Your Life is a Novel, Not a Biography


Unless you’re a spy or a contract assassin, the biographical details of your life are not up for debate. Where you were born, and when, and to whom: those are facts that can be verified. The rest of your life, however, is fiction.  Or, at the very least, part fiction. Think about it.  Your experiences, your relationships, your successes, your failures: these are all contingent upon memory, and memory is an imperfect thing.  There is no true or false where memory is concerned.  There is only interpretation.

And interpretation is what fiction writers do.

More specifically, interpretation is what mystery writers do.

Give you an example. I recently published a noir thriller called Alphabet Landwhich is about a crime-riddled neighborhood where all the streets are named after letters and are controlled by a drug kingpin named Luke Bump. Now I got the idea from a friend of mine who told me about a place called Alphabet Hill, a dangerous neighborhood near my house where all the streets are named after letters.  “I don’t believe you,” I said to my friend. “You’re making this up.”  So he drove me there one afternoon, and I saw street signs with bullet holes in them, trash-strewn sidewalks, broken-down shotgun shacks, and homeless people everywhere. I saw a debilitated park where kids were selling drugs. I was terrified. But then I saw a guy in a flannel shirt at a picnic table, smoking and playing chess against himself. And from that one image, I crafted the protagonist in Alphabet Land, a chess-playing “problem-solver” named The Rook, who is hell-bent on cleaning up the neighborhood.

Now, here’s the interesting part. Whenever I ask my friend about the day he drove me to Alphabet Hill, he claims there was no flannel-wearing, chess-playing man at a picnic table. Which begs the question? Who’s right, and who’s wrong? And the answer is, it doesn’t matter. I remembered the event one way, and he remembered it another.  I have my version, which I shaped and crafted into a novel, and he has his version.

Which brings me to my point: writers interpret reality; they don’t invent it. So if you’ve ever fudged a few details when telling an amusing anecdote to your friends over drinks, if you’ve ever changed the names, dates, and/or locations to satirize the innocent and the not-so-innocent, then you’re already a writer. So you might as well write down your story. And just remember, if you make it a mystery, the suspects all must have motive, means, and opportunity.