Posted On January 22, 2014 by Print This Post

How To Turn Real Life Into Bestselling Fiction with Ruth Harris

We’ve heard it before…write what you know. Ruth Harris shares her tips on transforming real life events into compelling fiction. 


One of the questions writers hear most often is: Where do you get your ideas? We—certainly I—don’t always know but in the case of Decades, the story of a passionate love affair and a marriage at risk, the initial idea came from real life.

As I would find out, writing a novel based on a true story is a lot more than just banging out he-did-this-then-she-did-that. The challenge is turning real people, real events, and the messy confusion of everyday life into fiction.

Having no guidelines at the time I wrote Decades, I had to figure it out for myself. I made plenty of mistakes along the way but also had several advantages I wasn’t aware of.

1) Know your craft.

It’s absolutely basic but bears repeating: compelling fiction needs conflict, structure, resolution. Decades, originally published in hard cover by Simon & Schuster, was my first “big book,” but prior to writing it, I had been writing professionally for over ten years—for men’s and male adventure magazines and original paperbacks, mostly Gothic romances and romantic suspense, under a variety of pseudonyms.

In the process—and hardly intending to—I learned how to write action, conflict, character, emotion, and sex; how to grab a reader from the first sentence and how to create cliffhangers that would compel the reader to turn the page. That knowledge of the nuts and bolts of craft, learned over a lengthy period, would be the invaluable underpinning of the novel.

2) Coincidence—and discretion.

Also crucial to Decades was sheer coincidence. The coincidence was that I happened, quite by accident, to know each of the three main characters, two much better than the third. The three were:  a successful but restless husband at the Is-this-all-there-is? stage of life; his wife, the sheltered, insecure rich girl he marries on his way up; and “the other woman,” younger and more sophisticated than the wife.

At the time the actual events took place, I never thought to write about them. After all, a married man cheating on his wife is not exactly stop-the-presses news (unless the married man is a politician in which case all h*ll breaks loose!). Two of the people involved in the triangle confided details of “their” version because they knew they could trust me not to gossip. They didn’t know—nor did I—that years later, haunted by their stories, I would turn their drama into fiction.

3) Just because it’s dramatic and “really happened” doesn’t mean it’s good fiction.

In writing a novel based on real life, I faced the same challenges a writer does with any novel—the need to create believable characters and a dramatic plot—with the added twist of having to structure the formlessness, confusion, and messiness of everyday life into the demands of a novel. Knowing the “real story” turned out to be both an advantage and a challenge.

4) Protect the privacy of your “real life” characters.

Of course I changed names but, as I wrote, I realized it wasn’t enough to turn John Doe into Jack Delaney. A radical name change—to Alonzo Harrison, for example—helped guarantee JD’s privacy but, from a writer’s point of view, this seemingly small change completely liberated me from unwanted reminders of the “real” John Doe.

In addition to radical name changes for each character, I altered physical descriptions, biographical backstory, and personality traits in order to create credible fictional characters.

5)  Help your reader relate.

IRL the “other woman” was a stylish single girl with a high-profile job in fashion media and a social life to match. In the novel, I wanted a character more representative of wider experience so I left out the glitzy fashion-world details.

Instead, I portrayed a woman more characteristic of the 1950s who marries young, has two kids, then, immersed in diapers and domesticity, questions her earlier decisions. She and her husband—he was her college boy friend—divorce and she learns (the hard way) how to navigate a business world newly open to women.

Each of the other characters received a similar makeover. I made the husband handsomer and more successful than he really was and changed the details of his professional life. I gave the fictional wife a talent even she didn’t recognize—a talent that, in the end, would rescue her.

6) Give your characters room to roam.

IRL the story took place mainly in New York City but, as I wrote, I found the setting confining. In the novel, the characters do live in New York, but I invented scenes in Florida, Nantucket and the Caribbean. Using a variety of settings allowed me to show how the characters behaved in different geographies and in different social milieu.

Trust me, a week in the Caribbean with a wife is much different from a week in the Caribbean with a girlfriend in the midst of a steamy affair.  For the novelist, pure gold!

7) Expand the scope.

Almost any “real life” story by its nature, tends to be limited to the small circle of the people involved. (Unless your story is about someone who happens to be President of the United States and comes with a cast of thousands.) As I drafted the novel and its plot and characters gradually took shape, I wanted to explore the unintended consequences of an illicit love affair.

I ultimately created a teen-aged daughter torn three ways—between her charming, straying father, her loyal, devastated mother, and the come-hither lure of contemporary culture, in this case, the go-go 1960s.

8)  Look for the larger significance.

The final element that transformed real life into bestselling mainstream fiction came to me as I was halfway through the first draft. I realized that the age differences between the older married couple, the younger “other woman” and the couple’s teen-aged daughter led naturally to portraits of three transformational mid-20th Century decades—and to the title.

9) Beware of the “but it-really-happened” trap.

By the time you have done the work needed to create believable fictional characters, they will become distinct individuals. The characters you have created (as opposed to the “real” characters) will make decisions and that will almost certainly be different from what “really happened.”

You must go with the choices of your fictional characters, choices that make sense within the fictional world you have created. Only the amateur will cling to the fatal trap of “but it really happened.”

10) Take your time.

Only years after the actual events took place did I have the perspective I needed to write the novel. By the time I finished creating new names, inventing biographies, and adding plot twists, Decades moved with its own energy to a far different conclusion from the one in real life.

I was able to portray massive personal, cultural and social transformations in a way critics would call “absolutely perfect” and “gripping.” The rewards were beyond anything I’d imagined but the actual process did not come quickly or easily.

Are your characters or story premises based on your true life experiences?  

Author Nikki Gemmel joins us on Friday, January 24th. 


