How to Use Personal Experiences to Write Stories That Matter

by | Writing | 4 comments


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.


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





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!



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?


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!


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?




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…

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    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Ruth, this exercise helped me see how a life experience that I thought would hold little for using in a story could show me what mattered. Friendship and sister loyalty mattered. The thought to give up overpowered by the desire to live. My need to feel loved. I’m glad the incident spoke to you in some way too.

  1. pamelasthibodeaux

    GREAT Post Zoe!
    Love that collection…I’ve bought it, just haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Can’t wait!
    Good luck and God’s blessings you you and your fellow authors

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Hi Pam, I hope you enjoy all the novellas. Thanks for your support.

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