How much of their own personal experiences and feelings should an author share in their stories? If they do share something personal, as a reader would you want to know?
Ali Williams - Living on the Page
How much of yourself and your personal experiences should you share through your writing?
It’s a question I’ve thought about a lot. My current WIP—secret baby meets marriage of convenience—at first glances seems the furthest thing from personal. No secret baby here! But it is, it’s deeply personal.
You see, I’m writing it as part of my PhD research (creative writing PhDs are the best) and one of the things I’ve had to actively consider as part of the process is why I am writing. And why am I writing romance?
The second of those questions is pretty easy to answer: romance is centred on the individual—often marginalised—voice; it models happy ever afters in a world that sorely needs them; and I freaking love this genre.
Fine, so why am I writing?
I’m writing this particular story because I want to see a romance heroine in a traditional category romance, with anxiety issues and panic attacks, get the happy ever after that she deserves without being “fixed”. Because I want to prove to myself, to prove to those of us who need it, that we deserve the happy ever after, even if we’re not wired the same way as everyone else.
I’m writing because the mere act of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, is cathartic for me. Sometimes I feel like I have all these words trapped inside me—my emotions, and anxieties, and the person I want to be—and just getting them out is important for my well-being.
But there’s a balance between what should remain private and what should be shared with the world.
I force myself to be open with my words; in the conversations that I have and in those that I put on the page. It makes my writing raw and much much better, and I hope that it encourages those around me to speak their own truths.
I’m currently in the process of editing a scene from that book which is so intensely personal I feel a little bit sick when anyone reads it. In it, my heroine has a panic attack in the shower. Every emotion, every thought that races through her head—the shame, the fury the frustration—they’ve all been in my head.
They are my truth.
So yes, I think that it’s incredibly important to write your personal experiences into your writing. I’d even go so far as to argue that in some ways you have a responsibility to write the world that you want to see, the world you need to see, in your own writing. Because in writing for yourself, we reach out to others.
My favourite thing about the novel as a medium, is that it amplifies someone’s voice. There are good and bad things about that—it can be used for good or bad—but it allows us to fully connect with those that read our words. And rightly or wrongly, I see it as my authorial responsibility, my responsibility as a writer, to reach out a hand to my readers and say that you, too, are seen.
Ali Williams is a romance editor, academic and writer, and one of the hosts of Into the Stacks: The Bookcast, a podcast about speculative fiction. For more information about Ali and her projects, check out her website and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. .
Liam Livings - Personal Experiences
Can tapping into personal experiences enrich a manuscript; be cathartic?
I’m a gay man writing about gay men falling in love which is rarer than you may imagine. I use my personal experience in everything I write. I joke with my historical romance author friends that I don’t do research—the thought of poring through books and maps on a historical period to work out speech patterns, clothes and moral mores for a story fills me with dread. The most time period research I’ve done was for the early nineties for a story set during that time period around the clubbing and orbital party scene. And that was more than enough. I realise my life as it unfolds ends up being my research. How much of it I put into each story varies. But there’s always plenty of it to pull from.
Having done edits on four stories over the past few months—stories I’d written between 2013 and 2017—I realised a few things I’d unconsciously not realised before. I think it was the closeness of working on them all together. I tend to write one main character as a version of myself—not all of myself, but an aspect of myself. A particular character trait, interest, insecurity, conflict etc. From that core I then build a whole character, but at its core one character tends to be a version to a greater or lesser extent, of me.
I then tend to base the second character on an aspect of men I find attractive. Reading back, there’s an awful lot of men with dark blond hair and blue eyes because Chris Hemsworth, obviously. Oh, and of course Himself, my boyfriend, has blue eyes and dark blond hair too...
Plus, I’ve realised I like a bit of an opposites attract thing in my main characters—they tend to be different in size, build, hair colour, as well as lots of interests and passions. However, they do have commonality in terms of what I think are really important things on which you can base a relationship: values, hopes, morals, outlook on what a relationship should be. And none of this had occurred to me until I’d edited so many stories so closely together.
