#GuestPost: @Moria_Forsyth on the ethics of using real life in #writing

A Present for the Writer

Writers are always being given presents. Not the diamond bracelet/Hermes handbag/two dozen red roses kind of present; not even the warm pyjamas/pruning shears/hardback book kind. People are always trying to give writers stories. ‘This would make a great book!’ Sometimes they add, ‘It’s amazing – I’m going to write it down one day’. They say this wistfully, and you know they never will. Perhaps that’s why they want to make you a present of it.


Moira Forsyth
Moira Forsyth

The trouble is, these stories are no good to the writer. We must find our own. An overheard conversation, a scene in a café, a crashed car in a ditch, a boy in a country lane: something resonates, catches light, and a story takes shape.


Readers also want something from you: where do you get your ideas? Is anyone in your book based on a real person? The truthful answer is 1. I don’t know and 2. They all are.

When I published The Treacle Well in 2015, I admitted it was my most autobiographical novel: it used my family background, the landscape where I grew up, and the ethics and beliefs that shot through my childhood like veins, carrying the lifeblood for what I would become, grown up. In every character there are elements of people I knew, family members, and me. Not a single character is that person.

As an editor I’ve had to check with authors writing memoir that they have either disguised/renamed real people in their work, or obtained permission to write about people they’ve known and have not represented altogether flatteringly. With a rather lively memoir, a libel lawyer went through it in detail!

I’ve never once asked that question of a novelist. I assume (I hope I’m right) that they make things up. That in the transference from real experience to fiction, events, people and experiences go through that magical transformation which means they serve the novel, not memory or reality. It certainly happens to me when I’m writing fiction: a character starts by being rather like someone I’ve known, very like, once or twice, but as the story progresses they acquire different characteristics and become simply themselves: they fit the novel.

This means that the ethical considerations which attach to using real life situations or real people in novels, should not cause concern. Of course writers use the truth – what matters is how they do. There’s one source for my new novel I won’t reveal when I discuss it, because there are people who might be hurt or offended. The story itself has become so different from the reality, no one would recognise it between the pages.

After 9/11, some writers felt they were unable to produce fiction – where could it go, after that? Then, gradually, novels appeared which used this, referred to it, or were based on it. Real life is, after all, even in the most speculative novels, the source of fiction. It’s not whether we use real life that matters, but what we do with it.

Book info

AMessageFrom the Other Side cover

‘A Message from the Other Side’, Moira Forsyth’s fifth novel, is published by Sandstone Press on 20 July 2017.

A Message From The Other Side

Author links

Twitter: @moira_forsyth

2 thoughts on “#GuestPost: @Moria_Forsyth on the ethics of using real life in #writing

  1. Very interesting. Yes, all of your life seeps in I think but how it comes out at the other side of the meat grinder is fascinating.

    1. there are so many shades of grey I think – maybe no such thing as a totally ‘real’ character as in historical fiction or totally ‘imagined’ one. and the writer may not be even aware at the time of what real people lurk behind one’s characters.

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