Many authors write a memoir first and then turn to fiction, as I did. While those first works of fiction often have some basis in real people and events, the outcome is largely fictional as the author molds the story line, characters, and events to achieve the best dramatic arc.
Susan Weidener’s new novel A Portrait of Love and Honor is a unique combination of fact and fiction because it’s based on her late-husband’s unpublished memoir. To celebrate the launch, Susan is giving away a copy of her new novel to readers of this blog. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment.
I had the pleasure of meeting Susan in Tucson this spring where she writes and leads memoir workshops. Here is her story.
A “Marriage” of Fact and Fiction
By Susan G. Weidener
I first made the decision to publish my late husband John M. Cavalieri’s memoir in 2013. As I looked out the kitchen window at a dreary gray Pennsylvania morning, I thought of John’s story. While he had tried to get it published before his death in 1994, it was rejected by traditional publishers. I always felt it both compelling and beautifully written. It seemed a waste to let it gather dust in the back of my closet.
I went upstairs and took Life with Honor from a carton with John’s West Point memorabilia; his yearbook, and the black and white photographs of him and fellow cadets. . . the track team for company G-1 where John was captain . . . John in full dress uniform. I read late into the morning. John was again in the room with me.
A thought took shape. What if I created a fictionalized love story to “embrace” John’s memoir of West Point? I visualized Jay Scioli (John’s pen name) meeting a 40-something divorced editor and author, Ava Stuart. Jay admires Ava’s writing and at a book signing approaches her about editing his memoir. As they work on it, they discover that indefinable chemistry and connection of two people searching for meaning and love in a life often marred with disillusionment and adversity. Thus, A Portrait of Love and Honor emerged over a two-year period of writing and rewriting.
Although I am a journalist and memoirist, fiction was no stranger to me. Between my sophomore and junior years in college, I wrote a historical romance set in the Court of King Charles II. After college, I worked on a contemporary novel – a thinly veiled memoir about a young woman who falls in love with the wrong guy and then travels solo across England, France and Holland searching for stories in her quest to become a writer.
John wrote his memoir in 1991 and 1992. In 1994, three weeks after his 47th birthday, he died of colorectal cancer. Upon rereading his story, I felt important questions remained unanswered. So I had to imagine what “Jay” might say in relation to his parents and their expectations . . . and his own desire to remain at the United States Military Academy at West Point against all odds.
I excerpted portions of the memoir, choosing those sections I felt most dramatic. I tried to intensify John’s experience at the Academy with more detailed writing and descriptions of the Hudson River Valley, the Academy during bleak winters, and more vivid character descriptions of the cadets who served as the centerpiece to his story.
Thus, a marriage of fact and fiction: a novel based on a true story.
My years as a journalist also taught me the importance of accuracy. I researched and double-checked what John wrote about West Point – how many graduates of the Class of 1966 died in Vietnam; the history, abuses and abolishment of the Fourth Class System – a form of hazing of plebes; who gave the commencement address for the Class of 1971. It helped, of course, that John and I had visited the Academy many times when we were married and talked often of his years there. My husband is buried in the Catholic cemetery overlooking the Hudson River at USMA. I have been back just once in 20 years to visit his gravesite. I plan another trip to the Academy this spring.
The setting of my novel is drawn from landscapes I most love: Chester County, Pennsylvania, where I live, and Tucson, Arizona, where I have been coming in winters to write and reflect. John and I never traveled to Tucson so the scenes between Jay and Ava that take place there are pure fiction.
Moving from memoir to fiction offered me a creative expression and vision for my husband’s story. I felt it showcased John’s memoir, making it more appealing to today’s readers. It also offered me the opportunity to craft a dramatic story . . . and while drawn from my own life with John, the story of two people destined to meet took on a life of its own.
Things I have learned:
- Write with imagination, heart and soul
- Do your research
- Create dramatic characters whose lives ring true
- Add conflict throughout the story
- Avoid excessive back story
- Create realistic dialogue
- Keep the story moving
- Be creative and have a vision for your novel
**Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a *free copy* of A Portrait of Love and Honor. The winner may choose either paperback or ebook. The drawing will be held on May 15, 2015.
Susan hosts the Women’s Writing Circle, a welcoming and encouraging site for writers. I encourage you to check out her blog and all of her books. You can get your copy of A Portrait of Love and Honor NOW on Amazon in paperback or on Kindle, and at Barnes & Noble.
Author Bio: Susan G. Weidener is the author of two memoirs, Again in a Heartbeat, a memoir of love, loss and dating again, and the sequel to that, Morning at Wellington Square. A former reporter with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Susan has interviewed a host of interesting people from all walks of life, including Guy Lombardo, Bob Hope, Leonard Nimoy and Mary Pipher. Susan earned a BA in Literature from American University and a master’s in education from the University of Pennsylvania. An editor, writing coach and teacher of writing workshops, Susan founded the Women’s Writing Circle, a support and critique group for writers in suburban Philadelphia. She lives in Chester Springs, PA.
Her website is: www.susanweidener.com