Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Turning Truth into Fiction

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro 

April 2014

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“You can do it! You can! But you have to remember certain things.”

Say something wonderful happened to you, or something horrible, or happened to someone you knew well, and you were burning to get it down on the page as a story. You can do it! You can! But you have to remember certain things.

Just because it’s true, it doesn’t mean it’s a great story. Say that your neighbor, an effete little guy, was caught being a cop imposter, pulling people over in their cars, screaming at them, giving them warnings and letting them go. Yes, that’s interesting, but you have to have insight into his life—the why he would do such a thing. And you might have to make it up unless you already know everything about him. But even if you did know, you’d have to shape the material to make it make relate to his misdeeds. Maybe his father ran away from home when your neighbor was a boy, but so did a lot of dads unfortunately. But what if, while the father did live at home, he let his son know, at every turn, that his son was a wimp. Let’s say, he would scream at the boy and when he cried, the father would scream at him for crying. “What kind of a man will you be when you grown up?” the father would demand, with a sneer. In other words, the character’s background would have to be related to his misdeed.

“A good story needs to be quirky, chancy.”

If the incident happened to you, you can’t just tell it the way it happened. If a guy who was courting you and gave you a rose, that’s too typical. Maybe he should give you his diary from when he was a kid so that you could know him more deeply. Or maybe he could write a song for you, even if no guy you ever dated did that. Especially if no guy you ever dated did that. Because what people tend to do is what is safe, traditional, sentiimental. And that is the opposite of what writers need to do to write a good story. A good story needs to be quirky, chancy.

“Find the moment that matters most to you and zero in on it, and that’s where you begin.”

What you really need to do to fix that story in the reader’s mind, make them grumble when they have to put the story down because their train has come into the station, is imbue it with your own feelings. What got to you about the story or incident in the first place? Were you betrayed? Did you betray someone else and now live with the shame of that? Do you still feel like killing someone for what they did to you in childhood? Put your rage into the story, or your grief, or whatever emotion comes up for you that gives you the volcanic desire to write it, and you have your reader. In fact, you’ll have your readership.

Also, let yourself discover. Maybe you need to start at the end of what happened instead of the beginning. Maybe you need to add new characters that weren’t there in order to hear what they have to say about it. Find the moment that matters most to you and zero in on it, and that’s where you begin.

When you write from your life, you need to be true to the emotional truth and not merely the facts.

Of course, the names and places need to be changed to protect the innocent (and you from a law suit.)

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro





Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and the Indie Award Winning finalist, Kaylee’s Ghost (Amazon and Nook). I Dare You To Write: First Aids, Warm Conforts, Sparking Advice for the Journey Ahead (Authorlink) is a collection of essays for anyone who dreams of writing. She has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.