5 Tips for Using Personal Stories in Your Novel

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“I finished reading Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days. I have AND will highly recommend it to anyone who dabbles in fiction. It’s one of the best “how to” books I’ve ever read.” Marsha Hubler, Director Montrose Christian Writers Conference

See more information at the end of the post.

I’m referring to short personal anecdotes that you incorporate into a character’s experiences. 

I consider personal stories are my own, my child’s, or my spouse’s experience in which I play a part. For example, my child needs to tell me what happened to him that day at school. I play a supporting role and experience the anecdote through my empathy and intimate feelings for my child.

Example: (A family personal experience I gave to Jace in Across the Lake releasing September 2020.)

Jace: “But it’s an accurate analogy.” He downed a fry. “When I was learning to drive, I thought I was a fast learner and an excellent driver. Then, in the Drivers Ed car with gorgeous Lisa Schroder sitting in the backseat, it was my turn to drive. Had to impress Lisa. I pulled barely to a halt at a stop sign, then pulled out to cross the highway. The instructor stomped on his brake, throwing us against the seatbelts. A motorcycle rumbled past. Man, my entire body burned with embarrassment. Feared Lisa would always judge me an idiot—the guy who tried to kill her.” Jace looked at Em. “Let me tell you, ever since that day of wanting to bury myself six feet under, I always come to a full standstill at stop signs and look both ways before I proceed.”

Tips to Successfully Enhance Your Novel with Personal Stories

Tip 1: The anecdote must have a purpose: 

  • develop a character’s strengths or flaws
  • support a story theme
  • show a lesson (In the example, Jace and Em discuss learning from experiences after Em’s eighteen-year-old daughter has had a bad experience she could have avoided.)
  • enhance the plot 

If the anecdote doesn’t have one of these purposes, then it’s probably a darling you need to edit or cut.

Tip 2: Be sure your vignette has a beginning, middle, and an end as all good stories possess. Jace’s story gives an intro (when I was learning to drive), a middle (what happened), and an ending (what he learned).

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Tip 3: You have license to and should change details to make the personal story powerful but retain the emotions you experienced. (I changed the student in the back seat to a female and built on the embarrassment my family member suffered.)

Tip 4: Write it so that it is relatable to the reader. Your experience’s commonness may be more important than its weirdness. Readers will appreciate if they can take away something from the anecdote. (Most readers remember Drivers Ed and how they feared and loathed making a mistake.)

Tip 5: Avoid a broad brushstroke story. Zero in on the details in your anecdote to bring the story alive and produce an impact. Remember senses. (Too broad would have been: “I slipped up in Drivers Ed. The instructor had to intervene. I was so embarrassed. I learned a lesson.”) 

What personal anecdote have you used in a manuscript?

4 Tips to Research Props and Parts in Stories

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“I finished reading Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days. I have AND will highly recommend it to anyone who dabbles in fiction. It’s one of the best “how to” books I’ve ever read.” Marsha Hubler, Director Montrose Christian Writers Conference

Print copy on sale for $12.95. Click on the cover. See more about Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days at the end of the post.

In writing fiction, calling items by their official or common nicknames can make a difference to readers. Especially for those readers in the know. 

Tip 1

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Suppose you don’t know the name for the place to lay sheet music on a piano. Or you have no idea what those narrow water arms jutting out from the sides of lakes are called. Or what are the things pontoons float on? 

Diagrams are great for answering your questions.

Search Online:

  • Parts of a ________.
  • Diagram of a ________.

My diagrams informed me the place to lay sheet music is the music rack. Those lake “arms” are called creek channels. Pontoons float on tubes, also called floats.

It’s good to note secondary names so that you can mix up words in your paragraphs.

Tip 2

Suppose a character spends time in a special vehicle or a special place. I had a character who drove a 2012 Mustang. And another who owned a pontoon.

Photos of areas outside and inside help you know what’s available in these vehicles.

Search Online: 

image by rsoler616

I found an auto dealer who provided photos of a 2012 mustang. Photos were available of the outside from several angles, the trunk, and several views of the front and back areas inside. I could see the color of the interior and whether there was a console to store loose change or rest an elbow on. I could see where meters and radios were positioned on the dash. Also, the specs the dealer offered helped me see how much room my character had to store her suitcase and other items in her trunk.