Why do I do this? I suppose, unconsciously it’s because it mirrors my own relationship. Is this cathartic? I find all writing (not editing but that’s a whole different article) cathartic. The fact it’s a world entirely of my creation, I’m in control of, allowing me creativity to explore and play—these elements I find very cathartic. In a busy week of stress and lots of ‘have to do’ things I find my writing a place of creativity and respite from the real world.
Or is it more like opening an artery and bleeding onto the page?
I think all writing is to a greater or lesser extent about this.
Does the knowledge an author has tapped into something deeply personal make it more interesting for the reader?
I can’t speak for people reading my stories, and after all an author of fiction is just that, writing fiction. Everyone can and should write about all different sorts of characters, in all settings. Just simply ‘being’ that type of character isn’t the only way one can know about that experience. There’s loads of other ways of ‘knowing’ about a subject. Authors can talk to individuals they don’t know, research about the subject, use second hand experience from friends, etc. All these can give stories and characters authenticity, if that’s what’s wanted. Because I’m writing from my own experiences as a gay man, although I love romance and absolutely respect and understand its conventions, summarised from the RWA definition (the story focuses on the developing relationship between the main characters and it ends optimistically) I also unconsciously insist on authenticity of behaviour and emotions, so sometimes end up subverting some elements of romantic stories between two men.
Reviewers describe me as ‘a romantic realist’ which I love. Based on reviews, with my stories the personal elements can, for some readers, make the experience more interesting, and also it can prove disappointing, for the reasons I’ve outlined. The thing is, I can’t really write these stories without including elements of my own experience and therefore making them personal, so I’m not going to try.
How willing should authors be to share deeply personal experiences in print and in interviews?
Authors should share as much, or as little, as they’re comfortable sharing. I’m very open about having experienced very dark periods of depression and living with it every day. I wrote about this in And Then That Happened and a reader told me it had encouraged her to seek help with a counseling therapist (which the character does in the story). Equally, I don’t share details about my sex life online because I want to keep that between the people involved in that sex life. However, that’s not to say I don’t use my experience of sensuality in its broadest sense in what I write.
Tara Taylor Quinn - You Can't Fake Emotion
I write intense, emotional fiction. I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t consciously set forth to tell a particular story. Or bequeath some specific insight into a particular world. I can’t force it to happen. There are days when I wander around, feeling pretty much useless. And then there are days when I can’t get the story to stop appearing. I type as fast as I can. I stay in my chair. Pages flow. It’s a process I can’t control. And one I’ve learned to trust. Not just to make a living, but to keep myself emotionally and mentally healthy.
Emotions, thoughts, perceptions attack me all day long. Letting them out is how I maintain homeostasis. It’s a fact I recognized decades ago. A truth that doesn’t change. And yet, I don’t set out to do that, either. Being deeply personal in my writing isn’t a choice. Or a way to go about telling my stories. It’s the process itself. Being deeply personal is the way I find the story. The way the story presents itself to me. Through my emotions and a conglomeration of my life’s experiences and perceptions.
That said, with one exception, I’ve never consciously chosen to share something deeply personal to me in any of my books. (The exception was a true life story I wrote for HCI books, It Happened on Maple Street.) Sometimes I don’t even know when parts of me are going to the page. I don’t always even see it there when I’m doing revisions or final read through. When I’m writing, I’m feeling the people, I’m hearing them. I’m not writing about me. I’ve written a prostitute heroine and I’ve never even come close to thinking about living that kind of life. Nor have I ever knowingly known a prostitute. I’ve written adoption stories and have never been personally involved with adoption. I’ve written many suspense stories and have never been a cop or a lawyer, or shot at anything other than a target in a completely safe and controlled setting. And yet… The core of my stories, the emotional intensity, is always a part of me.
In my world, both when I’m reading and when I’m writing, the only stories that come to life are those in which the emotions are real. And deep. You can’t fake that. You can’t make it up or it won’t feel real to the reader. You have to be willing to go in deep, to let your heart come fully alive, to experience the emotion in order to be able to portray it in a way that will touch a reader’s heart. You have to be willing to sob while you write. To smile from the inside out. To feel anxious and afraid. To chuckle. To me, this is the miracle of the written word. It’s what binds us all together—this ability to share our deepest hearts and have others feel them in their own heart. And it’s what heals us, too.
