Busted: That IS You in My Book

Every writer has been asked the question, “How much of what you write comes from personal experience?” I’d be willing to wager that romance writers get asked this more often than, say, writers of spy thrillers. Further money gets laid on erotic romance or erotica writers getting asked this exponentially more frequently, especially by people who want to date them. Just saying…mention on your OKArmedCherub profile that you write romance or erotica and see how many “have u ever done a 3some?” emails you get.

Author interviews are full of people saying that very little or none of what they write about comes from their personal experience. That it’s all imagination or research or divinely inspired after sacrificing a pile of Doritos to the Cheese Product God in the Sky. And I believe them.

This is a good answer. Cool. I could roll with that. And did.

When asked “How much of this comes from your experience?”, I was happy to shout, “Nothing! It’s all made up!”

This is totally not true.

TONS of what I write comes from my personal experience. I may have chopped it up into such itty bitty pieces that no one who witnessed them would recognize the moments I’ve stolen, but it’s everywhere and I can see it, all the time.

Correction: I usually see it.

I worked in bars and restaurants for years and I use details from that industry all over the place. Whether it’s knowing how to pour a proper pint of Guinness or what a pain in the ass it is to get lipstick prints off martini glasses or what it’s like to make out on a co-worker’s lap in a dark, deserted bar an hour after close when your feet hurt and your back aches but you just can’t keep your hands off each other in a kind of survivor’s surge of energy, I’ve put all of that in books.

In my release from last week, CALLING HIS BLUFF, Sarah’s not-so-secret love of all things Vegas and poker comes directly from the time after my parents’ divorce. For several years, the weekends that my brother, sister, and I spent with my dad took place at his parents’ home. My Grandpa Ed taught us how to play blackjack and seven card stud, that roulette is a game for suckers, and to always wear a watch in Vegas because they don’t have any clocks. He drew a craps table on a piece of poster board and taught us how to shoot dice while telling us stories of high stakes poker games in the boxcar that transported the horses from his cavalry days. “Jacks or better to open” is still my favorite rule on poker night. Putting in even a little bit of my grandpa’s joy in card-playing into CALLING HIS BLUFF made me happy beyond words.

Sometimes I straight up grab events from stories I’ve been told. There’s a scene in that CALLING HIS BLUFF where Sarah and J.D. attempt to rescue kittens from a narrow flooding crack between two buildings during a thunderstorm that was stolen from the lives of my old bosses at a karaoke bar. As soon as I heard that story from them, years ago, I thought, “I am so putting that in a book.”

I’m putting the acrylic sweaters with animal faces that friends of mine bought over the holidays on a trio of dart throwers in the background of a lesbian bar in an upcoming novella and I hope they will read it and smile when they recognize that detail.

And yes, I do occasionally wonder if someone from my past will shoot me an email after reading one of my books and ask, “So, when she/he does that naked thing/makes that dirty move in bed/on the floor/in the car, did you get that from us?”

I think I’d be honest enough to say, Yes.

I mean, it was a helluva move in real life. Just the memory of it gets me all squirmy. How could I not put that in a book?

But occasionally I do catch myself off guard.

I was deep in edits on CALLING HIS BLUFF when I realized that the hero’s name, J.D., was the same as the nickname of one of my exes. I never actually called the ex J.D., although I knew people who did. But it still made me giggle when I spotted that.

I was more jaw-dropping WTF and less giggly when I realized, weeks later, that J.D. and my eponymous ex are both photographers.

I mean…c’mon.

The hero is both named after my ex and pursues the same vocation?

Apparently I had some issues I needed to work out. In print. For everyone to read.

And of course my ex was not a wildly successful Hollywood documentary photographer who I’d crushed on in my formative years because he was my brother’s best friend, BUT STILL…

Sometimes my brain decides to use these details without going through the trouble of alerting me in advance.

