewritten now that my writing is stronger. I absolutely loved learning more about that particular topic.

  6. Taking the time to draw from real life is something that helps give depth to our stories. I LOVE writing about unique settings and referring to actual events or times in history can make a place come to life and give a reader that extra bit of relatability. Great post, thanks for the ideas!

  7. I have had some relational experiences that would make for stories full of tension and angst. I tend not to share these events because most people just don’t believe me! Good fodder for writing, but I wonder how I would fare emotionally in the process?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Meghan, find a way to insert that emotion into your characters in a story of redemption. It will provide you an outlet for them personally and the emotional connection for readers will be deep.

  8. Mary,

    I love how you point out that a writer can “fill in the gap” when it comes to American History and the current lack of focus on it in our schools. While I’m not happy that history is viewed by the educational powers that be as an unimportant element in contemporary curriculum, I agree that telling history via a novel can spark a young person’s interest in a way that no text book ever could. One story I would like to tell (once I, like Jennifer, have space on the stove)is about the Suffragist movement. I taught high school students for years and now teach at the college level. So many young women have no interest in voting. I can preach at them, “Do you realize that it’s been less than a hundred years since we won the right to vote? Do you know what women had to go through to secure that right?” But that would be as effective as talking to stones. A story about the struggle, told from a young female protagonist’s point of view, might stir up some passion in young women and make them stand up and exercise their hard-won right.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Christine, thanks for your colorful, real-life example of the need and value of these stories. I sense creative wheels spinning as others read your convincing comment.

  9. Ann Bracken says:

    For a few years now I’ve been tempted to ask my friend if I could write her story. She survived being cut off in traffic, barrelling into a concrete median at 70 mph, and having the bottom half of her body crushed in the crash. She was ten weeks pregnant at the time. Against all odds she is walking, back to work teaching, and has a beautiful daughter toddling around. Talk about someone surviving through the grace of God. Not that her life is easy, but her testimony of God’s love is stronger than ever! It would really resonate with anyone who’s had to go through difficult times.

  10. Dale Rogers says:

    I use real life events quite a bit in my writing,
    from strange natural happenings to difficult circumstances. I feel it helps me to put a more
    realistic imprint on my work, and I can make sure the details are authentic. There are some
    situations, however, that are too painful for me
    to dredge up and expose, so I generally leave those alone.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Dale, trust that God will let you know and prepare you when it’s his time to tell a difficult story. He might have someone in mind who needs to read it in a redemptive way.

  11. David Todd says:

    Herman Wouk’s two great sagas, Winds of War and War and Remembrance are heavy in historical events, and I love them for it. I’ve read both multiple times.

    I’m planning a novel based on the tour we made to China in 1983 when our kids were 4 and 2. Those two weeks, based on our trip diary, will form the basis of a spy novel, where an American couple traveling with children—you guesssed it—ages 4 and 2 accidentally become embroiled in the CIA extraction of a Chinese dissident. Three real world events that will be included: the typhoon we just missed on our arrival at Hong Kong; the plane crash we just missed at Guilin Airport; and the acrobats performing in Beijing. I know it’s unlikely anyone would ever check up on these things, but they are historical facts.

    Although, that’s personal experience events, and perhaps not what you’re talking about. In my post New Testament era novel, I use the changing of Roman governors and Jewish high priests, and the outbreak of the Jewish revolution in 66 AD as historical events.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Thanks, David, for showing many ways actual events can be used in novels. Readers will have the added benefit of learning interesting historical information.

  12. Denise says:

    Mary, I totally agree about the emotional connection being so important to pull the reader/viewer in.

    What, I wonder, do you think about true stories that are so horrific most people can’t relate to? How do you suggest telling this type of story?

    This is my greatest struggle…to tame the atrociites enough to be palatable to the general public….

  13. Mary Keeley says:

    Good question, Denise. Choosing a perfect word or phrase to allude to an atrocity and letting readers use their imagination to create a visual image can be a palatable and effective way to create the extremes without going into specific details in a story. Not only is it tasteful, but when readers are imagining that visual picture, they are connecting emotionally.

    • Denise says:

      Thanks Mary…that is very helpful. I can see how that would allow the emotional space to still connect without being too overwhelmed.

      I appreciate your feedback.

  14. Darby Kern says:

    I’m working on a story that covers some of the same ground as Steinbeck- so that’s been a source of research (not The Grapes of Wrath, but the series of articles he wrote BEFORE he wrote the book). The dust bowl storms that chased the Joads and millions of folks from Oklahoma to California were an ecological nightmare that began in Colorado and Wyoming. Coupled with the financial uncertainty of the depression it was the makings of a “perfect storm.” Who knows what the fallout of this generations financial, political and ecological events could be? Like you say- there could be some great literature to come from it!

  15. Darby Kern says:

    My point, which I never really got to in my previous post, was that I’m using some elements of… desperation I guess, about where I’m at and using that as a basis for characters in the story. There’s lots of historical research being done but I can’t honestly drop myself into the depression and say I understand what it’s like. I feel like I’m witnessing the state of fear that created it though! I’m planning on hopping a train sometime later this month to see what that’s like.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      You make a good point, Darby. You can be more confident in attributing your own emotional response to an occurrence in your own lifetime because you have first-hand awareness of the context.

      You’re going to hop a train . . . really? We’ll need to hear about that in future comments.

  16. Darby Kern says:

    Maybe not a moving train. We have the National Railroad Museum in town- and I’m gonna exploit it!

  17. Me:) says:

    Wow, I read one paragraph and a new story idea popped into my mind. I am only a teenage wanna-bee of an author, but looking at pages like these always gets me jumping to write more. 🙂