Hearts Unbroken: Writing Stories “Loosely Inspired By” Your Real Life

On our way out to a high school winter dance.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

The first in a series of four posts celebrating the Oct. 9 release of my realistic contemporary YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick).

My senior year of high school, “Back to the Future” was a hot new release, Duran Duran was ruling the radio waves, and I said the worst possible thing with the best possible intentions to my high school boyfriend. It did not go over well at the time.

Not to fret. We recovered. We even dated again. And a third time after that. But the mistake lingered in my mind.

Where there is regret, there is a story.

I’m not my protagonist, Louise. He’s not her love interest, Joey. But we have a few things in common with them—the northeast Kansas suburbs of our adolescence, our respective heritages. We were both student journalists, and so are they. But his dad wasn’t a commerical pilot and mine wasn’t a dentist. His mom didn’t work for Hallmark and mine didn’t earn an MA/JD. I didn’t have a little brother, and he didn’t drive a Jeep. Unlike Louise and Joey, we didn’t live in a post-9/11 world or during the Trump administration.

What’s more, Louise and Joey’s contemporary Kansas suburbs are different than they were for us back in 1980s. In certain ways, it might be tougher for us to have grown up there today.

That said, I have a few things in common with all my protagonists—even the guardian angels, vampires and werecats from my Tantalize-Feral series universe. All authors share a bit of ourselves with every character. Not just our protagonists—our villains, our less nefarious antagonists, our sidekicks, our red-herrings—you name it. That doesn’t mean those characters are especially like us, but we had to draw on some insight, at least a flash of sensibility, to create them.

The fedora? My Laura Holt of “Remington Steele” phase.

Hearts Unbroken wasn’t the first time a real-life incident was a springboard for one of my stories, so I’ve done some thinking about all that.

Here are a few suggestions for those trying to do the same.

1) Ask permission. I wrote to my high school boyfriend, told him what I had in mind and asked if he was okay with it. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t have moved forward with the story.

I know that not everyone will agree that this is a necessary step (at least if they’re changing the names). But each of us owns our own life story. For me, asking was about courtesy, respect.

2) Don’t be otherwise restricted by what really happened (unless it’s memoir).

The only remnant of real-life dialogue that survived my experience was a couple of incredibly awkward, babbly, and inappropriate lines uttered by me and even those have been wholly revised.

Think of your personal experience as a springboard, not a roadmap.

3) Let yourself be healed. If the incident was sufficient to launch a trade YA novel, it’s probably fraught with conflict. Writing it out, changing the narrative for the better or to throw out a life preserver to readers can help you process and move on.

During my early adulthood, I deeply disliked Cindy Lou AKA Teen Me. She skipped too much of what would’ve made her happy to do what was expected by The Powers That Be.

I see her differently now.

She was sensitive and tenderhearted. Ambitious and hardworking. She loved to read and preferred heart-to-heart talks (and walks) with her best friends and cousins over cheering on the sidelines or making the weekend social scene. She spent a lot of time going through motions, being a good girl and people pleaser.

However, Cindy Lou didn’t have a fully formed brain or a whole lot of influence in her world. The pressures put on her—coupled with a lack of societal/institutional validation and support—might’ve broken another kid. It did break some kids. And none of that was their fault. Or hers.

It took decades to get here, but in part because of writing Hearts Unbroken, I’m proud of Cindy Lou. She’s the one who decided to study journalism at The University of Kansas, which led me to Michigan Law School and a career as a published author.

And all of that makes me happy. I’m grateful.

So, I encourage you to write the stories of your lived experience, the ones only you can write. Do so with thoughtful consideration for those good folks who played a role in reality, including yourself.

Cynsational Notes

★ “Absorbing….Blending teen romance with complex questions of identity, equality, and censorship, this is an excellent choice…”
— School Library Journal, starred review (see also Teen Librarian Toolbox: “a must-have for all collections.”)

“Highly recommended! There’s so much love and warmth and reality all through Hearts Unbroken. And so much hope! And some absolutely terrific ground-breaking moves!”
— Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature (read the whole review).

In addition to the release of Hearts Unbroken, Cynthia is celebrating the new paperback edition of Feral Pride, the third book in the Feral trilogy and the final book set in the Tantalize series and Feral series universe.

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