Besides my diagram of a pontoon, a dealer’s aerial view photo of a pontoon gave me ideas for color, what the seats, table, storage, and even cupholders looked like.

image by StockSnap

Tip 3

If your character picks up or drops off people at an actual airport or uses one in your story, it may be important to know the location of such areas as:

  • Baggage claim
  • Check-in
  • Runways
  • Terminal building
  • Parking
  • Hangers
  • Control tower

Search Online: 

Most airports have diagrams of their setup. Also, some have pictures of restaurants and other areas. 

For example, North Carolina readers of a book that features scenes inside the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport will delight when the white rocking chairs placed throughout the terminals are mentioned.

Tip 4

image by OpenClipart-Vectors

Be careful. If it’s obvious your character wouldn’t know the official name of an item, then she wouldn’t think it or say it. But having photos or diagrams may help your character come up with her name for it. 

When I’m on the lake, I call those creek channels lake fingers. I would call the music racks on a piano a music book stand. I might call a pontoon’s tubes what they are, big metal tubes or floats.

However, if your characters live on a lake, or have had piano lessons from a professional, or own a pontoon, they should call things by their official names or the nicknames professionals use.

What online techniques do you use to find the names of props and parts?

Buy Link Print copy on sale for $12.95.

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Zoe McCarthy’s book, Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days, is a fresh and innovative refocusing of your novel or novella. Through a few simple—and fun—steps, Zoe helps writers take their not-ready-for-publication and/or rejected manuscripts to a spit-polish finish. Writing is hard work, yes, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. —Eva Marie Everson, best-selling and multiple award-winning author, conference director, president of Word Weavers International, Inc.

If you want to increase your chance of hearing yes instead of sorry or not a fit for our list at this time, this book is for you. If you want to develop stronger story plots with characters that are hard to put down, this book is for you. Through McCarthy’s checklists and helpful exercises and corresponding examples, you will learn how to raise the tension, hone your voice, and polish your manuscript. I need this book for my clients and the many conferees I meet at writer’s conferences around the country. Thank you, Zoe. A huge, #thumbsup, for Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days.  —Diana L. Flegal, literary agent, and freelance editor


Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript is a self-editing encyclopedia! Each chapter sets up the targeted technique, examples show what to look for in your manuscript, then proven actions are provided to take your writing to the next level. Whether you are a seasoned writer or a newbie, you need this book! —Sally Shupe, freelance editor, aspiring author

McCarthy crafted an amazing self-help book that will strengthen any writer, whether new or seasoned, with guidance and self-evaluation tools. —Erin Unger, author of Practicing Murder, releasing in 2019

Need to rework your book? Zoe M. McCarthy’s step-by-step reference guide leads you through the process, helping you fight feeling overwhelmed and wrangle your manuscript and into publishable shape in 30 days. Tailor Your Manuscript delivers a clear and comprehensive action plan. —Elizabeth Spann Craig, Twitteriffic owner, bestselling author of the Myrtle Clover Mysteries, the Southern Quilting Mysteries, and the Memphis Barbeque Mysteries http://elizabethspanncraig.com/blog/

3 Steps to Write Story Setting into the Action

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“I finished reading Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days. I have AND will highly recommend it to anyone who dabbles in fiction. It’s one of the best “how to” books I’ve ever read.” Marsha Hubler, Director Montrose Christian Writers Conference

See more about Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days at the end of the post.

We want our readers to picture the scene around them, but we don’t want to bore them with lengthy descriptions. Here are three easy steps to portray the setting in action.

Step 1

Have your point-of-view character take out her imaginary video camera and heft it to her eye. She must make sure the sound is on. 

Example: Marooned on an island, Reba takes out her video camera, which miraculously still works, and turns it on.

Step 2

Direct your character to slowly pivot around and look and listen for interesting or necessary things in her surroundings. You might even write a description of the scene’s setting.