Even if we’re looking for escapism reading—if we can’t feel what the writer is portraying, we aren’t going to be able to escape into the book’s world. We won’t get past a few pages of typed words, maybe skipping ahead to see if something grips us, before we close the cover and move on.
And… It’s a fine line, too, putting your deepest heart out ‘there’ while keeping yourself emotionally safe. Writing, having your work published and read, is a vulnerable business. Each reader, individually, now has a part of you. Some aren’t going to like what you’ve given. Some think they know you intimately. Some really do. Some build expectation that you will be expected to meet with every new word you write. All of them, the opinions, the caring, or not, feel like reflections on you, the individual, not just the writer.
I wrote my own true life love story. I did it because I was asked to do so by a publisher that knew of my situation. I signed a contract, agreeing to write the book, before I wrote it. The happy ending didn’t come right away. Nor did it come easy. I wrote about things even my mother didn’t know until she read the book. #MeToo things. I had apprehensions when I turned the book in. I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing, for so many reasons. I’m still not sure. I want to tell everyone not to read it. Sometimes the anxiety is acute. And yet, I want everyone who has doubts to know, loud and clear, that happy endings do come —even after #MeToo. Even after domestic violence. I am my own best witness that the love and hope I write about is real and true and strong enough to conquer all.
So it becomes a kind of dance. Engaging, but guarding the inner well, at the same time. It’s a dance I’m still learning. How much can I take before it breaks me? If I tell the world that the part in the book where a mother’s heart shattered is true to my personal life, and people react callously, can I be okay? If I put myself out there and then get slammed, will I be able to get up in the morning and write? Because, in the end, there’s nothing for the reader to read if the writer can’t write.
Tara's latest release, An Unexpected Christmas Baby, is out now. For more information about her and her writing, check out her website and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Pinterest.
Lara Temple - Can writing what hurts lead to good romance?
I long ago decided that writing what you know isn’t the best way to begin a writing career. Sometimes writing what you know, what you feel deeply, can stifle your voice much more successfully than flights of pure fantasy. Sometimes you have to work up to it.
My kids always loved animals and when they were young they used to make a beeline for anything that moved, and though I didn't want to discourage them, I was terrified they would get nipped or scratched. I took time to teach them you don’t approach an animal by gallumphing up to it. That you should sit nearby for a while before you can even consider getting close, let alone making contact. You take it slowly and eventually you get a whole lot more out of the experience.
I think the same can be true of writing what is close to our emotions.
What we know and feel is always there with us. Even writing Regency—which is a wonderful flight of fancy and imagination—I never stray that far from what I am, good and bad.
In fact, by writing what some might consider light-hearted romance stories, I find I am connecting more deeply with issues that matter to me than when I tried to write them as they are. I don’t even mean to put them in there—it isn’t a conscious agenda (I’m a thorough pantser, I’m afraid, and all my attempts at plotting look like a pre-schooler's scribbles), I just suddenly find them there, whole and working away ,and that is that.
This was the case in many of my books, and in particular in the first book of my Wild Lords series, Lord Hunter’s Cinderella Heiress. I wrote about issues that affected people I care and cared for very deeply—suicide and survivor’s guilt, PTSD, and bullying. They don’t take over the story, but they are there and from some of the reviews, I am relieved to hear they have enriched the characters and the romance. In the book Hunter’s younger brother, a sensitive boy who joins the army to prove himself, is captured and maimed and never succeeds in recovering either physically or mentally. Despite Hunter’s efforts his brother commits suicide, locking Hunter into guilt and remorse and inadvertently connecting Hunter’s life with that of Nell, who is trying to escape a bullying aunt and an indifferent father. Nell finds her personal redemption by giving love, to horses and to the schoolchildren she teaches. Hunter finds his in helping war veterans avoid the path his brother took and in otherwise indulge in a care-for-nobody rakish lifestyle.
I was once told that ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’
I don’t believe in that. I think we could probably do without a great many of the knocks life deals us. But I do believe that dealing with those knocks, and in particular knowing how to seek help and depending on others to see us, support us, and even to know when to stand back do make us stronger. That is why I love writing about people going on these difficult journeys.
