Real Feelings

Novels should tap into emotions. If a reader doesn’t react to your book, she’s likely to put it aside in favor of another book that touches her heart and mind. One-star book reviews hurt; but at least if a reviewer passionately hates your book, you’ve evoked emotion. In some ways, a three-star review calling the book bland is worse.

This time last year, I was happy in the knowledge that both of my parents enjoyed vibrant lives. Years ago, I witnessed the decline and passing of all four of my grandparents and how my parents responded, so I possessed secondhand knowledge of the reality of losing a parent. I knew the passing of a parent is beyond awful. But the depth of pain was still in the abstract for me.

When Daddy passed away in August, that abstract knowledge became all too real. Everything everyone had warned about and talked about turned out to be true, only worse. But I have been blessed to be loved by friends and family.

When you write characters, it’s unlikely you’ve experienced firsthand everything you want to convey. Considering most novels focus on high drama, that’s a good thing! But of course, sometimes we reach into the well of firsthand experience to write.

I never want to write about the death of a parent; but if I do, I know the book I would write today would be utterly different than the book I would have written two years ago.

How about you? Will you share your experiences?

Your turn:

In your writing, when have you needed to write from the abstract?

When have you written from firsthand experience?

How were those two writing experiences different from each other?

Do you feel your writing was more effective when you wrote from firsthand experience? Or not? Why?

In your next novel, what primary-experience emotions will you write about? Why?

35 Responses to Real Feelings

  1. Avatar
    Christina Lorenzen February 7, 2019 at 5:51 am #

    This is an interesting conversation. In most of my books, I have written from the abstract. In Healing Seas, a historical novel, I wrote about a young woman who has survived the Titanic and must go to live with an aunt she has never met. I certainly did not know the devastation a survivor of this disaster would feel. If any of my books had some of my firsthand experience it would be The Silvershell Beach Inn, a romance set in the town my mother grew up, where I spent all of my childhood summers until I was sixteen. One of the biggest differences was having an acute knowledge of the setting and the people who live in that town. I do feel my writing might be more effective since this particular book shows the deep connection between the main character and her grandmother, very much like my connection was with my now deceased grandmother. This post definitely has me thinking, Tamela 🙂

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    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 7, 2019 at 6:02 am #

    ‘Tis gratifying to be Vulcan,
    not to live as humans must.
    The purge of all emotion
    leaves me stable, calm and just.
    My blood is never quickened
    by a sudden heartfelt urge,
    nor can my soul be sickened
    by the most tragic dirge.
    My faith is born of logic
    that Christ is whom he claims.
    Not based in the biologic
    passion of true love’s flames.
    Rest assured I’m not denigrating
    emotion; I find it “Fascinating.”

  3. Avatar
    Loretta Eidson February 7, 2019 at 6:03 am #

    I, too, have lost both sets of grandparents, but I still have my mom and dad. Even though I’ve lost my mom to Alzheimer’s, I cannot imagine the pain of losing her in death. Life has a way of introducing a smorgasbord of emotions.

    In writing, I try to imagine myself wearing my characters shoes and experiencing their emotions through each situation. I do think first hand experience allows you to make a deeper impact on readers emotions, but I also believe you can draw from the emotions you’ve witnessed in others during their lives and experiences.

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    Jill Weatherholt February 7, 2019 at 6:15 am #

    I do feel my writing is stronger when I write from firsthand experience. One of my first published short stories was written shortly after my mother was diagnosed with dementia. I remember crying as I wrote about a daughter caring for her father, a retired lighthouse keeper, who had Alzheimer’s. That said, I don’t think we always need firsthand experience in order to move the reader. Sometimes I think we can tap into how we think we would feel. I’m really sorry for your loss, Tamela. Like yourself, my parents are my world and it’s difficult to imagine a life without them.

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    Terri L Gillespie February 7, 2019 at 6:26 am #

    Wow. You want us to peel back our writer’s skin and get to the scary part — the heart of those emotions.

    I loved what Brandlyn Collins said about digging out the emotions. It happens when we find the lowest common denominator. She said she doesn’t know what it’s like being a serial killer, but she knows what it’s like to want to kill a pesky fly. She takes that feeling and magnifies it.

