Fact, Fiction or Autofiction?

by Joe Bunting | 52 comments

Doesn’t the best writing come from the heart; something experienced in real life? The writing that speaks directly to the reader and gets them involved in the event and the circumstances taking place?

fictionalized writing, autofiction

Photo by woodleywonderworks

Popularization of true events

This is the reason why memoirs are so popular and why movies based on a true story are appealing to wider audiences. The fact that those books and movies attract everyone is because the reader and spectator get more involved by being informed at the very beginning that what they are about to read/see is not false, someone’s fantasy or made up.

It’s not that well written Science Fiction stories aren’t properly received, but that real life stories connect to the audience on an emotional level, bringing a better understanding to the presented issue.

Write what you know

After all, the highly shared advice, ‘Write what you know,’ has a firm standing for a good reason.

If this is so, what happens with all those writers who feel they don’t have a significant real life story to tell, assured their lives are boring and not worthy enough to show?

One recommendation for them is to write well regardless of the topic/situation/issue they’re presenting. What if there’s another way—how about Autofiction?

Autofiction is a term used in literary criticism to refer to a form of fictionalized autobiography. That’s the strict meaning of the word. It can also refer to fictionalizing a real event of the writer’s life.

Imagine writing about your life, making great use of the knowledge you have in the situation, yet adding details that completely transform the story into something else.

What you get as a result is a story that captures the readers emotionally, while you can escape revealing your privacy with the fictional elements that alter the personal writing.

Imagine matching your best friend’s personality with the qualities of another friend, or the protagonist being you while you live the life of your neighbour, into whom you have a deep insight. The combinations and opportunities are endless and worthy of exploration.

A writer’s imagination coupled with good life experience and knowledge of the craft are a winning blend for a great story.

Do you use fictionalized personal events in your writing? Do those stories have a greater appeal to readers?


For fifteen minutes, write about a real life event or character, adding fictional elements to it, thus presenting it in a completely new light and post your practice in the comments. Choose something with an emotional appeal to you, which will show in the writing itself. Don’t forget to check out other practices and support your fellows.

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Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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  1. ChadMillerBlog

    Sophie, this is great! It is my aim to always impact people through a great story.
    Everyone has a great story to tell… so, okay, you may have to embellish a little, but isn’t that how our best, and sometimes worst, memories are? Often glamorized versions of what really happened.
    Your last sentence, “A writer’s imagination coupled with good life experience…” is perfect.

    • Sophie Novak

      Thanks so much Chad. Completely agree on the glamorizing what really happened to us – exaggeration is something with unconsciously do. It’s only human. Yet, the stories produced are usually incredible.

  2. Eric Schneider

    Where does THIS fit? My best story, “The Buddha and Matthew,” a first-person fiction that sold to the first magazine I submitted it to, sprang w/o warning (as I was doing some free-writing) from my fear -shared universally I suspect – that my son might be killed while still a child. When I adapted it to a short scrrrnplay it made the semifinals in a script comp, and now a producer is considering it. After publication, people would stop me on the,street and offer condolences; they thought it had been autobiographical.

    • Sophie Novak

      Wow, Eric this is exactly what I was trying to say – autofiction is so powerful. You translated your deep fear into an amazing story, which clicked with the rest emotionally. Way to go.

  3. PJ Reece

    And yet! In Y.A. fiction, it’s all fantasy and vampires and dystopias. And Hobbits and Batmans… all of which bore me to tears. But what does that say about what readers want and enjoy? Yes, give me the story that “rings” true. Which, by the way, doesn’t have to derive from personal events. “Personal experience” is probably a better source. The big problem with “true” stories is that the writer often feels obliged to hold to the facts, which may not serve the drama. (I will not watch a bio-pic…ugh.) Obviously, writing is far from an exact science. For that reason subjects like this will be forever intriguing. Thanks.

    • Sophie Novak

      Absolutely agree on the personal experience vs personal events. It’s a matter of semantics, but what counts is that the story you tell rings true, even if all the details are fictional, and the only part that is true is the emotions you’re conveying. Thanks PJ Reece.

  4. Rowman

    Lily, is a sweet wonderful girl who live between 3 brothers and no sisters, her parents didn’t care much about her, her father hadn’t teach her how to live in a world full of wolfs. When she once got very sick she was put in the ICU alone, yes alone, her parents never visited her except at the end of the day. They would only say hi and then take off like she was someone not related to them, a friend or a neighbor.
    Jamaica was like a prison to her, home school school home with no friends, partially no parents, her life was miserable. Then one day they had to move back to their home country, ” Maybe my luck will change” she said to her self. Her luck did change, from the moment they arrived to their home she saw someone, not just any one, she saw someone and immediately said to her self : ” god, please make him for me & let us be together for ever “.
    He was so hansom but she thought to her self why would he love me?? or maybe he got someone else?? Many thoughts ran in and out of her head. She slept that day only thinking of him. After a couple of month she was awarded a certificate for her success and people came to congratulate her, but she only searched for one soul, ”him” who he not showed up. She wanted to cry but then her mother gave her a box of candy and told her this was from someone, she ran to see who he was and saw ‘him’ leaving and got very happy for only seeing him, she thought what will happen if I was with him, I would be queen.
    She searched all over the facebook and found ‘him’ and she send a request immediately, he accepted it and they started to chat more often. She wanted to tell him that she loved him but was afraid to be refused, eventually, she told him and he said he had exam and would reply after I finish. She waited, counted seconds, looking at his name waiting it to appear on the chat list. When the day has come he said that this is not the time for relations, oh boy that not only broke her heart it broke her lungs, but after a while she tried again and again and again and one day he changed his mind and said yes, she almost flew out of the house because she found the only one that would care for her, and he did.
    15 minutes done, I wanted more time, maybe next time.

  5. Abigail Rogers

    Every now and then I do such a thing–usually it’s a feeling rather than an incident that gets portrayed through my characters.

