Shortly after my first book hit the shelves, an acquaintance confided that she almost couldn’t finish reading it because she felt as if she were prying into my life. “It was just so… intimate!” she’d said. I was equal parts astonished that she actually thought it was autobiographical and flattered that she thought I lived (or once lived) such an exciting life. I mean, I love my life, but it’s vastly different from the fictional worlds I create for my heroines.
But after I thought about it, I could see where she might have drawn that conclusion. While I’m a bit older than most of my heroines, I do tend to lend them characteristics and features similar to my own. Still, my heroines are not me. I don’t write about myself as much as I write about observations and what I find interesting.
Take, for example, my first book, REINVENTING OLIVIA. It was born one night when my husband and I were out to dinner at a trendy downtown restaurant. As we approached, I heard the faint sound of dance music coming from the loft condos above the restaurant. When I looked up, I saw a hand holding a drink over the balcony rail. I thought, wow, if I were young and single that’s where I’d live… and the story took off on its own. So, while my heroine, Olivia, was most decidedly not me, she was definitely a child of my imagination, born out of what-ifs and shades of possibility.
Within the pages of my thirty-four (and counting) books I’ve drawn on my own life experiences (because the first rule of writing is write what you know). I’ve borrowed characteristics from real-life villains (uhh–hmm – bosses) and given them their comeuppance on the page, or rewritten an unsatisfying true-to-life experience so that it ended happily, but the majority of my plots and characters come from the most unexpected places. That was the case with my book WITH VIOLETS (HarperCollins) – written under my historical nom de plume, Elizabeth Robards.
I’ve always been infatuated with the French Impressionists. So when my husband and I went to Paris, I was anticipating a daytrip to Giverny, Claude Monet’s home and famous gardens. Before we boarded a train at the Gare Saint-Lazare, to make our way to Giverny, we stopped at the Musée Marmottan to see Monet’s famous ‘Impression, Sunrise’ (Impression: Soleil Levant), the painting that launched the French Impressionist movement.
Little did I know, but I was about to meet painter Berthe Morisot on the second floor of the Musée Marmottan. Not literally, of course, because she died in 1895. However, I saw her work for the first time and a photograph of her with her family. Something about the photo haunted me and urged me to research her life. In doing so, I discovered the tale of a deeply complex, richly talented woman who bucked nineteenth century convention to become one of the world’s greatest artists and the heroine of WITH VIOLETS.
The research and the story were labors of love. And while the Berthe Morisot I wrote is not really like me – well, except for her strong, independent streak and a great passion for what she loved – I think there’s a little bit of every woman in her.
Anyhow, when a fertile imagination has its way with an interesting subject… Well, that’s how stories are born. Whether or not the plot is autobiographical, a writer can’t help but infuse a little of herself into the story.
Have you ever related to a fictional character so much that she seemed real? Who was it and what about her grabbed you?