The common advice to writers just starting out is to write what one knows, and often, this is good advice. What better starting point can an individual have than his or her own experiences and memories? To this end, many writers, such as Hemingway and Jack London have led adventurous lives — Hemingway drove an ambulance during the Spanish Civil War, and London based his earliest stories on adventures he had during the Klondike Gold Rush. Other writers, such as Poe and H. P. Lovecraft looked inward for the inspiration underlying their dark tales, drawing upon their fears and anxieties to craft their art.
At some point, a writer must face the fact that everything he or she writes is autobiographical on some level. The trick is making it seem like it isn’t; otherwise, one is dealing with memoirs or journalism. Hemingway worked as a correspondent during World War II and his fictional work reflected the concise language of the reporter. While his novels benefited from a journalistic economy of words, his tales are just as fanciful as anything dreamed up by Poe. Still there is a level of authenticity to their work which no doubt came from knowing the people and circumstances chronicled.
In my own writing, I sometimes have trouble crafting male characters because they often come out sounding like me. The ironic thing is that many times the female characters sound like me, too, but because of the gender differences, no one pays attention. Rather than populating my work with actual people I know, I sometimes build composites of characters, a certain quirk from one person, a physical description from someone I’ve seen on television, a profession I may have read about. I once cast the supervisor from a job I had in college as the manager in an office patterned after a place I worked just after high school. My short story, The Miracle of the Magic Dollar, is largely based on an actual incident which happened in an office where I was working, though embellished for humorous effect.
Writers are often asked if characters are based on people they actually know, and in my case, they’re usually based on people I’d like to know, with a sprinkling of characteristics of “real” people. Sometimes I’m inspired by a photo, a phrase, a quick glimpse of someone I see on the street, a snatch of dialogue heard on the train. My brain sometimes seems like an overstuffed trunk, brimming with ideas, lines, imagined scenes, all waiting for someplace to work. I carried the opening scene of my novel Crazy Like the Foxes around in my head for over twenty years, first conceiving it in the late-80s when I was in college and finally committing it to paper in 2006, when I sat down to write the novel on which Foxes is based.
I sometimes find other circumstances creeping into my work. When I was a child, a girl I knew died from leukemia, and that has found its way into my writing from time to time. Auto accidents also figure prominently in my work, having been in a few myself as well as losing a cousin to one around the time I was in college. I used to find myself developing ideas in my head for television shows I’ve watched and still retain several treatments which have outlasted the shows for which they were conceived. Perhaps, someday, I’ll commit these to paper in an altered context.
Inspiration comes from many sources. As writers, we must remain open to ideas regardless of the source. Past history and personal experiences can be excellent sources for material so long as one can record the truth of the experience without necessarily recounting the details of the incident. As writers, we often have the luxury of distance. We should always be willing to use whatever means we have at our disposal to make our work as rich and meaningful as we can.