    • Sophie Novak

      For sure, emotions are the most powerful thing we can explore in a story.

  6. Madison

    What I imagine my life would be if my parents never divorced:

    My dad is such an asshole.

    “Pancakes again? Shit, Madison. Where’s the syrup?”

    “Dad, I don’t have the money for that shit. If you’d chip in a bit…”

    “Get the fuck out of here.”

    “Alright then, shut up.”

    We’d been eating crappy Bisquick pancakes for every meal since last month. My mom left after she’d finally had enough of us. She went through some pretty deep
    depression, like the ones you see in the antidepressant commercials and the side
    effects all shitty like, “You may experience thoughts of suicide, diarrhea, and
    extreme anxiety.” Yeah thanks, buddy. I’ll go ahead and take your crazy ass
    pills and then go ahead and kill myself. Anyway, my mom’s always been that
    bitchy type. Whenever she was around my dad and me, it was like the world was
    fucking crashing down. My poor dad, he’s just a fucking wreck. Never knew what
    to say, to do, like a helpless puppy. Whatever, I guess you can’t help those
    people. Those assholes who’d rather sit around and let the ones they love, or
    you would think they love, feeling like helpless crap than say something. Shit,
    ma, help me help you! Let me help you!

    • Sophie Novak

      Ha, staying together is often worse than getting divorced. Good portrayal Madison.

  7. Brian D. Meeks

    I’ve drawn inspiration from real life for the characters in my new novel, which I’m writing as a serial on my blog. Here is chapter one, which took about 20 minutes to write.

    The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, San Francisco, around 7 am, in their finest suite.

    He looked into her green eyes and let his mind take a snapshot of the moment. Her hair, wet, the terry cloth robe hugged her body like he had the night before, and the smell was of lilac, but it was the look that would stay with him the longest. At that moment, when he froze time, her smile seemed to glow and the one raised eyebrow spoke volumes that he wasn’t sure he could fully comprehend.

    Room service had brought breakfast while she showered. The dream, “The Girl”, who had been rattling around in his mind for the better part of two decades, she stood before him now, the morning after moment had arrived.

    There are questions, the asking of which leads to regret, and yet, the doubt that is chosen instead, is of equal burden. Things which must seem obvious across a cart of food, the signals, the touch, the looks, they are circumstantial by nature. We crave truth, fact, certainty, and we also yearn for mystery. Truth and mystery cannot live together.

    Or can they?

    Is that the holy grail of the human spirit. Perhaps the solving of that riddle is the answer to the question, simply stated True Love?

    She butters a piece of toast and says nothing. She is comfortable in the silence. It shows strength. Is it a clue? He doesn’t know, maybe it is a game, her game. The first words don’t come to mind. A piece of bacon gives him something to nibble on, a time-out, to gather his thoughts and start the journey of a lifetime. The journey of any lifetime.

    He reached across and took her hand and said, “I’m leaving for a while, I can’t say how long. Upon my return, I’ll have two plane tickets with me. Will you use one of them and come along?””

    He waited for the questions, where are we going, how long will we be gone, can I have a little notice, are you crazy, but she simply grabbed a piece of bacon and said, “yes”.

    It was hard to remain calm. His brain was shifting into an overdrive of adrenaline, lust, and adoration. He wanted to say, Really? and find out why she would say such a thing. He wanted to ask her about that time back in the middle of nowhere, when they were alone together and he wasn’t being cool, he was being a coward. He wanted to discuss every moment of the their lives and figure it all out, but that just wouldn’t do.

    The hunger he earned the night before would have to wait. He walked into the bathroom, showered, got dressed, and then picked up his keys and phone from the nightstand. He walked to the door, didn’t turn around, and heard her say, “Later” as he walked out.

    (Note: I’m only half way through the writing of the novel, but the other 21 chapters I’ve written can be found at ExtremelyAverage.com)

    • Sophie Novak

      This is really great Brian. What I liked the most was the untold thoughts in his mind – this is what gets me hooked as a reader. Very well written too. All the best with your novel.

    • Audrey Chin

      I’m going there. I’m intrigued already. What all happened before the 2 decades. Great 1st chapter. You might want to make paragraphs 4, 5, 6 move a little bit faster though.

  8. Jeff Ellis

    Howard is fourteen when his dad cheats on his mom and runs away to a city he’s never heard of. His mom tells him that it’s going to be okay, that they will make due in their tiny home in Lodi, but Howard isn’t thinking about financial repercussions. He considers chasing after his dad, but he can’t imagine what his mom would do without him. Over all, he wants to cry.

    At sixteen, Howard and his mom move to the desert of southern California, far away from his friends and extended family. School is very different here. He never liked high school in Lodi, but the kids here are outright strange. They are not alone. Nothing about the desert is normal. He wants to catch a bus north, back to familiarity, but he can’t abandon his mom.

    When Howard is nineteen, he and his friends move into a two-bedroom apartment a few hours out of the desert. He gets a poorly paid internship doing graphic design. He never thinks about his father. One of his roommates meets a girl. They get married the next year and move out. Howard couldn’t be happier for them. He hopes his mom meets someone soon.

    On Howard’s twenty-fourth birthday his mom calls him at his studio apartment in Seattle to wish him “Happy birthday!” and tell him that Ron proposed and that she is planning a spring wedding. They laugh, actually laugh, with joy. Last year, Howard’s father was killed in a car accident. He still doesn’t know how to process it. He loves his mother with all his heart and is so happy for her wonderful news.

    At thirty-four, Howard is married to a beautiful woman he met at a bar. He is a prominent designer in his field and well-respected in his community. It is four in the morning when he wakes up, crawls out of bed and walks downstairs to the street. He takes a bus to a park with an outstanding view of the Puget Sound. On a bench, in the cold, he cries for almost ten minutes. When it is all out, he wipes his nose and returns home.