So, writing about what hurts you can be very romantic because if love can grow on such rocky ground, it is love worth nurturing. .
Lara's latest release, The Earl's Irresistible Challenge, is out now. For more information about Lara and her writing, check out her Website and follow her on Facebook, and Twitter.
Carolyn Hector - Digging Deeper and Deeper
I have a weird way of writing. An idea can come to me from watching something or people. I get my best ideas from everyday situations and somehow finding the romance in it. Case in recent point, Hurricane Michael hit NW Florida. Beaches were demolished and closer inland where I live, we lost power for several days. Our hurricane months are from June 1st until November 30th. I don’t exactly have to be a lineman to know how heroic these men and women seem when you see their trucks coming down the debris-stricken roads. Is it an appropriate time to get that plot bunny? Maybe not. But I can’t help but think about the couple reuniting at a neighborhood pole. Can you picture some hot buff guy in rubber pants and suspenders knocking on your door and saying to a lady, “You ordered a stiff pole?” Sorry, my mind also turns to that of an immature, adolescent kid as well.
Alright, in all seriousness, I often get some serious ideas from some of the natural things that happen during the time of a hurricane… Even from a picture. When I get a chance, I’m going to write a book based on the sky. Lavender Sky is going to be the name. I didn’t bleed out on the proverbial pages of my AlphaSmart NEO, but I did sweat and felt the pain of soaring temperatures and no electricity for six days. Remember that historical I’ve been fiddling around with? I’m thinking that’s what I’m going to pair the new title and the historical together. But since it’s going to be a historical, I’ll try not to whine too much about how hot it is.
There’s a piece of me in every book I write. I have a series about a team of women, think high-op Navy Seals. I had a very small stint in the Army in the year nineteen-ninety-something. Though my time there wasn’t long, it sure gave me a lot of insight and drama to fuel a good series. I may not be 5’ 10” tall, thin, or a beauty queen, but put a tiara on my head and I will totally queen up the place (I have been known to don my tiara when writing my Once Upon a Tiara series). You’re going to feel a hint of what I was feeling at the time of writing. When my heroine aches, my heart aches. I hope readers will feel the black moment.
In my latest book, Her Mistletoe Bachelor, I did not need to lose my husband to feel the agonizing pain of a lost one. My cousin lost her husband a few years back. They were childhood sweethearts. A joke at the funeral from one of their boys was, “Most of you are here because you grew up with our dad. So did we.” There were plenty of chuckles over that comment. Why? Let’s just say my cousin was the original teen mom before the show came along. At the time I couldn’t imagine losing someone you loved like that for so long. Was there life and love after such a loss. How would the new person feel? So I did what most writers do, I wrote about it. British, my heroine, will never be over-over her late husband but she is ready to move on and be happy once again, just like I wanted my cousin to be happy. And guess what?! She is happy now. Full Disclaimer—I had absolutely nothing to do with her happiness nor to I proclaim that reading my books will cure your sadness (but it may make you smile).
Also in Her Mistletoe Bachelor, there is a scientific element… A STEM element I should say. I am by far the STEM kinda gal. Math is a foreign language to me and just thinking about it makes my brain hurt. My son’s most favorite teacher—we’re talking, they’d go out to Starbucks and go over Algebra II and geometry stuff on the weekends and over the summer—lost her husband who often came to the school to volunteer. This was the first loss I saw my son go through, as he was close to his teacher. It was at the funeral I witnessed the power of strength teachers get from their students seated in the pew with her. I hope I did the moment justice. Teachers rock. I hope I paid a lil’ homage to her.
I think I’m willing to share anything about my life, if I had one. I live vicariously through others.
Carolyn's latest release, Her Mistletoe Bachelor, is out now. For more information about Carolyn and her writing, check out her Website and follow her on Facebook, and Twitter.
How do you feel about an author sharing personal experiences or how they feel about something in their stories? Do you feel it brings you closer to the author or makes it more about them than the characters in the book? Would knowing an author's personal experience inspired a story make you want to read it more or look for something else? Tell us in the comments or join the discussion on our Social Media using #DigDeep