By far the largest portion of what I write does come from my imagination. Or research. Or that Dorito Deity. But enough of it comes from me, from my life, that I’m only beginning to realize how lucky I am that I didn’t really get going as a writer until I was thirty. Because if I’d spent my twenties sitting at a table in front of a laptop for twelve or sixteen hours a day like I do now, I would have missed out on many of these random details and fascinating characters. And the smexy stuff.

Let’s not forget the smexy.

*I lose track of time for a while…*


So tell me, writers. How much of what you write is made up? How much is borrowed from that thing you did with that guy behind the Amoco station when you were nineteen? Am I just an oddball? (This would not be unexpected.) Am I right to be worried that I am spending less time living my life these days than I am writing about someone else’s? Is my ex ever going to pick up CALLING HIS BLUFF and ask me why I never did that in the shower with him?

Or is this all just too embarrassing for words?

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23 Responses to Busted: That IS You in My Book

  1. Sarina Bowen says:

    Ah! This has happened to me, too. In a YA WIP, the heroine gets her first smooch from the hero after a Christmas dance, and the roommate walks in on them. Months after writing this post, I realized that I’d taken in from my own life.

    I’m fine with stealing from myself. I’d just like to know when it happens.

    • Exactly! I don’t mind when I steal moments or feelings or a brilliant line of dialogue from my own life (or from stuff I overheard total strangers say on the El). I just get the teensiest bit weirded out when my brain does it without including me in the process…

      I am totally driving this bus. Totally.

  2. Alexandra says:

    I am so lame. My life is a gaping yawn of boring. Everything I write is all my imagination.

    That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. ;)

  3. Julia Kelly says:

    Oh, am I glad you wrote this article! I absolutely draw on real life. Writing characters in professions with very specialized jargon and practices like journalism and sports is easier when you’ve lived the details. I also borrow and tweak dating life stories friends have told me (with permission of course). Most people are happy to find a subtle nod to them in a draft. The thing I won’t do is fess up to is including past dates in stories. Several boyfriends have asked if I was going to write them in. The blanket answer is always no. Absolutely not. Never. So what if it’s a little white lie…

    • AJ Cousins says:

      White lies are totally allowed. :)

      And yes, I love when my insider’s knowledge gives me all the little details I can use to make a scene real. I can get that from research too, but it requires a vast amount of reading/talking/watching other people to come up with those weird little things that ring true and encapsulate the experience. I can’t describe how many articles/blogs/books I read and vet/animal rescue people I talked to before getting this one detail I loved using in CHB. It felt rock solid, a core moment showing Sarah as a vet. It’s late in the book and probably something only I notice, but I love it. And it took me dozens of hours to get there. When it’s something I’m familiar with from experience, I gain all of this extra time. That’s such a relief sometimes.

  4. I think we can’t not draw from life. It’s sort of what the vocation calls for. If it’s not actual events or moments or character traits, it’s simply the experience of being human, and what we hope for as readers and what we writers hope readers experience from reading us is a moment of recognition, that moment of “yay, that’s how that feels/works/is.”

    I have characters who were born from people, but who are not that person. The impetus might have been there to create them on the page, but how they behave is all their own.

    I also think one of the reasons I’m currently working on all NA is that I keep going back to moments that were real for me then and asking, “what if?” My characters get to experience the alternative realities I never did.

    • A thousand times this, Cherri.

    • AJ Cousins says:

      Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes to the ‘what if?’ moment. I joke about people finding themselves in my books, but really, it’s usually buried so deep beneath a layer of ‘what if?’ that they’d find nothing but an echo that sounds vaguely familiar. Like when you hear a hiphop song & you *know* they sampled that rif from an older beat, but you can only *almost* figure out where it came from.

      And I think this idea of your characters experiencing alternative realities is maybe the entire reason I became a writer. Just because I couldn’t live it didn’t mean I couldn’t write the shit out of it…

  5. Audra North says:

    I do this all the time without realizing it. Even in the futuristic stuff or the works where hero/heroine have professions that I’ve never worked in, there are so many situations that my subconscious seems compelled to barf onto the page, that I only realize afterward were based on events in my own experience.

