It's an interesting (and difficult) question. Unless we're writing well-researched historical fiction, we know we'll get in trouble if we create stories in exotic locations, about cultures we are unfamiliar with where characters experience things we know nothing about. In general:
- Housewives are probably better off not writing war stories.
- Career military officers should probably stay away from cozy English mysteries centered around domestic life.
On the other hand, staying too close to home creates its own pitfalls. Writing about our own dysfunctional family will create hard feelings.
They'll know it's about them
- Even if we disguise them by changing their names.
- Even if we change events around so they don't exactly match what really happened.
- The main character's aunt kills his uncle instead of his cousin.
- The main character's father is a doctor, not a lawyer, and has an affair with his patient, not his client.
No one will be fooled by these cosmetic changes. And the people close to us will see themselves as nothing more than fodder for our creative mill. Besides, they'll be offended at how we portray them.
Because, believe me: they don't see themselves in the same unflattering light we might .
And yet, our stories have to reflect who we are, what we've experienced, and what we've learned about life. Without something of ourselves infusing every line of our story, our writing has no soul, no heart, and no reader will feel a responsive thrill of recognition.
We can't write the literal truth because we want to "protect the innocent" (or not so innocent). Nor can we squeeze the life out of our stories by ensuring they offend no one.
So how do I handle this dilemma? I tell the emotional and spiritual truths about my life.
To do that, I have to place my emphasis on the internal landscapes of my characters, and these internal landscapes represent psychological places I, or people very close to me, have been.
But, you might say,
- you've written one novel about a movie star, and you ain't no movie star.
- You wrote a novel about Lakota spiritual practices, and you have never even met a Lakota medicine man.
True. But I have experienced the emotions and dilemmas of my main characters. And as far as the settings are concerned, I did a lot of research.
- I can create the external landscape through research.
- The internal landscape--the psychological landscape--comes from me.
Right now I am writing a novel about a college girl and a pimp. I know a lot about being a college girl--I used to be one. I know nothing about being a pimp. But this pimp suffers from feelings and conflicts that I do know a lot about:
- Discontentment with his life
- Feelings that are in conflict with "the rules" for success
- An inappropriate love.
So that's how I deal with the need to be "real" in my writing without telling my actual life story.
How do you do it?