Short Story Writing Project: Writing about real life events

Several years ago I happened to end up in the same writing workshop as a woman with whom I had gone to elementary school. For the workshop, she submitted a short story that was taken from her childhood. Because we had gone to school together, I knew almost all of the characters in her story. She hadn’t changed the names or any of the details that I was familiar with. While the actual events did not involve me, I knew the personalities of the people involved and could picture every character exactly as the had existed rather than as fictional participants in the story. This made it difficult for me to judge the merits of her short story, because I was bringing in so many elements from my own life — elements no average reader would pick up on.

In my writing, I often base moments in stories on situations in my life, but because I have never chosen to write about an actual person from my life, the events quickly become fictionalized and part of the fabric of the character’s life rather than my own. While there is a bit of me in every character I create, I don’t write about myself. I did attempt once to recreate a real life evening in fiction, but I quickly grew frustrated. It was too difficult for me to capture the essence what happened. I couldn’t recreate the situation accurately enough to satisfy me.

I don’t mean to discount the value of writing about real life people and events. I merely want to point out some of the frustrations involved. Some things to think about when writing about real life events are:

  • Will the events make for a good story?
  • How closely should you mirror real life?
  • Who might end up reading your story?
  • What perspective should you use?
  • Would this work better with fictional characters?
  • Should you change the names to protect the guilty (and yourself)?

I would love to hear about other people’s experiences with stories based on real life. Please leave your own perspectives in a comment.

16 thoughts on “Short Story Writing Project: Writing about real life events

  1. Basing stories on real life is the only way I can come up with ideas. I slice and dice my life into various segments and end up with more stories than I have time to write them. However, I do not use real names unless they are family members who I’m sure would not mind.

  2. I forget which Australian woman novelist was quoted some years back as saying that whenever she wrote fiction everyone assumed it was disguised autobiography and when she wrote autobiographically everyone assumed she was making it up!

    People ALWAYS assume poetry is autobiographical, whereas a lot of mine is fictional. And my late mother was convinced some pieces were about her, although they were so not that I was amazed she could imagine the slightest resemblance.

    What does all this mean? I think you just can’t win so you may as well do whatever you like. But yes, do change names and other identifying details, for fear of being sued. It does happen, even to fiction writers.

  3. Doesn’t it all ways boil down to writing what is real, what is happening or has happened. Sometimes the characters do not have to be named, just thier essence of how you know or remember them is important. Personally if I am writing real, and I am involved, it is noted quite clearly. Write with honesty, your honesty. That is real. I rarely write short stories, I am more of a poet, but lately I am thinking of taking a break from the poet, and exploring more essay and short stories. Reading the last posts is helping me a great deal.

  4. Mark Twain said, “Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense.” For some events in my life, that was soooo true. Fiction is the only way to even begin to get them on paper.

  5. Iam so excited about real life stories and its like therapy for me i am 30 years old and i can write a book on every chapter of my life in 30 years i want to get started this was placed on my heart to do so and its so genuine and unique. please help

  6. Once upon a time there was a young boy named marrion . marrion
    was 10 years old and he lived in new york, at america. While walking
    home from school one day, a
    red dragon shark jumped down from the house and tackled marrion to
    the ground. But just when he was about to let out a scream for help,marrion realized that
    the red dragon shark was only licking his face, not trying to bite it off. At that moment, marrion
    decided to keep the red dragon shark as a pet. And on the way home
    he decided to name his pet ”Samuel.” When marrion
    and his new pet finally got home, guess who was standing on the front porch?
    That’s right, it
    was marrion ‘s mother, mum. And boy was she surprised to see a red dragon
    shark following marrion into the yard gate! ”What in world is that?” shouted mum.
    ”It’s a red dragon shark,” answered marrion . ”Dah, I can see that, marrion , but what
    on earth is it doing here?” said mum. ”It’s my new pet!” answered marrion .
    ”Oh you think so do you?” remarked mum. ”I wouldn’t get your hopes up. You know
    how your father hates red dragon sharks. But, well, I suppose you can keep him
    until your father comes home.” And with that marrion grabbed sam by the scruff of the
    neck and led his new pet into the house–even though he knew his father
    was probably going to disapprove. Once in the house, marrion and sam played and played,
    that is until marrion ‘s favorite television show, ”American dragon,” started.