    In my finished manuscript, I don’t know what it’s like to be a saved exotic dancer hiding her past, but I know what shame feels like. I know what it feels like to think I have to prove myself to others, and even to God. Those are universal concerns that I can build on. Also, research. Talking to those brave women who left the business. But, it feels wrong to use their emotions. I feel I need to take ownership of it otherwise it won’t be authentic for the character. Does that make sense?

    Nonfiction is my outlet for sharing personal experiences. My women’s devotional and daily blogs are good exercises in developing “real” feelings in fiction. While they are different because the nonfiction are my stories, I can take that lowest common denominator and broaden it to be included in my characters’ sketches and story arcs.

    My current project deals with rejection — that longing for acceptance. The characters’ stories are unique and dramatic, but the feeling is universal.

    And Tamela, so sorry for your loss. Having lost my dad over 20 years ago, I can say I still have deep emotions about the loss — usually around the anniversary of his death and his birthday. It’s gets easier, but never goes away. Blessings.

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    Ginny Graham February 7, 2019 at 6:35 am #

    Pamela, I am so sorry about the loss of your dad. Thank you for sharing. I lost my husband after forty-nine years, three month and twenty-four days of marriage. Loss puts a new dimension into our writing and I tread lightly when I write about the abstract. I am writing a novel about a widow and while I am shedding many tears the good news is: she’s going to be okay, just as I, praise the Lord, will be okay because of my faith in Him. God bless and comfort you.

  7. Avatar
    Joan Donaldson February 7, 2019 at 7:36 am #

    I am sorry about the death of your father. Having experienced the death of a parent and a son, I understand some of your pain. When writing about emotional subjects, Jane Yolen points out that she has never murdered a person, yet she can dig out that sort of anger and channel it into her character as that person kills someone. I think as writers, we need to exploit the emotions that we have experienced. Fear, anger, pain, we’ve all understand them to some degree. Thanks for your offering

  8. Avatar
    Tamela Hancock Murray February 7, 2019 at 7:41 am #

    Thank you all for your comments and condolences. I appreciate all of you so much!

  9. Avatar
    Seralynn Lewis February 7, 2019 at 7:45 am #

    My grandfather’s death hit me greater than any other family death. At 21, he was the first family member to die. It hit me particularly hard because we lived with him and my grandmother. He was the one who always held me in his lap when I was a child. He was the one who dried and dressed me as a toddler. And I have pictures of him holding me as a baby. It was so painful, I dreamt about him off and on for months.

    I have written from first-hand experiences. Those are ones that pour out from the heart but it doesn’t mean other non-first-hand experiences can’t evoke strong emotions. It just means I have to dig deep into my soul to search for the words that evokes what I’m trying to portray.

  10. Avatar
    Sherri stewart February 7, 2019 at 7:58 am #

    I’m just finishing up an edit for a client who taps that inner raw hurt after losing her husband. You can tell when writing goes deep.

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    Darlene L. Turner February 7, 2019 at 8:24 am #

    I’ve lost both of my parents and it’s tough. Tapping into that grief for our characters is powerful in our writing. Makes it more real. Thanks for this post, Tamela. Thinking of you.

  12. Avatar
    Sharon Connell February 7, 2019 at 8:42 am #

    A lot of my writing comes from first-hand experience. But then I have lived a long time and have experienced much. 🙂 But other scenes come from situations I’ve never been in. In those cases, I draw from other books I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, TV programs, and the news for the emotions and actions in the characters.

    If there’s a real difference in the writing, I’m not sure. I try to put myself into the characters shoes (or skin) whether it’s something I’ve experienced myself or not. As far as I’m concerned, it’s important to immerse ourselves in our characters and act out the part before we put it down in writing.

  13. Avatar
    Christine L Henderson February 7, 2019 at 8:54 am #

    I write devotionals, so it is normal for me to tap into my experiences to convey a concept. However, with only a one-page format I can’t go into it too deeply due to word count.

    When I do novel writing, it’s a different story. It’s easy to take my experiences and heartbreaks and pour them into a fictional character.

    I believe that all our experiences can be used to encourage and strengthen ourselves and those we come in contact with – either on the page or in person.

    I’ve lost both my parents and grandparents which reminds me of my own mortality. That makes me more aware of how precious time is and the need to cherish the time remaining with my siblings.