    • Sophie Novak

      I like the time sequence storytelling Jeff. Great job.

    • Jeff Ellis

      Thanks Sophie! 🙂

    • Audrey Chin

      I love the story and how Howard doesn’t focus on himself. But between 24 and 34 there needs to be a bit more about how this repression of his grief wounded it … otherwise, we don’t really feel the catharsis.

    • Jeff Ellis

      Thanks for the critique Audrey, I’ll have to remember that moving ahead. My friend is a filmmaker and we are thinking about turning this into a short 5-minute film.

    • Sophie Novak

      That’s fantastic. Please share it with us when it’s done. 🙂

    • Jeff Ellis


  9. Joan

    Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue…

    My daughter, Leslie, was having a serious case of wedding day nerves. “Mom, what will I do? I have something new, something borrowed, and something blue, but I forgot to bring anything old. What am I going to do? There isn’t time to go back to the house.”

    “I have everything covered. I waited until this moment to give you these.” I pulled a small box from my purse and handed it to Leslie.

    “Mom, I knew I could count on you.” She opened the box to find a single strand of pearls.

    “I wore these pearls when your father and I married twenty-eight years ago. They aren’t real pearls, but they are very special. My grandfather gave them to me.”

    “Tell me about them…about him.”

    “He was already an old man by the time I was born, but always young at heart. I could sit for hours and listen to one of his stories. He saw many changes in his lifetime—from the days of horse drawn carriages to men walking on the moon.”

    “Wow,” Leslie replied. “So when did he give you the pearls?”

    “We visited him during the summer of 1969 when I was twelve years old. One day he pulled a little box from the magazine rack that sat beside his rocking chair. ‘I found these,’ he said, ‘and I want you to have them.’ I felt special because he chose to give them to me instead of one of my cousins.”

    “I’ll bet.”

    “It was our last visit before he died the following spring. So you see, they aren’t expensive, but to me their value is priceless. Now, they are yours.”

    “Oh Mom, I’ll treasure them. Someday, if I have a daughter, I’ll pass them along to her. And I’ll be sure to tell her the story behind them—the pearls of great value.”

    • Sophie Novak

      Cute family story. Thanks Joan.

    • Joan

      Thank you, Sophie.

    • Sefton

      Thanks for the read. Now I am wondering which parts were fictionalized and which drew on ‘real’ life.

    • Joan

      The part about my grandfather giving me pearls is real. (And I wore them on my wedding day.) The part about having a daughter is fiction. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.

    • Teresa Moya Madrona

      Wow, I thought it was the other way around.

  10. Russ

    From a novel I wrote that took some real life worries and magnifide them a thousand fold…

    Hoping it would provide some comfort, he went into his home office and turned on the computer. Mike clicked on the video player icon and selected “Samantha/Karen – 1 month.”

    His wife came into view, short black hair just to the nape of her neck and falling in front of her face as she leaned over their daughter. Samantha reached up and rabbed at Karen’s hair.

    “Who’s mama’s little girl? You are! Oh yes you are!”

    Karen paused to look at the camera, smiling. “Mike, you’ve gotta get in this video too. Our daughter can’t grow up and only know you as a voice behind the camera.”

    “I will. I just like watching you two for now,” said Mike off screen. “She’s really got that grabbing thing down. Once she gets some strength, you won’t have any hair left.”
    “Be quiet,” she said in a playful tone. Karen picked Samantha up, careful to support her head. Sunlight bathed the nursery. The room was painted pink, on Karen’s insistence, with a mural of a farm scene on the wall behind her. They’d paid someone to do that.

    Karen held Samantha out away from her body for a minute and then turned towards the camera. “She’s pretty yellow. I’m getting worried.”

    “It’s nothing,” Mike said, dismissively. “Just a little jaundice. A lot of babies have
    that. It’ll go away.”

    “I know, but I thought it’d be gone already.”

    “She’s just a little jaundiced, dear. You can’t really notice unless you’re looking for it. She’ll be fine.”

    Seated at his computer, Mike gave a slight shudder. If only I’d known, he thought.

    Back on the computer screen, Karen said, “Her Well-Baby visit to the pediatrician is
    next Wednesday. I’m going to ask Dr. Kiltner about it. Hopefully she can put
    my mind at ease.”

    “If you want to pester her with easy questions, then go ahead. I still think she’ll be fine if we put her in the sun for a few hours each day – that’s supposed to resolve it. But it’s your call.”

    Karen gave the camera a look that clearly said, “Damn right it’s my call.” Mike had ignored it at the time. Soon the look gave way to more playing with Samantha. Karen put her on her stomach for “tummy time” so she could strengthen her arms by learning to push up. The pediatrician recommended that so that Samantha would crawl on time, though that was a few months off.

    As he watched Karen play with Samantha, he drifted off…

    “These enzyme levels are pretty high,” said Dr. Warren, the pediatric GI specialist.
    “We’ll get a HIDA scan and probably need to look at scheduling a liver biopsy for next week.”

    Mike couldn’t talk. Karen finally spoke. “What do you think you’ll find?”

    “I’m not certain, but her jaundice shouldn’t be hanging around this long, and the levels in her blood are indicative of a blockage. If that gets confirmed, we’re going to need to schedule surgery.”

    “What’s the surgery for?” asked Karen, her voice small and her eyes glistening.

    “It’s called Biliary Atresia, and it means that bile can’t move from the liver into the small intestine. When that bile backs up, it can cause cirrhosis. If we can’t get that out of there, it’ll cause problems.”

    “What kind of problems?” asked Karen. Mike was still unable to find

    Dr. Warren looked at his feet for a second before responding. Finally, he said, “She can’t survive with a blocked liver. If we can’t fix it, she’ll likely die within a year.”

    Karen put her hands up to her mouth, sat in the chair against the wall, and began to softly cry. Mike knew he had to be strong for her; that was part of his job. He finally forced himself to ask Dr. Warren a question.

