Before I got published, I was an avid reader who always wondered how much of the author is IN their book. I imagined that friends and family could read the author's novel and hear their voice in the words and recognize certain aspects of their work. Until I wrote a few books, I had no idea how much of an author's life is in each novel. And it's in there in strange ways that maybe the author doesn't even know until they look at it later.
There's a thing I call "free association" that I've come to trust. It's the little voice inside my head that allows me to NOT edit myself and go with the flow, trusting that I will find the character's voice and write it as I hear it. Sometimes the most peculiar words flow onto the page, but the ones that survive the edit process can be fun to reread and recognize where that part of the story originated. I talk about this "free association" thing on my website (the adult side) on my FOR WRITERS page where I post various articles on authors' craft. The post called Start With A Bang.
There's a line in NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM (my debut book) that I like to use as an example of free association. The line is: If she wanted to engage the only brain he had, all she had to do was unzip it and free Willy. I had forgotten that I had written this line and it made it past edit cuts, but my sister remembered it and posted it in her guest bathroom at a launch party she had for me at her home. I cracked up after reading it and had to think real hard if it came from me, but one part of that line reminded me of the inspiration behind it. I had been to Vancouver and saw where they filmed FREE WILLY, the Orca movie. Of course, making the leap between a whale movie and what's behind zippered door #1 was a bit of a stretch, but you get the idea. The mind works in mysterious ways and if you trust yourself, you can have readers remembering lines from your stories too. If they post them in their bathrooms, that's an added bonus.
But this also works for tapping into personal stories that aren't so funny. The raw emotion of the ugly parts of life can come from close personal experience or from your own empathy over what you can imagine if something terrible happened to you. And it's from that brutally honest place that you must write that scene so it resonates with readers too. Great stories have real emotion in them. It's why we write. So don't be afraid to go there. You must. The foundation for every really memorable story comes from the human elements, the raw emotion.
That's why I tell young authors to write like you're doing it only for yourself--not for your parents or for teachers or friends. Convey what is truly in your heart and you won't be disappointed. But write, write, write. It's the only way to get better. It's not about what others think of your work--it's all about what YOU think of it. And it all starts with the same brutal honesty, when you see yourself in your own writing--because it IS personal.