  14. Avatar
    Kristen Joy Wilks February 7, 2019 at 9:32 am #

    Well, I was not writing from first hand experience when I had the heroine in my WIP attacked by squids. My life has been incredibly bland on the squid attack front, but I watched videos and interviews of that wildlife photographer who was attacked by squids on camera and as Terri says, was able to pull from my own fear of swimming in dark water and wondering what exactly is below me. But I did write from experience in my middle grade WIP when I had 12-year-old boys who had to preform CPR on their dad, call 911, and run for the neighbor. When I was 14 I had to call the neighbors to come and help, call my grandma and ask her to call 911, and then rush outside and preform CPR on my dad when he died. The characters had some of my emotions from that day, but they reacted very differently then I did, so that was very weird. To put my experience into the lives of characters I really loved and watch how each of them reacted to it, none in exactly the way I had. In all honesty, I’m not sure which was more powerful because with the real experience, one tends to pull away from that strong emotion and it is a fight to portray it. Not sure if I did it well or not, this is after all an unsold manuscript. I hope to find out someday, though. My condolences, Tamela. This is indeed a tough time.

  15. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 7, 2019 at 9:43 am #

    Regret is the pale doppelganger of loss, and I have found that there is an atonement…

    To have to travel on alone,
    an empty place now at my side,
    I wish now death could atone
    for sharing sacrificed to pride.
    The kind moments left unborn
    aborted by the stiffest neck
    haunt my ev’ry night and morn,
    each desolate footfall of the trek.
    What might have been wafts away,
    impervious to my tears and care,
    and tomorrow can’t save yesterday,
    but there’s a road for my soul to dare:
    the heart within, self-smote and riven,
    resolute to live for what might have been given

  16. Avatar
    Joey Rudder February 7, 2019 at 12:54 pm #

    Oh Tamela, I’m sorry you experienced all of the pain you were warned about after your dad passed away. Truly, I’m sorry. I pray God continues to bring you comfort and peace.

    I was extremely close to my grandma and when she passed away in 2006, well, I was devastated. When I remember the REALLY bad days, it makes me wonder why I would want to write about that much pain.

    But I think I need to write about it. I think writing about painful moments is not only therapeutic (helping me to uncover those painful things I’ve buried so the healing can begin) but it draws me closer to God. It’s like I’m inside the story, experiencing the pain, but I’m also at my keyboard and God is whispering, soothing me at the same time (usually as I’m sobbing!).

    My next novel is going to deal with losing someone close, and I’m probably going to be revisiting the days after I lost my grandma.

    Hmmm…I just remembered when I would share my short stories with her, I would say, “If it doesn’t make you cry, then I did something wrong.”

    I suppose that has stuck with me all these years, and it’s still the way I hope to write…wanting my readers to feel something and be drawn closer to God.

    Blessings to you always.

  17. Avatar
    Stacy T. Simmons February 7, 2019 at 1:06 pm #

    I am so sorry Tamela. I lost both my dad and all three surviving grandparents within a year and a half. If I ever have the courage to write a death scene, I could use the feelings I’ve experienced. Prayers for you.

  18. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D February 7, 2019 at 1:12 pm #

    Hi Tamela:
    I have written quite a bit from personal experience but I also let my imagination ask “what if?” I think that personal experience can be a springboard to understanding who the characters are and how they would react.

  19. Avatar
    Lila Diller February 7, 2019 at 1:24 pm #

    When I first started trying to write novels just out of college, I would never have dreamt of touching such a serious subject as suicide. My worlds were all fantastical worlds where very little wrong ever happened (which is why my plots never made it past the first few chapters).

    But when my sister tried to commit suicide in 2015, it rocked my world. And I knew that I needed to share the family’s story in the guise of fiction. So I finished my first story ever (outside of college assignments) and self-published it quickly to get the word out! Though I’ve since learned a little more patience and have needed to revise this story several times, I still receive emails from total strangers that say the interaction with the sister who tried to commit suicide really touched them!