    “W-well, what can be done about it?”

    “There’s something called a Kasai Procedure. We’ll attempt to surgically reconstruct the extrahepatic biliary tract, assuming the intrahepatic biliary tree is unaffected. With that procedure, it’s imperative we do it soon, because surgery is much more effective the closer it’s done to birth. If it’s successful, she’ll have normal bile drainage again.”

    “And if it’s not?” asked Mike.

    “Then we’ll have to begin looking for a donor liver for transplantation. Even if the Kasai procedure is effective, most of the kids who undergo it require a liver transplant eventually.”

    He felt his head go light and began to sink down the wall. However, he caught himself halfway, thinking it would be embarrassing to faint here in the doctor’s office while his wife dissolved beside him. He pushed himself up and took a deep breath, but silence returned. Next to him, he could hear Karen, her hands still up at her mouth, quietly repeating, “Oh my God, oh my God…”

    “None of this is to say that Biliary Atresia is certain,” Dr. Warren hastened to add. “It could be a number of things that might be causing her hyperbilirubinemia. Maybe
    something else caused cholestasis. We won’t know anything for sure until after the HIDA scan and liver biopsy. Don’t worry. We’ll take care of her.” He pulled out a day planner and they began to go over which days they could get in for the required measures.

    He blinked back into reality, tears that had gone unnoticed now dampening his cheeks. On the screen, Karen was twirling Samantha around the room. He clicked the close button on his video player and the room went dark again. Flipping on the hall light on his way out, he thought, Were we ever that carefree?

    • Sophie Novak

      This is just sad, devastating. Brought tears to my eyes.

  11. Sam L.

    I met him outside a bar when he bummed a light. I spotted him earlier when I walked in the place and took my usual seat. 6’2”, 240 lbs of muscle, shaved head. Dress shirt I knew hadn’t come off the rack. Diamond ring and a watch just a little too big and flashy to pass as tasteful in a place like this. The suburban Eden of gated communities and country clubs. He introduced himself as Dom, a South Philly accent coloring his small talk.

    “You from around here?” I asked, knowing the answer.

    He shook his head. “Just out here on some business.”

    “What do you do?”

    He blew a plume of smoke into the air, his eyes scanning the darkness of the parking lot. “A little bit of this, a little bit of that.” He shrugged, grinned at me. “It’s all the same right? Everyone’s in the business of making money. You?”

    “Me? I take care of other people’s money.”

    “You a CPA? Financial planner?” he asked, studying me.


    He nodded, his eyes back out in the darkness surrounding us.

    Inside we switched from beer to something harder. Whiskey for me, vodka for him. We discovered smoking wasn’t the only vice we shared. Gambling, some other things that aren’t mentioned in polite circles or mixed company. I don’t know, maybe it was the alcohol, though I’ve never been accused of not being able to hold my liquor. Whatever it was, he had a way of getting me to talk. Talk about shit I rarely left out of my own head.

    “Next weekend I have a business meeting out this way, at that new casino. You ever been there?” he asked. Pulled a thick wad of bills from his pocket and peeled a few off, put them on the bar.

    “Yeah, a couple of times.” My recent divorce hadn’t been cheap so I tried to avoid the temptation but I didn’t say that.

    “Maybe we could get together, hit the tables after I’m done.”

    “Yeah, could be fun,” I said, handing the bartender my credit card.

    He stuck out his hand, “It was good meeting you Sam.”

    We met that next weekend at the casino.

    “Hey, come out to my truck. I have something you might be interested in,” he said. “I know you said you were getting serious about training for a triathlon and you were looking for a better bike.”

    I looked at the Kuota he had in the back of his SUV. It retailed for about $1500, well above what I could justify for a hobby.

    “It’s a great bike, just a little more than I want to spend right now.”

    “I can give it to you for $300,” he said.

    “It’s worth a lot more than that.” I pointed out.

    He shrugged. “I got a deal on it.”

    “That’s a hell of a deal.”

    “I got a deal,” he said again. “Just passing it on to a friend.”

    I stared at the bike, thinking. “Seems a little shady.”

    “You think I’m the kind of guy who steals bikes off the street?” he asked me. Quiet, but it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

    “Nah man, of course not.” I meant it. Didn’t mean I didn’t know somebody else had.

    “So you want it?” Friendly again.

    I loaded it onto the bike rack of my car and we went inside.

    We hung out pretty regularly the next few months. I played the odds, he played by instinct, both of us did okay most nights. Killed a lot of bottles between us. He was a guy who knew how to get things, and not just bikes. Things of the flesh. Like I said, we shared more than a few vices. Funny thing is, once you find someone else who’s like you, none of those things seem so bad anymore.

    We were at a sports bar watching baseball one night, me arguing stats with some twenty-something sitting next to me.

    “You got some money on this game?” Dom asked.

    I shook my head.

    “Why not? You got all that numbers shit down, why not make some money off it?”

    I shrugged. “Sure, what do you want to bet me?”

    He shook his head, “Nah, I mean a real bet. Real money. I know I guy. I can set it up for you.”

    I took another drink, thought about it.

    “Just say the word and I’ll make the call,” he said. I bet a hundred. Just for fun.

    I got cocky. Did okay for a while, then had a streak of bad luck. Lost big on one, then doubled down on another game the same night to make it up. Ended up losing both. Pushed my drink away from me. Felt like I might be sick.

    “Tough night, buddy,” Dom said, his hooded eyes studying me. “You okay to cover this?”

    “Sure. I mean….” I trailed off. Could feel myself starting to sweat. Ran the numbers through my head again. Didn’t make anything better.

    “Hey, listen, it happens.” I felt relieved when he turned his eyes to the redhead that had just sat down across the bar. “Let me cover this one for you. You know, for a couple of weeks, let you regroup.”

