How to Use Personal Experiences to Write Stories That Matter

 

I recently read insights I’ve heard before but were worth hearing again as I prepare to write my next romance:

  1. Ask myself what matters to me, stirs me, and bothers me;
  2. look into my personal life for experiences that accompany these three things; then
  3. write something that says something.*

Here’s an experience I might use:

When I was in fifth grade, my family lived in Norfolk, VA. My sister, Marcia, was in ninth grade. One winter day, Marcia, her friend, Jean**, my friend, Patsy**, and I went to investigate a reported rare sight. The neighborhood lake, where a two-year-old boy had drowned the summer before, had frozen over.

At the lake, people walked on the ice. A boy ran and jumped on his sled and slid across the ice. We judged the ice solid. I itched to feel the frozen water under my feet.

Our group walked on the ice farther than other people had dared. Then, clustered together, we all fell through the ice in one whoosh.

Non-swimmers, Jean and Patsy panicked and pawed the ice edge.  We tried to get a purchase on the ice rim, but the ice caved every time we applied pressure. Our soaked heavy coats and boots worked against us. I questioned whether we could get out before we drowned.

Soon, I was so fatigued I decided to give up. As soon as I was under the water and the bottom debris touched my legs, I gained renewed desire to live and worked my way to the surface.

Finally, the ice edge held firm. While treading water, Marcia shoved Jean out. Jean tramped away without looking back. How could a friend do that?

Marcia pushed Patsy out. My friend asked if she should help us. Marcia told her to leave the precarious edge and go home.

I pulled myself out. Marcia called to me. Exhausted, she asked me to help her. I admired her heroism, and love stirred. And now, she needed me. Shivering and teeth chattering, I stepped to the dangerous edge and extended my reddened hand. She linked her little finger with mine. Obviously, she needed only sisterly support and hoisted herself onto the ice surface.

I spotted my mitten on the other side of the large cavity. I gasped. Mommy had knit that mitten for me. I asked, “Should I get my mitten?” Marcia said, “No.” My stomach sank. Why had we been so stupid? How would I tell Mommy I’d left the mitten?

People on the lake hadn’t come to our rescue. They stared at us as we trudged toward home. I was too cold and drained to care. Once home, my mother was angry with us for our foolishness. My lips trembled as I told her I’d left my mitten. She ordered us upstairs to peel off our freezing wet clothes and get in a tub of warm water.

Mommy entered the bathroom and gave us each a shot of brandy. It burned my throat, but I warmed inside. Mommy wouldn’t have given us the brandy if her love weren’t greater than her anger.

Use personal experiences to write stories that say something. Click to tweet.

What do you think mattered to me, stirred me, and bothered me? 

* “Making It Matter” by Deb Caletti (Writer’s Digest January 2018)

** Not their real names.

COOKING UP KISSES

Five scrumptious e-book romance novellas, all for $0.99 or free on KindleUnlimited. Here’s the link.  Here are the blurbs:

 

 

 

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN IN A RED DRESS BY ZOE M. McCARTHY

Candace Parks lives a passionless life in Richmond. The computer programmer returns to the empty family home in the Blue Ridge Mountains solely to evaluate her job, faith, and boyfriend. Her high school crush, Trigg Alderman, who barely remembers her, visits his Gram next door. Sorting her life out? How about nothing of the sort!

 

LOVE ON A DARE BY MARY MANNERS

Alana Mulvaney’s life is in a holding pattern. Consumed by day-to-day operations of the family business, Alana has no time for fun or romance. But a little fun and a whole lot of romance is just what Alana’s sisters have in mind when they learn childhood friend Donovan O’Reilly has returned to town.
Donovan O’Reilly has loved Alana Mulvaney since he moved in next door to her at the age of five. But he broke her heart when he was forced to leave town, and now that he’s returned home to Winding Ridge he has a second chance to prove himself. But is it too late to earn her trust…and her love…again?

HUMMINGBIRD KISSES BY DELIA LATHAM

Toni Littlebird believes that when she meets the man God created for her, she’ll know—and she’ll love him in that very moment.
But then Dax Hendrick roars into Hummingbird Hollow on a noisy, crippled Harley, stinking up the air and chasing away her beloved hummingbirds. One look into the intruder’s eyes and her heart sinks. He’s “The One.” She’d been right about knowing, but wrong about something far more important: She will never love this man!

HEARTS ON THE HARBOR BY ROBIN BAYNE

Cara Peyton is content with her life, her trendy Baltimore bookshop is perfect for her. But when her ex turns up to remodel the store, asking for a second chance, she’s torn and unsure about risking her heart again. Can he convince her to trust him, and God, before the job is finished?

 

 

HIS VALENTINE PROMISE BY DORA HIERS

Another Valentine’s Day and Quinn Randolph prefers to spend it with her sweet rescue lab. Who needs men and their broken promises? Especially Pierce Karson’s! Years ago, his desertion shattered her. Now he’s trying to steal the property she targeted to expand her florist shop! Pierce only wants to belong…and for Quinn to choose him. His Valentine Promise…

A Great Story Is More Than a String of Interesting Events

image by moonflower83

Like many new writers, I thought I had to create a string of interesting events to make a good story. Some scary, some romantic, some brave, etc. I didn’t see the story as my protagonist’s journey to become someone better.

