Blending fact and fiction: Guest post by Cally Jackson

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On the about page of Cally Jackson's blog it says she is 'employed by the government' and I am going to assume this is code, and she is actually a spy! She is also a Queenslander and a writer (obviously an awesome person), and recently self-published her debut novel. This guest post is about including real-life experiences in your fiction! Thank you, Cally!

Many people have asked whether my debut New Adult novel, The Big Smoke, is autobiographical. I always answer with an emphatic, ‘NO,’ but that’s not 100% true. While the vast majority of The Big Smoke is fiction, there are parts based on my own experiences.

The Big Smoke is a coming-of-age novel about Ceara and Seb, two country teenagers who move from small country towns into Brisbane (Australia) to go to uni. Considering I grew up in a small country town and moved to Brisbane for uni, you can see why people might assume that it’s my personal story.

Here are some more examples: Seb, The Big Smoke’s main male character, works at a pizza place.
And here’s me, working at a pizza place.

Ceara, The Big Smoke’s main female character, works at a video store.
And here’s me, ‘working’ at a video store (I usually worked very hard in this job, I swear!).

Ceara met her first serious boyfriend at the Rock Eisteddfod finals. So did I. Ceara is a book worm, she’s ultra-sensitive and she’s studying Public Relations. All of those things can also be applied to me.

So yes, there are definitely some similarities between my characters and me. I imagine that many debut novels have similarities with their authors’ experience. But is it a good thing? In my opinion, these are the main benefits and drawbacks of weaving your own experiences into your fiction:

  • It can help to add an extra layer of authenticity to your writing.
  • You know the topic inside out so you can have confidence you’re getting it ‘right’.
  • You don’t have to do as much research.
  • You can reminisce as you write!
  • Because you know so much about the topic/experience, you might include unnecessary, boring detail.
  • People might assume the whole book is about you, which can be awkward depending on what your main characters get up to.
  • You’re not pushing the limits of your creativity.
  • Friends and family might get offended by characters or scenes in the book. (Whether it’s legitimately about them or not, they may think it is.)
I’ve personally experienced almost all of these benefits and drawbacks with The Big Smoke. I had to cut a number of scenes from early drafts because they were simply my memories in disguise and didn’t move the story forward, and I’ve had friends ask me whether such-and-such-a-character is based on them when that thought had never even crossed my mind.

One friend even went so far as to say to me, ‘I didn’t know you had so much trouble with your flatmates when you first moved to Brisbane.’ ‘Err, I didn’t,’ I said. ‘You know this book is fiction, right?’

If you asked me whether I would use my own experiences in my fictional work again, I’d say yes. For me, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks and I believe The Big Smoke is richer and more authentic because of the personal experiences I’ve weaved throughout it.

What do you think? If you’re an author, do you weave personal experiences into your writing? If you’re a reader, do you think authors should? Why or why not?

More about The Big Smoke

Ceara’s desperate for love; Seb’s desperate to get laid. Ceara adores reading novels; Seb hasn’t finished a book in years. Two strangers, both moving from small country towns to Brisbane – the big smoke. As they prepare to attend the same university, their paths seem set to collide, but they keep missing each other. Maybe fate is keeping them apart, or maybe it’s just chance.

When the semester starts, things get complicated. Ceara’s best friend withdraws from her, Seb’s closest mate turns into a sleazebag, and the relentless demands of university make their stress levels soar. Before their first semester is over, both Seb and Ceara will be forced to question who they are and what they want from their lives. Will they have the courage to find the answers, or will they crumble under the pressure? And when they finally meet, will it be love at first sight or a collision of headstrong personalities?

For more about Cally & her work, visit her blog:
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