  20. Avatar
    Julie Surface Johnson February 7, 2019 at 2:16 pm #

    Dear Tamela,

    Your post hits home for me. I’ve experienced loss of friends, grandparents, parents, even a child. But losing my husband this past year has taken me to a level of grief I’ve never known before and has caused me to understand the unique pain of widowhood. In the future, when I’m able, I may write a novel with widows in mind. In the meantime, I’ve discovered a depth of emotion that is helping me relate to and define my characters.

    • Avatar
      claire o'sullivan February 7, 2019 at 4:40 pm #

      Oh, Julie, I am so sorry for your loss. I am praying for comfort from God to wrap you in His arms.

  21. Avatar
    claire o'sullivan February 7, 2019 at 4:09 pm #

    Tamela –

    I can’t say enough how sorry I am for the loss of your beloved dad. It cuts deep and talking about it is too raw, and platitudes don’t help.

    For my writing, I make weird fMCs with serious flaws. I have them, we all do, and I draw on my experiences. I’m sarcastic and growing up in a home rife with a blade of with makes for great comebacks. I lost both my parents, and years later, my brother, sister-in-law, and cousin within the space of three months. My sister disowned me because of my faith. That leaves a mark. While I have no idea how to break into a building (ok someone sorta taught me but not that I practice) or rappel. Nor can I hack a computer but the emotions surrounding loss, pain, fear of getting close–those I can relate to. Many emotions come from what I see in people watching or what my family had been through.

    This is such a timely post because I am struggling with the end of my novel. I want it to be worth remembering, not just finishing. I want people to know that salvation is real, that love can be attained–and gut-wrenchingly pulled away. So my fMC is beaten to a pulp (emotionally–and I have been there) and the love of her life is gone (hang on it’s a HEA). But I am twisting the knife but just am having difficulty turning the ‘gone’ into the ‘return.’ That end is different voice, hers as well, as a defeated soul. So been there too. BTW I go through the five stages of grief every time I write this scene…

    The HEA is shortly after her disjointed recollection of how things had progressed, and while I want people to understand WHY she is so messed up, I don’t know how to dialogue this part. Never been a ‘resurrected’ mMC love interest in my life. That’s pretty abstract… However if I look more closely at the Gospel writings, I can see confusion, disbelief, grief, fear. Just not all of the same emotions. erg.

  22. Avatar
    Kathryn J Bain February 7, 2019 at 4:14 pm #

    I’ve written in the abstract for most of my books because most of them are suspense, and I don’t have a lot of murder in my life.

    However, I wrote a nonfiction book that delved into my relationship with my father that drew blood and tears. And now, I’m working on a middle-grade book where I’m using a couple of things that occurred back then that still hurt today. I seem to feel better once I get these things out though.

    Great post.

  23. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 7, 2019 at 4:23 pm #

    A bit late with this, but what the heck.

    If you’re going to write about combat, talk to a combat veteran. If you haven’t experienced it, both the highs and the lows, you’ll never get it right.

    If you want a primer, I would recommend Al Sever’s “Xin Loi, Viet Nam”. He gets it right in this memoir.

    Ditto for PTSD. The common view of combat-related PTSD is that it’s about shame and guilt, and that is in most cases really, really far from the mark.

    Combat trauma comes from the realization that you will never be as awesome as you once were, and that civilian life has NOTHING to offer that match the sense of purpose.

    It’s not a liberal self-agonising guilt-trip; it’s an exile from Valhalla.

    Think it’s ugly?

    Remember this:

    “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

    • Avatar
      claire o'sullivan February 7, 2019 at 4:37 pm #

      I agree, Andrew. I have to talk to cops, take verbal experiences from PTSD vets (they don’t talk a lot about the actual experiences -I worked on a psych ward. I wasn’t a patient there, just in case you wanted clarification).

      I had a friend who suffered severe PTSD from abuse, and I can draw from her behaviors, since she was less than truthful about her history. But I can understand shame.

      I have a book in the works including combat (it’s sorta done but in the line to be edited) with combat scenes in a world of intrigue.

      • Avatar
        Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 7, 2019 at 4:51 pm #

        Claire, abuse is totally different…an I don’t pretend to understand PTSD from that angle.

        I would recommend Jonathan Shay’s seminal work, ‘Ulysses in Vietnam’,as a resource.

        BTW, it really is Viet Nam, which translates as ‘far south’.

        It ain’t ‘farsouth’.