    “I— I can’t let you—“ Fuck, I might seriously be sick.

    “It’s done, don’t worry about it.” He slapped my back. “I remember my first time I took a big hit like this,” laughed. “You’ll make it up. It’ll be fine.”

    I didn’t know how it could be, but I’d take the two weeks reprieve.

    The next Saturday my phone rang a few minutes before midnight. Dom.

    “What’s up?” I answered. Figuring he was going to ask about the money. Dreading it. I could hear music in the background.

    “Hey Sam, you out?”

    “No, I’m home.”

    “I’m at this fucking party. You know, one of those things you gotta go to whether you want to or not, show your respect.” I didn’t say anything. “Anyway, I’m here with someone you should meet.”

    “It’s kind of late,” I said. Probably a woman. I wasn’t in the mood, not with everything hanging over my head.

    “Hold on,” he said and after a few seconds the background sounds got quieter. “Listen to me, Sam. You need to meet this guy. Tonight.” That quiet voice again, the one that set off alarm bells in me.

    “Yeah, okay,” I said, feeling adrenaline flood my body. “Where are you.”

    “We’re at a strip club right now, but we should meet somewhere else.”

    “Okay.” My mind was racing, mouth felt dry.

    “How about you book a room,” he gave me the name of a hotel in the city. “Bring a bottle, we’ll meet you there.”

    I chain smoked on the drive in. Wondered if it was convenience for me to book the room or if they didn’t want their names on the register. Tried not to think about it. Didn’t really work.

    I checked in, called Dom and gave him the room number. Poured some Scotch into a plastic cup. Took it neat. Noticed my hand was shaking so I drained the glass and poured some more.

    A knock. I opened the door to see Dom and two other men in the hallway. I looked a question at Dom.

    “That’s Frankie, our driver.” He jerked his head toward one of the men. “He’ll pick us up later.” Frankie looked me over before he turned and left.

    Dom introduced the other guy as Renzo. I shook his hand, put some effort into it. Animal instincts. Show no fear.

    I poured us all some Scotch. Made a little small talk.

    “I need to go catch a smoke,” I said, picking up my coat.

    “We can’t smoke in here?” Dom asked as Renzo pulled his pack from his pocket.

    “Whole place is non-smoking. $250 charge if you do.” I didn’t mention my card was edging towards its limit.

    Dom shrugged, reached in his pocket and counted out $250, put it on the desk by the bottle. “So now we can smoke.”

    We had a couple, washed them down with more booze. I was starting to relax. Maybe I was just paranoid. Maybe this was just another night out.

    A loud knock on the door.

    I froze. Crazy thoughts running through my head. Another round of knocks and I instinctively moved behind the corner of the bathroom where it blocked the line of sight to the door. Heart pounding. Jesus, what had I gotten myself into?

    Dom moved to the door, Renzo sitting on the bed, unconcerned. Low voices. Couldn’t make out what was being said. I heard the door close and Dom came back to where we were. I was embarrassed I had been so jumpy so I made a production of pouring more liquor.

    “What was that about?” I asked Dom, trying to sound casual.

    “Security. Someone complained about us smoking,” he answered. Moved closer to me, lowered his voice. “Listen, I take care of my friends. You don’t worry about shit like that when we’re out.”

    “Sure,” I said, still silently berating myself for looking like such a pussy in front of them.

    “You think guys like me and Renzo go out in Philly without protection?” he asked. I didn’t answer. Wasn’t sure if it made me feel any better. “So don’t worry about it.”

    Dom took his seat at the desk, leaned back, the plastic cup of my best Scotch in his hand. Cleared his throat.

    “So Sam, you have a little situation.” I felt my heart jump against my chest. “And Renzo has a little situation.” Renzo’s eyes on me, unreadable. “Renzo seems to have a job opening and I told him,” he pointed the cup of amber liquid at me. “I told him I knew just the man. Told him, you need help with the books, Sam could use some extra cash.”

    I took a swig, trying to process what was happening.

    “It’s perfect, right?” Dom looked pleased with himself. “Everybody wins.”

    Renzo stood, stuck his hand out toward me. I shook it. Didn’t know if I had any choice.

    “See?” Dom said, slapping my back. “I always take care of my friends.”

    • Sophie Novak

      Quite a mysterious story, full of suspicions. Now I wonder if this really happened. 🙂

    • Sam L.

      Names, obviously, and a few circumstance have been fictionalized. Otherwise, there’s a lot of truth in it. Enough that if “Dom” ever read this he’d remind me that knowing how to keep your mouth shut is a virtue.

    • Sophie Novak

      Understood. We’ll make sure not to spread it around. 🙂

    • Audrey Chin

      I couldn’t stop reading this. It “snared” me. Just like the poor narrator was snared.

    • Sefton

      Great story! Extra frissons for wondering how much could be truth….Thanks for the read.

    • Paul Owen

      I was hooked! Imagining your character getting pulled in deeper and wondering what’s coming next, although it won’t be pretty. Nicely done.

  12. Suzie Gallagher

    Ruby loved me, he said so every time. Bright blue eyes twinkling, his hands running through his black curly hair. I never trust anyone who can look directly into my eyes.

    Ruby loved a lot of girls but I thought he loved me best. Melissa Sue had a baby with shiny black curls. I never speak to her anymore.

    Ruby hitched a ride out of town, leaving behind a gamut of black curly haired children. My genes were the strongest so nobody knows. Ruby O’Connor made a fool out of me.

    Gerald was the skinny geek living next door. The night Ruby left, I visited with him, feigning a homework need. We studied and laughed, we kissed and stuff. After prom I told him the news and unlike Ruby he manned up.

    Gerald got a job on the newspaper in town. Alicia Diamond was born with in time my long blond hair and grey serious eyes. We grew as a family as she grew tall. I never told anyone about her daddy.

