How Much (Real Life) Is Too Much?
by Cavanaugh Lee

About a month ago, I was asked to write this guest post about whether an author should put her “real life” into her writing and, if so, how much is too much.  As coincidence would have it, later that same day I received a timely “mixed” review of my first novel, Save as Draft (“SAD”).  The critic gave my book three stars while simultaneously slamming me for “pilfering my personal life.”  She lamented how she would’ve enjoyed SAD much more had I concocted its entire plot from my vivid imagination.


Oh well at least she gave it three stars, right?

I guess so but it did get me to thinking… In SAD should I have written less of what I personally experienced and more about what I didn’t know?  Had I indeed “pilfered my personal life”?  Finally, (and this was the hardest question of all) did I have a vivid enough imagination to write a novel from scratch?

I’ve realized that there are no absolute answers to these questions (and if there’s anything I’ve learned from writing – the questions are the answers).  However, I have at the very least formed some generalized conclusions that will hopefully provide to you, aspiring writers and readers of fiction, food for thought.

First, a confession – I wrote SAD loosely based on real life events.  It was my first novel so I wrote about what I knew.  More than that though, I wrote about what I experienced and in fact my very reason for writing it was to figure out the answer to a certain personal quandary – why did my relationship with my ex-fiancé implode?  As I worked my way through the book, I worked my way through the problem.  Call it simple mathematics or self-indulgence if you will but as each chapter unfolded so too did my revelations on what had gone wrong.  And that is why I wrote SAD.

Writers often write about what they know.  Why?  For me as I said it was about finding the answers.  For others there may be different reasons.  Perhaps the writer has a personal story she feels compelled to tell.  Possibly she witnessed something that she has to further explore.  Maybe she simply wants to vent.  Regardless writers draw from their own lives because – quite honestly – real life is complex, unpredictable, and inspiring so why shouldn’t we look there?  It’s the best place to look!

But the larger issue is, of course, how much (real life) is too much?  At what point do writers “pilfer” their personal lives?

I wish I knew.

Had I not thanked in the book’s acknowledgements the two men who broke my heart would that reviewer have even known – or cared – that I wrote about my own break-ups in SAD?  Probably not.  It was the fact that she knew that I had based the book on my personal experiences that bothered her.  I chose to “thank” them for a reason though – I wanted them to have closure, I wanted them to know that I wasn’t angry, and, most important, I wanted them to know I was sorry that things hadn’t worked out the way they might have wanted.

I think if there can be an answer to the question – how much (real life) is too much – it would come back to the purpose for writing your book.  Writers write for both themselves and an audience.  But when you get right down to it, writers are writing for people just like themselves – I mean, the ultimate goal, the biggest compliment, is that a reader experienced something that you, the writer, did and thus felt a personal connection to your story.  I truly know that I did my job when a reader comes up to me at a book signing and says:

“I went through exactly what you did in SAD!  I totally related!”

To get that sort of “personal connection” from a reader, we often need to draw from our own personal experiences.  They make up who we are, what we do, where we go, who we see, and how we feel.  I say “we” instead of “you,” because “we” are “you” if the writer is writing it right.  My experiences are your experiences, and vice versa.  And for a reader to truly feel as if she connected to writer’s story – and to the writer herself even – well, we maybe have to pilfer our personal lives a little.

Or we can always write science fiction novels.

Me, I need to stick to what I know and hope others know the same thing.  Because if they do, well, I’m hoping they keep on reading!

Cavanaugh Lee was raised in San Francisco and received her undergraduate degree from UCLA’s School of Theatre and received her law degree from UNC. By day, she is a federal prosecutor in Savannah, Georgia and by night she is searching for true love and working on the sequel to Save as Draft. Learn more about Cavanaugh at