  24. Avatar
    claire o'sullivan February 7, 2019 at 5:02 pm #

    Completely different, similar in some ways. But my experience (way back when) was with Viet Nam vets. A tough group. They always were polite (like, to me) jocular, but never spoke to me of the actual experiences. I had an old book with a vet who’d suffered PTSD and I wrote out of my experiences with the Viet Nam vets but had to conjure up inner feelings. I will check out that book, I am reading one by a Marine pilot his experience that was ‘under control’ until his brother was in a non-fatal accident and everything fell apart, came back in a rush, he flooded. This is similar in a way to abuse victims, particularly sexually abused kids. Something will trigger, they rush to a closet, fetal position and cry for hours, their behaviors become controlling, alcoholic, drug abuse, some seek counseling but it doesn’t help. For vets, unless the counselor or the writer was there, they/we have NO CLUE. We cannot. We can only try and seek someone’s (vet) blessing. Usually in a Yes or No. And not much else.

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 7, 2019 at 5:11 pm #

      My dear Claire,, I’ve been to all of those places, and the only thing I can say that makes sense, said, to a counselor, is, “You weren’t f***ing there!”

      It’ a closed brotherhood. The road to acceptance (even for an outsider (like Shay) is long, hard, and humbling.

      And, no matter what, there are things I will never share, because a civilian would never unerstand.

  25. Avatar
    claire o'sullivan February 7, 2019 at 5:39 pm #

    My son is in the thick of it. I know better than to ask, because I know that I don’t know, and can never know. I know what he did, I have seen the change in him, but I have not heard the bullets coming, the brothers dying, the suffering, I just cannot. I can’t even manage how to imagine. Unless I join (at like, my age…) and jump into the line of fire to save or hope to save those go down (he was spec forces combat medic, jumping from helos), I can worry, but I can’t know or feel it. I had a Viet Nam vet help me with the scenes from the combat side but he too couldn’t share. My dad was a Marine, and he couldn’t share about WWII.

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 7, 2019 at 5:49 pm #

      Claire, another resource is David Bellavia’s “House To House”, his memoir of Fallujah and Urgent Fury.

      On a personal note, if I may ask for your prayers…rising tumours in the chest, hard to breathe, and pain unrelenting. I think I may be in trouble here.

      Semper Fi.

      • Avatar
        Judith Robl February 7, 2019 at 7:38 pm #

        Oh, Andrew!

        Father God, we ask your richest blessings on our precious Andrew. In Jesus’ most precious name. Amen.

      • Avatar
        Tamela Hancock Murray February 11, 2019 at 9:20 am #

        Andrew, I continue to pray.

  26. Avatar
    claire o'sullivan February 7, 2019 at 6:04 pm #

    Thank you for the suggestions, and Andrew, am praying. I am close to starting A New Mexico Christmas, btw…

  27. Avatar
    Brennan S. McPherson February 7, 2019 at 7:54 pm #

    I’ve never felt my writing is better when writing from first-hand experience. I’ve just felt it comes easier. If we just write what we know, or what we experience, we’re journalists. Fiction lives in the realm of imagination, and your imagination, not your experiences, is what gives it the stuff it’s made of. But experiences do give you interesting details to draw from immediately. At least, that’s how I think of it.

  28. Avatar
    Jennifer Mugrage February 8, 2019 at 7:56 am #

    Let me add my voice to those offering condolences.

    I think it is absolutely true that for good writing, we need a certain amount of emotional maturity. Not that we can experience everything we write about. But we do have to be acquainted with grief in some form.

    Like many writers, I’ve been “writing my whole life.” But the stuff I wrote as a young person was TRASH. Mostly because I had no idea how people worked. I didn’t even understand or fully experience my own emotions. Too scared.

    My writing is better now (of course, there was no way to go but up) that I’ve lived through international moves, family crises, a loved one’s severe depression, and have had a few babies. Throughout all this, the Holy Spirit has been working on my heart to make it more tender and perceptive. The way a human heart is meant to be, with Jesus as the template. I now can’t believe how unintentionally hard and cold my reactions used to be, to others’ suffering.

    I do find that the more emotional scenes in a novel are the ones I have to rewrite the most. The first draft is usually … Clunky.

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