    Gerald loved Alicia and he loved me too. He never questioned, he lived a good life. Cancer crept into his life and ours, we wept silently as we watched him shrink. He moved to hospice, Alicia drew him pictures that I delivered every day.

    Gerald and I held hands for hours, just like we were courting. Towards the end he reminisced, going over little stanzas of our life. He never, even then, brought Ruby into the frey. He let it all go.

    Gerald was a good upright man. He could stand taller than a thousand rubies. Alicia grieved as loved children do and on into teenage angst. Tonight I must tell her, tonight for the first time I must tell her about rubies glinting the dark, Because today I saw a boy walk her home with the same twinkling eyes and curly hair as their father

    • Audrey Chin

      Oh my… I love the ending! That is so chillingly good.

    • Sefton

      Love this! You could do something with this story!

    • Sophie Novak

      Amazing Suzie! A very nice layout.

    • Mirelba

      Well done!

  13. Audrey Chin

    Thanks for the prompt Sophie … This is a piece of fiction rompted by how my grandmother went into depression in the 1930’s after my granddad was killed in a car accident and left her alone with 4 daughters.. My mom was 8 then, my oldest aunt 12, my youngest aunt 5. I’ve updated it for the 21st century in an apartment in Singapore.


    I’m sorry
    about this morning. I am. Really.

    I don’t
    want you to think I don’t care. I know you’re trying your best. Still, this can’t go on.

    say I don’t understand, that I should let you be. You’re right. I don’t
    understand. I can’t know how you feel
    all those long seconds and minutes and hours and days at home in the apartment
    that feels so empty now. I can’t know what it’s like to be single again. I’ve
    never had that privilege, to be one of a set of two ones.

    But I
    can’t let you be. It breaks my heart, seeing you the way you are now. And if
    you won’t do it for your own sake, just let me ask you to try to do better for

    It has to
    stop Ma, your shouting what you see out on the street back to Dad every
    morning, this morning …

    the fish porridge lady shuffling out of the kitchen. You can’t see her where
    you are but you can hear her clogs clacking can’t you? Loud enough to wake up
    the dead they are.”

    … Ma, I
    can’t be going to work swollen eyed and snuffly faced anymore. They don’t pay
    receptionists to do that, especially not at five-star hotels. And Ma, I can’t
    help it. I can’t stop tearing up when I hear you talking up a storm, telling
    Dad everything you think he can’t see, all the inconsequentials that are part
    of your life.

    I know
    you’re a believer Mother. When the police called to tell me a sports car had
    gone into Dad before wrapping itself around that lamp-post downstairs, I hadn’t
    expected Dad to come home. But you never doubted it because the ancestors had
    told you he would, you said.

    What do I
    know about the ancestors? To me they’re just the tablets on the altar in the
    front room. But I hear you talking to them as you set out the daily sacrifices,
    the same way you’be been doing since you entered this apartment as a young
    daughter-in-law. You have a relationship with them, I’ll grant. Dad did come

    But I
    want to tell you I’m beginning to learn about ancestors now. Yes, me, your
    thirty-five year old atheist unmarried daughter who doesn’t care I’ll have no
    children to make offerings for me. That’s why, this morning, I picked up that half
    a breakfast bun you set out for Dad on the place setting you insist on laying
    for him. That’s why I ate it. That’s why I drank the coffee and ate the toast
    you made for him too. That’s why I went and poured out a cup of tea and placed
    it on the ancestral altar for him, and lit him an incense stick.

    where Dad should be Mother. Up on that altar. And that’s what we should be
    paying tribute to him with, smoke and incense, thoughts to wish him on.

    Ma, I’m
    sorry your eyes glazed over this morning. I’m sorry Dad has left you and all
    you have is the living room clock, the calendar, that tag on your wrist with
    our address and my mobile number if you should wander out. Still, you have to come back to yourself, you
    have to learn how to be without him Ma.

    I want to
    tell you something.

    You know
    how I wanted Dad in the front room when he came home. I thought being there
    would amuse him, the view of the goings on in that row of apartment windows
    opposite, especially the one where our neighbourhood sex-worker undresses every

    remember, ou didn’t like the idea? You thought it would remind him too much of what
    he’d lost. Well, maybe you were right.

    I didn’t
    tell you this before, but that sex-worker did make him cry. I saw the tears
    seeping from his eyes that night.

    I’d just
    cranked the bed up so he could see straight up and across to the fourth floor
    of that woman’s lighted up window.And I’d turned our light off, so she couldn’t
    see him looking up. But she must have known he was looking all the same. She
    unbuttoned her shirt, one at a time, taking longer than usual. Then she flicked
    her breasts up at dad, gave him the finger and snapped her blinds shut.

    when I saw him cry. That’s when he gave up. That night.

    weren’t a good enough reason for Dad to stay Ma. Not the way he was. Lying
    there, silent, paralysed, all day, all night.

    all I have left Ma. And I need you.

    For my
    sake. Please…

    • Sophie Novak

      Quite emotional Audrey. And I always love inner monologues. Great work.

  14. Sefton

    Joy rang me up at Mum’s house in a state. For a minute I couldn’t make sense of what she was saying.

    I stood in the hall looking at the beige and lilac flower graphic print on Mum’s hall walls, and gradually Joy’s words filtered through.

    “They’re going to make me marry someone, someone in Bangladesh, unless I find a job.”

    “What? Who?”

    “My parents. ”

    She twisted out the words. Usually she called them Penfold and Dangermouse. They were a teacher and a pathologist, both high up in their fields, and while I had always found Joy’s father charming, he surely knew of and supported the many campaigns against Joy’s freedom.

    Her mother was dour and sharp tongued. I disliked her and tended to feel she was the main perpetrator of the various offensives.

    But this was beyond the pale.

    “They can’t do that!” I said. “They can’t make you marry someone.”

    “What am I supposed to do? ”

    “Just leave,” I said – my standard solution to most

    “How can I? It’s their house!”