    At that point marrion forgot all about sam having an unsupervised run
    of the house. That is until half way through ” American dragon,” when
    marrion was brought
    back to reality when he heard his father shouted, ”loud!! marrion !
    Get your rib in the my room…NOW!!” With that marrion rushed into
    his room to see what all the
    fuss was about. When he entered the room,
    there stood his father, pointing towards the leather bed. ‘
    ‘Will someone please explain that?” asked his father.
    Then, as marrion followed his father’s finger to where it was pointing,
    he instantly knew what his father was so upset about. There, smack dab in the middle of the
    leather sofa, was the biggest pile of dragon shark poo he had ever seen!

    ”I don’t EVEN want to know how that got there,” said dad.
    ”But you
    had better get it
    cleaned up now! And you had better get rid of whatever it is that could
    have done such a thing!” Well, knowing his father as well as he did, marrion knew there was
    no sense even asking his father if he could keep sam for a pet.

    So without hesitation, marrion set out to find where sam was hiding.
    After a few minutes of looking,
    marrion discovered sam crouched beneath the table that marrion
    did his sports on. ”Come on, sam, it’s time to find you a new home.
    And hey, don’t look at me
    that way, I’m not the one who did the dirty deed on the leather sofa!” scolded marrion .
    ”Thanks to you I’ll never get to have my own pet dragon shark!! And with
    that marrion led sam out of the house and down to the local, bad dreams.
    They had a pet section and marrion knew the owner would find sam a good home. So
    after saying good-bye to sam, and thanking the owner of bad dreams, marrion
    walked backed home and attempted to drown his sorrows by slamming down a half
    dozen yous. But marrion ‘s pity party came to an abrupt end when his father
    reminded him about the mess he had neglected to clean up. And low and behold,
    midway through the clean-up, marrion suddenly became thankful that someone else
    was going to have to do it from now on.The dragon shark made eggs.The eggs
    grown and hachte in pees.The dragon shark took Marrion’s family to cartoon
    world and they loved the place The End.(by marrion smythe

  7. I have a story I’d like to write, but the idea for it is based in real life, and it is well known within a certain community (mine, but not only mine) How much resemblance to a certain real life person or incident am I allowed before I could bring legal trouble on myself? I’ve thought about approaching this as a non fiction piece, but that just wouldn’t work for me at this time. I’m not worried about libel, but simply that a certain group of people could say “I know the person and incident that story is based on!” Am I on treacherous ground?


  8. If you fear having the people around you know that you wrote about them, then it sounds like you are going to have trouble writing about this topic. My advice is to write about whatever you want to write about. When you are done, you can decide whether or not to publish it.

  9. While I agree with the idea that writing ‘what you know’ produces a plethera of ideas, skimming from personal experiences can be a tight walk, especially if the goal of publication is on that far off horizon. I believe each of us have inspirational stories from our lives that could, in some way, help others. But one must not lose sight of those learned teachings through translation into a ficton story. For example, my mother passed from suicide when I was four years old, and there were serious lessons learned. And what it has meant to me will be significantly different from what it means to the others who read the fictionalized account.
    Although not all personal stories are about learning a moral lesson, I truely believe that it’s more important to find that lesson, preserve it and then write the fictionalized account with enough change to protect the real people involved. When the story is about simply relating an interesting experience, or time during childhood, or environment, then changing basic principles of the characters is also appropriate; otherwise, as John said, it will cloud the mind of all who experienced the same thing or something similiar.

  10. Hello everyone,
    I was also attempting to figure out if a story idea that I want to write might be liable for lawsuit. I want to write story based on a teenagers murder that happened to a real child that I knew. I didn’t know the child well enough to write a non fiction account. Anyway as it happens the childs real name is also the most perfect title and main char name possible. What would I need to do? Could I get permission from the parents, would I have to pay for this permission? I would be able to get this permission I am sure. Then say when I write my story, if they didn’t like it, what could happen? Thanks in Advance.

  11. I am wanting to write about an incident in my life that involved another person. I am willing to change the name and certain points but the age, gender, ethnicity, some personality traits and the basic conflict are the same or similar to real life. How much would I be exposing myself to a lawsuit?

  12. Someone once said to me “Write what you feel” and it is this that I use every time. Because writing, like many other arts, is open to interpretation it really doesn’t matter how much is true (in fiction writing) because the reader will take what they need from it. I find when I write from the heart and base this on things I feel most about the message is conveyed more effectively and tends to be more powerful.

    I think there is always some part of us in anything we create and what that is and how much that is, really is up to the writer.

    If writing about specific events I would suggest changing names, some bits of scenery or items that would hold it too close to the event. Not everyone appreciates the creative word.

  13. can I write a story with my deaseasd dad in it to script form and write about a wealthy family changing thier names and names of locations witout being sued

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