Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Memoir or Fiction?

Women who have unusual occupations or do out-of-the-ordinary things have always been a source of fascination to me.

Maybe it’s because I was raised as an independent self-reliant girl on an isolated eastern Montana ranch.

Or maybe because I had a grandmother who rode steers in rodeos during the 1920s.

For many years, I believed her story should be told. But she wasn’t a famous personality like Annie Oakley or Dale Evans, so who would be interested in publishing a biography about a little-known Montana cowgirl from the 1920s?

Still, because I was a journalist, at first I attempted to write non-fiction stories based on anecdotes my dad told me or newspaper clippings I found in a scrapbook my grandmother put together.

The stories were stilted, the characters wooden. I was frustrated. I knew these people. Why couldn’t I make them come alive on the page?

I finally realized I was too close to the subject. I couldn’t put words in my grandparents’ mouths. I didn’t know how they felt. I wished they were still alive so I could talk to them. But they weren’t.

So I changed my grandmother’s name and created a fictional character, Nettie Brady. I could still use Grandma’s experiences and combine them with stories about other cowgirls of that era. I could add conflict where it may not have existed in her real life, and I could add emotional reactions to make my character come alive.

But I still had some trouble. I wrote scenes that did nothing to move the plot forward, just “because it really happened that way.” I remember many spirited discussions with my critique group over these scenes, where one fellow writer accused me of writing “like a journalist.”

Well, I bristled, I AM a journalist!

I later realized that was her way of saying that I was “telling” rather than “showing.” Ah, so much to learn! I signed up for an extension program course in fiction writing through my local university. The theme refrain for this class and its critique groups was “Feelings.” After constant reminders: “What is she feeling here?” or “What does sad feel like?” I learned to show my character’s emotions through her actions and reactions, rather than telling my readers she was angry, or sad, or frustrated. (I still work on that with every draft I write!)

Many of us spend countless hours writing and rewriting a scene “because it’s true.” Or including long paragraphs of statistics, because it’s historical fact and “it’s interesting.”

But is the truth always interesting? Does it serve the action, the forward movement of the story? Does it develop your character into a living, breathing, feeling person that your readers can identify with?

Not always.

I found I had to give myself permission to “let go of the truth” to write a better story, a stronger character.

That did not mean giving up historical facts or even great anecdotes. But I needed to customize those facts and stories to fit my character and my plot. Did I need a half-page list of what items were available at the grocery store and what they cost in 1929? Isn’t it fascinating to compare to what things cost today? Yes, it is. But I only needed one or two items that were relevant to the story and important to the character in this particular scene to show this information.

In the first draft I had a great scene where Nettie and her father go to check on the school teacher after a bad blizzard to find that she’d run out of coal for the fire and was almost frozen to death. But was it relevant to the rest of the story? No, it was just an aside. Nettie was no longer attending school, the teacher was not a major character in the story, and I had plenty of great cold winter/blizzard stories already. I took it out. The story read just fine without it—better, in fact.

So, including information and scenes in your book just “because they’re true” does not necessarily make it a good story. It’s fiction, and you can take liberties with the truth to make it more interesting. That's why I chose to write a novel, rather than a biography or memoir.


A native Montanan, Heidi Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. She has just had her first novel published, Cowgirl Dreams, based on her grandmother. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series, and blogs.

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  1. Heidi, thanks much for your entry in Blood Red today. I, like you, made some of those discoveries when I took a true story and turned it into a mystery in my first book, Dance On His Grave. Agreed, we have to let go of the truth. And your story founds fascinating. I'll definitely look for it.

  2. I'm having some such difficulties with my Our Little Rascal book about our dog. The first part is written from her point of view and I've made up her surroundings and how she got loose. The next part deals with how my husband and I came to adopt her. I decided to change our names. Next, I have to decide how many actual events and what thoughts we had would be interesting to readers, specifically, children.

    Morgan Mandel

  3. Thanks, Heidi. I struggled with many of the same issues, since I'd done "PR" writing for 30+ years. It's why I went back to school at 53 -- to learn how to tell my story using fiction techniques. With memoir, you can leave out details, but cannot manipulate or distort the truth. Much harder to make a story arc flow and read like a novel.

  4. You've made some excellent points, Heidi. Fictionalized true stories must be hard to write. I tried to use a real place as part of the setting in my first mystery and got all tangled up in the memories that were associated with that place. I had to delete big chunks of one chapter because it was nothing more than a memory dump.

  5. Great points, Heidi. If it really hurts to cut scenes that you think are vivid and worth telling, but don't fit the book, you (the writer) can keep in mind that you may find a home for it in another book.

    Straight From Hel

  6. Great article. I hadn't thought about writing a memoir just like this. Thanks. I'll be twitting this article.
    Jo Ann Hernandez
    BronzeWord Latino Authors

  7. Wonderful post, Heidi. I am still amazed at your grandmother. I need to get this book!

  8. Like Helen has said it is a good idea to save those cut aways. You never know when you might be able to use them. They might make a book or short story on their own.

  9. Or you could post them as Penny Dreadful at http://pdreadful.blogspot.com - I'm always trying to use this crazy blog to promote authors.


  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Sometimes I think I understand the difference between the telling and the showing, making it real and believable. And then I forget what it was that I understood.
    I have become self-tortured by the esoteric rules of creative non-fiction. It's time to become excited about their stories again.

  11. Great article, Heidi!

    I have been struggling with telling/showing my stories based on truth and historical facts. Now I know which direction to take in order to make my stories interesting reads.

    Thanks! This was very helpful.


  12. Writing historical fiction based on real people is tricky (like your grandmother). Memoir has its own issues.

    I'm planning on using the journals of my great grandfather who was a surgeon in the Civil War to round out a historical fiction novel I'm gathering research for. I'll use some of his words and experiences (He was at Gettysburg) but the character will be totally fictional. I'll have to know the historic facts and the times, but the story will be my creation.

  13. Sounds like an interesting path you trod to reach your conclusions. You make both your grandmother and Nettie sound utterly fascinating. What great characters.

  14. Heidi,

    Thanks. I too, am writing a fiction novel that is based on true experiences and at times it sounds dry. Omitting things that are irrelevant and "showing" vs "telling" really stuck out at me.

    Thanks Again


  15. Heidi,

    Thanks. I too, am writing a fiction novel that is based on true experiences and at times it sounds dry. Omitting things that are irrelevant and "showing" vs "telling" really stuck out at me.

    Thanks Again



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