    I don’t have the problem where I use the same names or exact sequence of events, though. It’s more like deja vu, like an almost-there sort of feeling that is reminiscent of something that happened to me before. And my characters are almost always a hodgepodge of people I’ve known in real life, rather than exact replicas.

    But, yeah, in theory, everyone I’ve ever known might be in my next book, just because they take up room in my writing brain and sometimes you gotta clean that place out.

  6. Keller Anne knight says:

    See these tees a lot where I live!

  7. Tamsen Parker says:

    Funny story: my college ex lifted our entire break-up conversation and put it verbatim in his senior screenplay project. To which his class responded “No one actually *talks* like that.” Ummm…

    Anyway, I walk a really fine line with this. There’s not much between me being like “Yes, that’s essentially my old job,” or “Yes, my ex really did say that to me” and “Please to not be conflating me with my heroines! God. As if.”

    Some of my best plot bunnies come from real life, but I think of them more as seeds that get planted in the darkest recesses of my brain and then get watered by my own voice, and gaps filled in with a hummus of other experiences/acquaintances and benefit from the sunshine of creativity.

    I think of the little true bits sprinkled throughout as tiny love letters to people I’ve actually shared these things with. It’s also entertaining when people try to insert themselves so stubbornly into your books. “That’s me, right? Right?” “Sure, honey.”

    • AJ Cousins says:

      “Please to not be conflating me with my heroines! God. As if.”

      I’m going to adopt this as my new tagline.

      Because that’s the bottom line, isn’t it? However much detail gets pulled from my life, whether there’s a lot or none in any given book, the bottom line is that it’s still fiction. NONE of these people are me. And anyone who imagines that they are is blowing a pipeful of smoke up their own asses.

      Which sounds like it ought to be hard to do.

  8. I have been known to filter bits of real life into projects, either my own or from others lives – with their general approval. In one instance I took an ass of an ex-husband and horrible troll of a principal for my (now ex) gf, the recovering teacher’s life and killed both off in a book. (it is that kind of book) :D Changed names and a little of the circumstances on both.

    In another, I took several years of working in a shipyard and wove those experiences into a welder character who also dies (same book). Shipyards are dangerous places, and I stuck in little details that anyone from this yard who reads it will smile and nod at.

    It’s fun dribbling little drops of myself into characters to see who notices too.

    • AJ Cousins says:

      Exactly. And I think you’re right too in choosing secondary characters for the more “straight to print” borrowing of personalities or actions. Obviously any main character is going to be shown in much more depth and development, which takes us far afield from whatever inspiration sparked that first idea. But I do like spotting details in books that resonate to me because I know viscerally how true they are. It’s insider’s glee. :)

  9. *raises hand*

    *stands up*

    Hi, I’m Rebecca. I like to eviscerate past boyfriends in fiction.

    *looks around*


    • AJ Cousins says:

      I have this thing where I’m actually friends with everyone I’ve ever dated.

      Except that one dude. Him I could put in a book as the “Really? Did you just say that to me?” guy she dumps in the opening scene in a restaurant. Publicly. To applause. Because that’s how it should’ve happened in real life.

  10. Fiona McGier says:

    I’m one of the small minority of women who didn’t believe in romance when I was much younger, as much as I loved sex…in fact I tried to get my college to let me minor in it. Which is a line I have one of my heroines use in one of my books! I’m totally NOT into virtuous heroines because I didn’t “lose” my virginity…I GAVE IT AWAY so I could start having some fun! And I did. So my heroines are always a reflection of the good times I had before I met my husband.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t have HEA endings, or romance while the man is trying to convince the heroine she needs only him for the rest of her life. But my heroines like a hot and nasty hook-up too…just their luck the hero likes it so much he picks them for his future wife. Which is kind of like how I “met your dad”…(grin).