The Power of Memoir: how it can enrich your novel

Photos by Howard Lau
Last night I had the wonderful experience of watching three of my children perform in the musical, The King and I. My daughter Emily, played the part of Anna Leonowens, an English schoolteacher hired by the king of Siam in the mid-1800s.

In preparation for the role, Emily read Leonowen's book, Memoirs of an English Governess at the Siamese Court (which happens to be free on Kindle). While Leonowens is sometimes criticized for her seemingly patronizing view of a foreign culture, her writings reminded me of how powerful memoir can be.

One of my sons is the guard on the right.
Imagine your memoir was used as the basis of a novel, then a Broadway play, then a film version, a television series, a second movie, and an animated version! Most of these range quite far from Leonowen's actual experience, but her adventures as a lone woman in a foreign country are still the foundation.

What have you experienced that might inspire others? If writers are to "write what they know", we have to examine those moments we've lived that could be enlightening to readers. Even if you don't think you have the kind of life that would make a good memoir, the events of your life can make your fiction deeper and more meaningful. Leonowens herself wrote two novels based on her experiences in Thailand, The Favorite of the Harem, and The Romance of the Harem.

Consider journaling memories from different periods of your life. Even if you don't publish them, the ideas you generate just might find their way into your novels. Here are some resources to get you started:

Emily as Anna with her son, Louis.
My earlier post listing resources for how to write a memoir.

From Oprah's website: how to write your own memoir.

Links to lots of memoir resources from Creative Writing Now.

Is your motivation to get revenge? Read Jane Friedman's advice.

Have you ever used personal experiences to enrich your fiction?


  1. I like these resources. I've read a few of them already. While I write essay & memoir, I love hearing bits of other people's stories and making notes for fiction ideas.

  2. Stacy, when I found these, Google told me you had marked some +1! I figured they had to be good.




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