ChanelCaperCoverRHjpegTHE CHANEL CAPER


Blake Weston is a smart, savvy, no BS, 56-year-old Nora Ephron-like New Yorker. Her DH, Ralph Marino, is a très James Bond ex-cop & head of security for a large international corporation.

As the book opens, Ralph is about to hit the Big Six O and he’s not happy about it. Not that Blake is exactly thrilled about the prospect, either. Especially now that she suspects Ralph might be cheating on her with Melanie Bradshaw, a flak-jacket-wearing, gung ho war zone correspondent with a humongo pair of 36 Double D’s. Blake and Ralph survived (barely) the seven year itch but she wonders why no one warned her about the twenty-seven year itch.

Chick Lit for chicks who weren’t born yesterday, The Chanel Caper, is a romcom mystery-thriller. The story is about the ups and downs of long-term relationships and addresses two of the most important questions of our time: 1) Is there sex after marriage? 2) Is sixty the new forty?


 Bio: Ruth Harris is a New York Times bestselling author whose books (with Random House, Simon & Schuster, and St.Martin’s Press) have sold millions of copies in hardcover and paperback, been translated into 19 languages, published in 25 countries and selected by the Literary Guild and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Ruth started out in publishing right after she graduated from college. Her first job was as secretary to a textbook editor, an unpromising start if there ever was one, but she was soon promoted to copyediting—much more interesting.

She’s been a copywriter, assistant editor, editor, editor-in-chief and, eventually, publisher at Kensington.

Ruth blogs with author Anne R. Allen and WG2E. For inspiration and insight into Ruth’s world, check out her blog.

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12 Responses to “How To Turn Real Life Into Bestselling Fiction with Ruth Harris”

  1. Morning Ruth!

    Well, that certainly makes for a challenging story! If you changed the people’s names and behaviors, their looks etc, does the main story still play out the same? The story that drew you to tell it in the first place? Or did that change a bit along with the characters?

    Interesting – I guess I base some of my characters on people I know IRL, changing them up a bit in looks or over-exaggerating some of their characteristics. And sometimes they’re based on people I don’t even know, like Daniel Craig =) and what I “suppose” he’d be like as my character. =)

    I have a terrific imagination when it comes to Daniel Craig…lol..

    Thanks for the interesting post Ruth!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 22, 2014, 8:27 am
  2. Hi Carrie, The main story—about a cheating husband, a loyal wife, and the “other woman,” divorced and desirable—stayed the same. The theme was what interested me: how people get into situations they can’t escape and the unintended consequences that upend the lives of all involved.

    I did not write “good guys” and “bad guys” but instead tried to portray each character in a 3 dimensional way.

    Re Daniel Craig: He can be your hero with a thousand faces, the character you can write over and over. Hang on to him! 🙂

    Posted by Ruth Harris | January 22, 2014, 9:32 am
  3. Hi Ruth,

    I always draw from real life. My first book, All Hours Trading, includes my perceptions of a bunch of people I have worked with over years. Daniel Craig is a keeper!

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | January 22, 2014, 12:22 pm
  4. Great post! I’ve also done stories that started out based on an actual event, but they quickly become their own resolution and characters. It’s like doing a pencil sketch of a pond, but then painting a waterfall, if that makes sense.

    Posted by Robyn LaRue | January 22, 2014, 12:52 pm
  5. Hello, Ruth!

    Your post makes me want to re-read your books!

    Elements of my stories are drawn from personal experiences or those of people I know. I used to worry that the reader wouldn’t relate to the story’s premise or setting, but I’ve discovered that a character’s emotional journey, like loss, fear, and trust, is something all readers can identify with.

    Great point about true life events not being good material for a story. I think about that all the time when I read crazy stories in the paper. You can’t make some of this stuff up!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 22, 2014, 1:21 pm
  6. Jen, You’re right. Unless the writer turns “true life” into fiction, it just isn’t credible. Real life and real people are awfully nutty sometimes! 😉

    Posted by Ruth Harris | January 22, 2014, 2:35 pm
  7. This is wonderful, Ruth! When I first read this, numbers 3 and 4 really connected with me. But on re-reading the post, I can’t single out any of the numerical sub-headings because they ALL resonate with me!

    When I made my first attempt at fiction, I had spent 20 years writing non-fiction professionally. I had over 1,000 published articles and six books under my belt, but I learned very quickly that writing fiction is a whole different kettle of fish than writing non-fiction.

    I’ve been “learning by writing” – a process that, sadly, is proving that I’m a slow learner. I’m not giving up, even though I’m in a slump right now.

    I always bookmark your posts, Ruth, and this one is no exception! ((hugs))

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 22, 2014, 10:54 pm
    • Hi Becke, Thanks! Happy to learn the post resonated with you. I hope it helps in making your transition from non-fic to fic. They really are different critters!

      Aren’t we all slow learners when it comes to learning something new? I sure am. LOL

      Thanks again! xoxo

      Posted by Ruth Harris | January 23, 2014, 7:07 am
  8. Very interesting post, Ruth. I use my experience in my romantic thrillers, but much less directly, to lend motivation and emotional resonance to my characters’ actions and thoughts. Coincidentally, I just wrote a blog post in a similar vein.

    I’m going to keep your post handy, because I’m also working on a much-closer-to-home literary novel that turns on actual people and events in my life. Tricky business.

    One book I’d recommend to writers of serious, life-based fiction is The Courage to Write, by Ralph Keyes.

    Best of luck with your writing.

    Posted by Jane Taylor Starwood | January 24, 2014, 8:34 am
  9. Jane, thanks for the kind words. Tricky business, indeed. One pitfall is staying too close to the actual events. Everyday life is NOT the drama required for fiction.

    Posted by Ruth Harris | January 24, 2014, 10:38 am

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