Life informs my stories and my characters. And not just my life, but everything that happens in my vicinity, whether it’s my personal history with bats or random unintentional eavesdropping. Heck, I even had a t-shirt that said ‘careful, or you’ll end up in my novel'. It’s not that I take notes when I overhear conversations or when I have them; it’s that some things take up residence in my brain. I never know when or how it might come out, but it usually does.
Here’s an example. A few weeks ago I was helping a friend move, and we were driving in my car from her new home to her new office. As we were navigating down some unfamiliar, twisty, hilly roads, she realized that she didn’t have her cell phone. Seconds later she said, ‘pull over very slowly’. Her phone was on the trunk of my car! It’s a miracle that it didn’t fall off given the roads we were on (rural Pennsylvania roads are a unique experience). Once we knew the phone was safe, we were both dying of laughter! I warned her that this story will undoubtedly end up in one of my novels, and I already know how and when.
So yes, art imitates life, but with a teensy bit of artistic license. The story version is never the same as real life.
As for characters, it’s inevitable that bits and pieces of the people I know and love (and even complete strangers) become woven into the personas of my characters. I might borrow an interesting physical trait from one person, a career choice from another, and personality and mannerisms from one or two others. It’s not ever consciously done, to be honest, since most of my characters introduce themselves rather than allow me to create them.
So, for example, Lizzie has three uncles who are police officers because I have three uncles who were police officers. It’s something I understood and could easily integrate into her life, and it shows how deeply rooted she is in her community. Her uncles, however, are not identical to my uncles; they have unique personalities all their own.
When I first started writing Lizzie’s story, I confess that I incorporated some of my friends into the story in various ways. Some of those characters have been eliminated. Others have been merged. There are still a few, though, and their inspirations are well aware of that fact. (No worries, names have been changed to protect the innocent!)
As for me, all of my characters contain a piece of my soul. Of all of my them, Lizzie is the most like me; a friend once described her as ‘the you that you want to be’ and that’s a fair assessment. But all of them give me a chance to inhabit their lives, which is an incredible gift. I get to be the ballerina and the artist and the doctor, lives that I dreamed about as a child, and I get to live lives I never imagined.
So yes, it might well be a tiny piece of you that you recognize in one of my characters, but it’s also a piece of me, and probably several other people. The truth is, even I don’t really know where all of the pieces come from. Just like I am a patchwork of my past, my characters, and my stories, are a patchwork of my experience, my observations, and my very active imagination. I guess that’s what makes it fiction!