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When Real Life and the Writing Life Collide

By Kathleen Y’Barbo

Watch out or you’ll end up in my novel! We’ve all seen this slogan or others like it on t-shirts, mugs, and all sorts of items.

Until recently, I hadn’t given the process of creating characters from real people much thought. Sure, I’ve used real characters in my novels. Anna Finch and the Hired Gun featured a lady reporter determined to sort fact from fiction regarding Doc Holliday. Not only did Doc appear in the novel, but so did his old friend Wyatt Earp. Even Wyatt’s wife, the woman whose diary survived and allowed me to know the details of Earp and Holliday’s last meeting, made a cameo appearance.

Using real characters in any story can be tricky, but when the character is a person from history, there are some important considerations. Learn all there is to know about this character and where he or she was during the time period in which you are writing. For Wyatt and Doc, I had to look to historical accounts of their travels to know where the men would be. This way, I could either incorporate known facts into my story or choose to fill in gaps in history by writing during those times.

If the real-life character you’ve included in your story is known for something specific, considering using that characteristic to show something special about your fictional character. For example, in Miss Merriweather’s Marriage, the perma-free novella prequel to The Secret Lives of Will Tucker series, I discovered that General William Sherman spent some of his early years prior to the Civil War in the general vicinity of the location where this novella was taking place. The next time readers meet Miss Merriweather, she is the heroine’s formidable Southern grandmother in Flora’s Wish. Readers who miss the novella won’t understand why this woman did not fear the man who was burning his way through the South during the Civil War years. For those who have read the novella, however, they know Will Sherman was a former beau of the character and thus while much of the South feared him, she most certainly did not.

A quick note about using real people: you cannot defame the dead, but please use restraint when speaking ill of them. As with anything else, the best rule is to say nothing when you cannot say something nice.

But what if your character is not a famous person from history? What if you are inspired to write about someone you know? Perhaps the woman who works at the grocery store or the fellow who delivers your mail? Maybe you have a friend whose characteristics are exactly what are needed for your story. What do you do?

Here’s where things get tricky. If your friend approves, go ahead and put him or her into your story. However, I suggest perhaps creating a character that is somewhat like your friend but isn’t actually a carbon copy of him or her. Even better, use a few characteristics from one person and a few from another to create someone that isn’t anyone’s clone.
Bonnie Sue
But what if your real-life person just needs to go into the story as she is? And what if that person is your mother? Meet Bonnie Sue, the sassy senior citizen who rules the fictional town of Sugar Pine, Texas in Firefly Summer, the first book in my brand new Pies, Books & Jesus Book Club series. The entire series was born when the real-life Bonnie Sue uttered these words at a Luby’s Cafeteria in Nederland, Texas more than ten years ago: “If I’m ever going to meet a man, he’ll either have to cook or sing because they only two places I go anymore are to the fabric store and choir practice.”

You better believe I wrote that down and held onto it until the right plot came along. That’s what writers do when real-life people say inspiring things. In my case, however, the quote that birthed a book was spoken by the woman who birthed me: my mama, Bonnie Sue. I have taken a few liberties with Bonnie Sue in the book. For example, she no longer drives a car that’s the same color as her nail polish, and she’s certainly not as bossy as the character in the book, or at least not that I’ll admit to in print. However, the spirit of Bonnie Sue is the same, be it in print or in person. And yes, my mama was just fine with how I portrayed her in Firefly Summer, but only because I promised her I’d behave myself.

I’m glad she was because I haven’t told her this yet, but she’s coming back for an encore appearance in Autumn Leaves, a novella that releases this fall. But I digress…

In my case, I’ve had a great time writing around history and playing with facts in my fiction. I’ve loved teasing my mama about making her a star and adding inside jokes that only readers who know my mother would get. It’s all great fun, and it’s done with love.

So, the next time you’re tempted to write about a real person, go for it, even if it is your mama. But get the facts right and say something nice or you might find yourself in trouble!

Have you ever written about a real-life person? If so, tell me more!

Kathleen Y'Barbo Aug 2015With over sixty books to her credit and more than two million copies in print, bestselling author Kathleen Y’Barbo earned nominations from ACFW Carols, RITA, and Career Achievement and Readers Choice awards. She recently won Romantic Times Inspirational Romance of the Year for Sadie’s Secret. Find out more at www.kathleenybarbo.com.

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2 Responses to When Real Life and the Writing Life Collide

  1. I’m always writing down what I hear people say. And I use my mom, too. She once said, I’d run away but I’d have to take myself with me. I used that in my story in an anthology coming out in October-A Heartwarming Christmas.

  2. Becky Smith says:

    This is a timely word for me, Kathleen, since I’m writing about a true family story. Thank you for highlighting the research needed and the cautions necessary when writing about real people. Great blog!