Helena Halme, Finnish author of three self-published novels, offers excellent advice on how to turn fact into fiction effectively, drawing on her own experience of writing The Englishman, based on her own experience of an international romance with an English naval officer.
During my MA in Creative Writing 10 years ago, writing the story of your life was somewhat frowned upon. Yet, one of the most often uttered pieces of advice was to ‘write what you know’. I could never marry the two strands of thinking. How are you supposed to write about what you know, but not be allowed to use your life as inspiration?
I did, however, take my MA tutor's advice and after graduating wrote two fictional novels, Coffee and Vodka, and The Red King of Helsinki.
In both novels I used my life as a mere reference to the time and subject matter of these two stories.
How The Englishman Was Born
But when, three years ago, I began my blog, Helena’s London Life, I was often asked by my readers why I moved to England from my native Finland. So I started a series of posts, telling the story of my life, of how I met and married my English husband.
I was imagining that I’d write four or five posts at the most, but when I got to number 25, I realised what I was actually writing was a novel.
You scream – a novel? Surely what you were writing was an autobiography? Yes, well, it started that way, but being that I am a novelist, new plot lines and characters kept infiltrating the story, and about half way through, I decided I’d give in to my novelist tendencies and carry on writing a fictionalised book of the true story.
So how did I do it – and what is my advice to those wishing to turn their life into a novel?
10 Top Tips for Turning Fact into Fiction
I have limited myself to 10 points. I could actually write a whole book on the subject, but I have been very strict with myself. (Mainly because this is my first ALLi post and I don’t think I’d ever be invited back to write another if I’d turn in 90,000 words instead of 900!)
1. Have an Exciting Start
Start the novel at a point that is exciting and which has relevance to the main point of the story. “She was born in a small village in West of England” may be the truth, but it may be a tad boring and not very unique. (Everyone is born at some point). Now, of course, if you were born on a raft in the middle of the Pacific, that’s a different matter. The Englishman is a romantic tale, so it starts when Kaisa meets her Englishman at the British Embassy in Helsinki.
2. Seek Permission
Do get permission to publish from the significant person – or persons – in your story, especially if they can be easily recognised. (And you care about what they think). When I was writing my blog posts, I’d always let my husband (The Englishman) read them before I pressed ‘publish’. Of course if you are writing in the traditional way, and not a blogging the story, it’s easier. When you’re done, you can give the person the manuscript and leave the country for a few days.
3. Get Inspired
Use photos, letters (emails) and music for inspiration. I was lucky in that I’d kept all my letters from my husband, and I also had the letters I’d written to him during our long-distance relationship.
4. Write with Confidence
Don’t worry about letting your pen fly when you start writing. Since you know the plot – and the characters – already, writing the novel can be very quick. If you decide later to change scenes, plot or characters, that’s easy. I found that if I didn’t worry too much about how truthful – or not – the story was, my writing became much more fluid and confident.
5. Shorten the Timeframe
Do shorten the time frame of the story, it makes the plot more exciting. In real life events often occur slowly, and it’s only when you look back that you see the string of events and their significance to the plot.
6. Create Strong Characters
Do make your characters complicated and interesting. I’m not saying that your life is filled with boring people, but in order to make a story fly, it needs strong characters.
7. Reduce your Characters
Don’t include every real person in the novel. Too many characters are confusing to the reader. They make the story unnecessarily complicated and jarring. In The Englishman, I combined a few characters to make them stand out more and to increase the pace of the novel.
8. Use Dynamic Dialogue
Don’t use real dialogue. If you’ve ever listened to people on the bus – or even better – recorded a real conversation, you will find that people tend to take a long time to say what they mean. Real people use of a lot of unnecessary comments, such as ‘hmm’, ‘What I mean is’, ‘Really’. Cut, cut and cut again, is my advice!
9. Consider Using Third-Person Narrative
Think about using a third person narrative instead or first person. When I wrote The Englishman blog posts, I did use first person, but later when I began editing the novel, I decided to change the whole story into third person. This was advice given to me by one of my early readers, and I am eternally grateful for her comments. When you use your own life as a plot, the novel will seem too personal, and too much like an autobiography, with a 1st person narrative.
10. Edit, Edit, Edit
Do edit. I’m a firm believer in the editing process. I’ve lost count of how many versions of The Englishman I wrote. What I didn’t change, however, was the core of the novel; the true love story between an English naval officer and a Finnish student, and the obstacles they had to face in order to sustain their long-distance relationship.
Writing Your Version of History
Doris Lessing wrote in one of her memoirs that we all rewrite history and that therefore no autobiography can be an accurate account of events. I found out pretty soon that I was not capable of writing a memoir, even with my own version of the ‘truth’ so my only choice was to write a fictionalised account of the ‘truth’.
But I thoroughly enjoyed the process. So much so, that I am currently writing a sequel the The Englishman, which follows Kaisa as she tries to get to grips with her new life as an naval wife in the UK.Ten Top Tips about How To Turn Your Life Into A Novel by @helenahalme #amwriting Click To Tweet
Article Updated: March 2017
Since this article was originally published, Helena has completed a trilogy and prequel book in her Englishman series.
- The Finnish Girl: Can you be too young for love?
- The Englishman: Can their love go the distance?
- The Navy Wife: Can love stay on course?
- The Good Officer: Can they love again?