Goals

Now I know my protagonist’s internal and external goals need to guide the events I include. The events will have conflicts and disasters that push my protagonist forward to attain her goals or direct her to change her goals.

Here’s an example showing how to create events so that designer Abby can do something she couldn’t do in the beginning.

image by sasint

First, look at her goals and what she struggles with.

Internal Goal: Abby wants people to notice her and listen to her.

External Goal: She wants to be promoted to manager of a design team.

 

Next, identify what she’s good at.

Competency: She’s an accomplished designer.

Then, considering the above, brainstorm the initial event that sends Abby on her journey.

Possible Inciting Incidents

Case 1: Abby must use vacation time to go home and take care of her loving mom.

Case 2: A design manager’s accident keeps him home for at least 2 months. The firm will choose the interim manager from Abby and her peers. The chosen designer will show how successful she is as a manager.

Case 3: For the open manager position Abby wanted, the company hires a handsome man from outside the firm.

Case 4: Three top designers must present a design for a particular project. They’ll each have three junior designers to help them. Company vice presidents will judge the design. The winner gets a manager job.

Creating Meaningful Events

Although we could make Case 1 work, it doesn’t naturally mesh with her internal and external goals or her competency. For Case 3, we could, again, brainstorm twists to make Case 3 work with Abby’s goals.

image by jimmikehank

I can see great possibilities for a series of events that flow from Abby’s goals for Cases 2 and 4.

In Case 2, the first set of events could center on Abby getting the interim job because of her competency. She thinks a permanent manager job is hers. But she applies hard-nosed tactics to get her reports to listen to her.

In the next events, conflicts and disasters surge as her reports avoid her, and production and quality decrease. Abby’s internal and external goals are at risk.

Then new events arise when a mentor explains to her what good management is: using her expertise to help her reports be their best, to obtain what they need to do their jobs, and to lead them with firmness, not meanness.

Then the crisis event occurs when the manager returns. Abby is a peer again, and the manager scraps her design.

More events carry her to a satisfying ending. Possibly, her peers back her, and the manager reinstates the design. Then, upper management recognizes her leadership and sends her to management training.

Unlike in the beginning, Abby now knows how to get people to listen to her, is a noteworthy leader, and is on the road to management.

Case 4 could flow with similar events.

Replace interesting story events with events meaningful to your protagonist’s goals. Click to tweet.

What system, such as the Hero’s Journey, do you use to map out events?

Personification: Giving Inanimate Things Human Traits for a Purpose

image by AngieJohnston

What Personification Is

Personification is assigning human traits to inanimate objects, ideas, or phenomena. Inanimate means non-living things—breathless and pulseless. Personification is called anthropomorphism when it is applied to animals.

Common Examples of Personification

 

image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

the sun kissed the ocean

the wise owl

justice is blind

the sun smiled down on them

stars winked

the city never sleeps

the hamburger was calling my name

the house sighed

Why Use Personification

  • Provides a fresh way to describe inanimate things.
  • Connects a reader with an inanimate entity so he understands what it means to the character or to the story.
  • Helps readers sympathize with or react emotionally to objects that become a character in a story.
  • Emphasizes an idea or mood.
  • Adds aesthetic qualities to the story.
  • Introduces meaning into mysterious things like forces of nature.
  • Helps to show a character’s positive or negative feelings toward an inanimate thing.
  • Adds poetic vividness to the writing.

How to Use Personification

♦ Decide if something nonhuman in your story warrants special attention. We expect a certain amount of description, but when it’s personified, it will pop out to the reader and stop him long enough to imagine the description.

Examples:

The flooding waters swallowed the last bit of dry land.

Eric passed the house, the barn, and the pond that swallowed much of the yard and then entered the shed.

For Eric making his way to the shed in the second example, I think the personification of the pond adds little and slows the pace.

♦ Decide on the personification’s purpose.

◊ Is it to bring an inanimate thing to life as a character in the story? It will probably need more than one human trait.

A haunted house: For its twisted intent, the spiral staircase beckoned visitors to climb to the second story. 

The wind: The wind rushed the house again and again, then halted. It stood silent and still. I didn’t trust it, fearing it loomed outside my door with its saber raised high ready to slice through me when I made a mad dash to my truck.

image by PublicDomainPictures

◊ Does the nonhuman entity have meaning to the character—fondness, security, or hatred?

A constantly ringing phone that too often brings bad news: The haranguing desk phone demanded I answer it again. I’d had enough of its ranting. I pulled its lifeline from the wall and strangled it with the cord.

 

◊ Is it to help set the mood of the scene?

Oppressive heat and humidity: The sludgy air crawled around the corner of the house and pushed the mercury up inside our window thermometer to the bursting point.

◊ Or is it simply to add interest to description?

♦ Choose human traits or qualities that accomplish your purpose.

Use personification to give inanimate things human traits for a purpose in your story. Click to tweet.

How have you used personification in your stories?