    This was true. No student digs for Joy. Her parents had bought her a house half a mile from the university they had encouraged her to attend, itself ten miles from their family home.

    From my Norwich student slum, a hundred miles from home cooked meals and money handouts, this had seemed a lot like cheating. Now, in London, with my own job and own place, it looked more like Joy had been cheated of her independence.

    “Just go,” I advised. “Get your own place. You’ve got a job.”

    “You don’t understand!”

    I didn’t. I knew that I would walk, or run, from anyone trying to impose anything on me, never mind enforced marriage. How hard could it be?

    “Listen,” I said. “You’re twenty two. It’s 1993. This is Britain. They can’t do this to you. It’s illegal!”

    “You don’t understand,” she screamed again and slammed the phone down.

    It was the first time anyone ever put the phone down on me, and between that and the conversation, I was floored.

    Joy’s parents really couldn’t do that… Could they?

    When they banned her from going to the library because reading fiction interfered, they said, with study, I was horrified. When they made her drop French and German, which she was good at, in favour of sciences, because they would get her into medical school, it seemed pretty harsh.

    When she pursued physics instead of medicine, having got terrible grades at A level, I felt like saying to them, told you it wouldn’t work.

    Her mediocre degree and subsequent junk job in a building society would appear to back me up: that you can’t make someone, even your own child, into the person you wish they would be.

    The strange thing was that although I’d got great grades and had a brilliant time following the subjects of my choice… I’d ended up in even less of a graduate job than Joy had. Hers at least had training. Mine just had a lot of mindless photocopying.

    But my parents weren’t on my case about it. In
    acerbic moments Joy implied that this meant they were not that interested in me.

    Better that than controlling every minute of my day, I retorted.

    Could Penfold and Dangermouse really put Joy on a plane to Bangladesh and marry her off? She had always joked about how they wanted her to marry a nice Bengali boy…. But they were just jokes. Right?

    I rang her back and she didn’t answer. Plus it was awkward, being her patents’ house. Yes, they didn’t just buy her a house near uni, they moved into it with her and were still there years after. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

    I was worried about her, in case I was wrong about them being able to kidnap her to Bangladesh, because she clearly rejected the very idea of resistance. And I was pissed off because she’d ended the conversation before we got anywhere.

    I couldn’t fix it, help her, understand her, do anything with a dial fine burring in my ear.

    It was the ultimate last word, the final say in an argument you have no rationale for.

    Joy never spoke to me again.

    I have never put the phone down on anyone. It’s just too rude.

    I wish I could do the opposite, pick up the phone on Joy, and make her listen.

    I get it, all right? I get it. Ok. I don’t get it. If I got it I’d know what heinous crime I’d committed and be able to repent or glory in it. But not taking Joy seriously appears to be the only charge – and I did take her very seriously. I seriously suggested she get out of there, like she should have done to go to uni. Get out and lead her own life.

    Was she so under their control that this suggestion appeared fatuous, like saying she should grow wings and fly to Neverland? That’s even worse.

    I’ve been there and that’s worse. Being so trapped that you think even the escape routes offered are part of the trap.

    There is no ending, no resolution, no neat wrap up. This story just stops like a slammed phone.

    • Sefton

      This was a hard practice for me. It came out more like truth than fiction even though my usual reaction is to fictionalise my experiences, even to the point of sf and fantasy settings. Why was it so hard to do in purpose, I wonder?

    • Sophie Novak

      Perhaps you needed to let it out subconsciously, but it’s a great story. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    • Joan

      And now I’m left wondering what happened to Joy… (I’m always wanting to solve a mystery.) I enjoyed this.

    • Sefton

      Thanks Joan. And what happened to Joy is another story….thanks to this site, as I would never have written this otherwise.

    • Paul Owen

      Fascinating story! I liked your standard response (“just leave”), since that’s my first instinct too. The story got me wondering whether there’s a healthy middle spot between controlling and uninterested. If not, I’d be happier with your parents!

  15. Paul Owen

    How was I supposed to process seeing a person get killed? And I was a teenager at that. It seemed a routine thing at the time, driving out of state to see relatives. We took highway trips all the time, and I never thought anything serious would happen other than near-fatal boredom. That was until this trip, where in the middle of Iowa I took a break from reading and looked out the window. Coming the other way, right there, a delivery van was tumbling out of control. The driver was going out the side window, and I’m certain he was crushed by the van.

    I’ll never know for certain, though, because my dad refused to turn around and go back to the scene. Soon a state trooper shot past in the other direction, but that wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to see firsthand whether the driver had survived. I had this image of running to the driver and doing something to help, anything. Maybe he had a few last words to say or needed some comfort, but I’ll never know because we kept going.

    That scene is painful to think about, even all these years later. I never quite got over that disappointment in my dad’s inaction, and I swore to myself that I would grow up to be one who went back to help.

  16. Mirelba

    ‘Why didn’t you just walk out?’ All week long she had been mulling over the
    question, squirming afresh at the embarrassing memory. After a long hiatus, she had finally returned
    to the drawing and painting that she had always loved. And then, just last month she had stumbled
    upon a great little shop for art supplies.
    Once a week, she would drop in and pick up some more items. Without even noticing, her brooding lifted
    and her lips turned up into a smile.
    Vermillion red. Cerulean
    blue. Ultramarine. Emerald green. Raw Umber.
    Viridian. Just the names were
    like a romantic escape to some faraway place.
    All she had to do was roll the words softly around her tongue or even
    sound them in her head, and her mood would lift, and she would get dreamy eyed
    and smiley.

    But then last week…
    Her smile disappeared and her eyes misted over. She had been lost among the stacks of paint,
    fingering some tubes, her mind far away planning out her next project, when she’d
    been startled by the jangling of the bell above the shop door as it opened to
    admit another customer. She had started
    at the chimes, and the over-size bag that she had slung over her shoulder to
    accommodate the shopping basket in her hand had knocked into a display of paint
    canisters, sending them rolling throughout the store.