Example: As Reba heads into the tropical forest she turns and looks back with her camera. She sees Paul, a fallen palm trunk, the beach with a white sand shore and rolling aqua waves. The waves crash and form a froth. As she enters the tropical forest her camera spots palms, yuccas, vines and other unidentified brush and trees. She exits the forest at a waterfall. Her camera picks up the fall’s crashing water that sends out sprays of cold water. She turns to the right and sees papaya and banana trees in clumps rising from a blanket of green grass. Bees buzz around them, and leaves flutter in the gentle breeze, making brushing sounds. To her left, Reba’s camera catches a wild thicket of tall grass.

Step 3

Now rewrite the description into the scene through the point-of view character’s actions and reactions, using the most interesting and necessary things the character saw in the camera. Take into consideration the scene’s pace as to how much camera sightings you include. Get creative.

Example:

Reba left Paul on the beach perched on a fallen palm trunk, aqua waves pounding the shore and turning into froth behind him. He fashioned a spearhead with shell shards and parts of coconuts. She turned to see if he’d follow her, but he didn’t look up. 

If only she knew the guy better. Didn’t he know they needed to learn whether the island was occupied? Apparently not. His lame spearhead was his macho reaction to first things to do. Self-protection. She plowed through hot white sand to the tropical forest beyond the beach, grumbling.

Reba pushed aside young palm tree’s leaves, circumvented yuccas, and ducked under drooping vines hanging from unidentified trees with massive roots. Rushing water became louder as she fought her way through the tropical jungle. Her heart beats quickened. Would a friendly tribe live in a village surrounding a waterfall? Or a mob of natives that had a craving for human flesh? 

She stepped through the last of the jungle. Water flooded over a cliff into a pool surrounded by exotic flowers. Awesome. Reba jogged to a wild orchard at the right of the fall. She snapped a banana from one tree and tugged a papaya loose from another. Wouldn’t Paul be surprised.

Whistling. Speak of the dev— Reba whipped around to the rustling tall thicket of grass opposite the orchard. A wild boar. Charging her. She froze. Paul leaped in front of her, and thrust his spear. The tusked black boar dropped to the ground. 

Hopefully, you picture the setting without paragraphs describing the scene.

What book do you think did a great job of giving the setting and why?

Buy Link

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is TYFMI30D-Print-5.75x8.89.jpeg

Zoe McCarthy’s book, Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days, is a fresh and innovative refocusing of your novel or novella. Through a few simple—and fun—steps, Zoe helps writers take their not-ready-for-publication and/or rejected manuscripts to a spit-polish finish. Writing is hard work, yes, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. —Eva Marie Everson, best-selling and multiple award-winning author, conference director, president of Word Weavers International, Inc.

If you want to increase your chance of hearing yes instead of sorry or not a fit for our list at this time, this book is for you. If you want to develop stronger story plots with characters that are hard to put down, this book is for you. Through McCarthy’s checklists and helpful exercises and corresponding examples, you will learn how to raise the tension, hone your voice, and polish your manuscript. I need this book for my clients and the many conferees I meet at writer’s conferences around the country. Thank you, Zoe. A huge, #thumbsup, for Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days.  —Diana L. Flegal, literary agent, and freelance editor


Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript is a self-editing encyclopedia! Each chapter sets up the targeted technique, examples show what to look for in your manuscript, then proven actions are provided to take your writing to the next level. Whether you are a seasoned writer or a newbie, you need this book! —Sally Shupe, freelance editor, aspiring author

McCarthy crafted an amazing self-help book that will strengthen any writer, whether new or seasoned, with guidance and self-evaluation tools. —Erin Unger, author of Practicing Murder, releasing in 2019

Need to rework your book? Zoe M. McCarthy’s step-by-step reference guide leads you through the process, helping you fight feeling overwhelmed and wrangle your manuscript and into publishable shape in 30 days. Tailor Your Manuscript delivers a clear and comprehensive action plan. —Elizabeth Spann Craig, Twitteriffic owner, bestselling author of the Myrtle Clover Mysteries, the Southern Quilting Mysteries, and the Memphis Barbeque Mysteries http://elizabethspanncraig.com/blog/