    “I’ve come in about the workshop for my daughter’s
    birthday party that I spoke to you about on the phone,” she heard the
    woman addressing the sales woman at the counter, as flushing, she bent down to
    pick up the metal tins.

    “You clumsy idiot!” Jayne looked up to see the store owner
    descending on her. The sales woman froze
    her features and looked away, while the birthday girl’s mother looked taken
    aback. Jayne took it all in, as the
    store owner continued.

    “Don’t you have eyes in your head? What on earth were you thinking of!”

    “I I I’m ssssorry. I, I was just startled by the chimes. I’ll pick it up…”

    “So you can knock it down again? No thank you. ” The store owner knelt down to pick up the
    rolling tins, continuing her harangue.
    “Don’t you know better than to enter my shop with a big bag?”

    Jayne did not really take in the rest of it. She stood as if rooted to the spot, her head
    hanging down, biting her lip, flushing as she took it all stoically.

    “Seven little girls, eight-year-olds, plus the
    birthday girl. Next week
    Wednesday.” She heard the birthday mother behind her, heard every word
    distinctly, more so than the words being hurled at her by the shop owner.

    When all the tins were back in place, Jayne walked up
    to the sales register, and numbly placed her shopping basket on the table. The shop owner hesitated for a moment,
    perhaps registering for the first time the shattered look on Jayne’s face. “It’s been a hard day,” she
    muttered. “I’ll give you 5 percent

    Jayne withdrew her credit card from her bag and handed
    it over. As she took her supplies she
    walked out of the store and took a deep breath.
    Suddenly she felt a hand on her shoulder.

    “Are you all right?”

    Jayne turned to see the birthday mother behind
    her. She clamped her lips and nodded

    “She was horrible to you. She got me really nervous, too. She’s coming to give a workshop for my little
    girl’s birthday party next week. If she
    can’t manage one older customer, how is she going to find the patience for 8
    lively little girls?” Jayne could see the concern on the young woman’s
    face. The woman hesitated, then added,
    “I’m sorry, but I’m curious—why didn’t you just walk out?”

    Jayne’s eyes opened wide, dumbfounded. “I, I, I just didn’t think of it, ”
    she admitted softly.

    The young woman looked at her sympathetically,
    “You take care now,” she said and gently squeezed her arm. But although the young woman walked away, the
    question she had raised resonated in her head all week.

    Jayne still remembered a time when she had known to
    give as good as she got. When had she
    changed? What had brought it about? She could not let go of the question,
    although the thoughts and memories they triggered were making her

    Like the time, annoyed by the torn windshield wipers
    that had remained on the family car for months despite her nagging, she had
    purchased a set of windshield wipers at the gas station. Her husband had thrown a fit. “You bought new windshield wipers?”

    “Yes, I’ve been asking you to change them for
    months now.”

    “How much did you pay for them?”

    “The gas station attendant said they were 25%
    off. I only paid $18.”

    “Eighteen dollars?
    Are you kidding? You spent $18 on
    them? Tell me, do you make so much money
    that you’re willing to throw it out like that?
    I never spend more than $16 on wipers!”

    And so she had stopped purchasing things that she was not
    sure about.

    Or the way that he complained all the time that she was
    not earning enough money, yet every time she started a new job, he complained
    of the time that the job took up.

    Or the time she had seen the shirt on his bed. “What’s that?” she had asked.

    “A new shirt I’m returning.”

    “Oh, good.
    That’s probably the ugliest shirt I’ve ever seen.”

    “Y’know, you’re disgusting. How could you say that the shirt is
    ugly? You’re only saying that because I
    got it from my parents.”

    “I’m only saying it because it’s really ugly. I’ve never seen it before, how should I know your
    parents got it for you?”

    “You really have it in for my parents, don’t

    “I have nothing against your parents. It’s just the shirt I don’t like. Wait, if you like it so much, why are you
    returning it?”

    “Because it’s too small.”

    He had smoldered at her for days over that shirt. She realized that bit by bit, she had just
    learned to hold her tongue. She had been
    tired of the constant bickering. Most of
    the time now, she would let him say whatever he had to say, remaining small and
    silent. Rather than argue, she would mentally
    shrug him off, let her thoughts wander, try to focus on something else, even if
    the something else was how much she really didn’t like him anymore. When he finally quieted down, she would hold
    her tongue and leave his space.

    There had been times that she had thought about
    divorce, but she had always been afraid to take the step. She knew that it was not a viable option
    financially, and she knew that she did not have the strength any more to put up
    with all that a divorce would entail.
    The constant bad mouthing that she would be put through behind her back,
    with their friends, their neighbors, their children. The holidays alone. Putting her children through the necessity of
    choosing between them for holidays, vacations.
    Getting less time with the grandchildren, who would have to divide what
    little extra time they had between three rather than two houses of
    grandparents. Maybe she was selfish, she
    wanted more of them, even if it meant less for herself. Besides, she’d put up with it for so many
    years, how many more could she have left?

    When her friend Pru had gotten her divorce, she had
    been happy to be out of her marriage, but she had not been happy. She remembered Pru’s years of loneliness and
    struggling. If she was going to be
    miserable on her own, than what was the difference between unhappy together and
    unhappy apart? Better to maintain the
    status quo and not upset everyone around them.

    But that incident in the store and the woman’s question
    had shaken her. It had made her take a
    long hard luck at herself. She was not
    so sure she liked the woman she had become.
    Where once she had been feisty, she was now subdued. She had thought it was maturity, but maybe
    she was blinding herself to what was too uncomfortable to admit—that it was not
    the product of years of wisdom but rather of years of subjugation, years of erasing

    For a long time she had thought better a bad marriage
    than no marriage at all.

    But maybe not. Maybe not anymore.


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