The other morning I woke up thinking about the experiences in my lifetime. I've had a lot of them, some unique and some pretty common to many women's experiences. I have said often that I use things from life in my stories-- except I don't think I have specifically related any of my exact experiences in my 15 published and 5 unpublished (as yet) books. Some have been powerful moments, but I never used them as they were. Nor have any of my actual experiences with friends or family found their way into a story. I don't base characters on specific people I have met.
So I asked myself why not? I don't have a specific answer to that either. Except some of the most painful moments simply aren't ones I want to relive through my characters. The joyous ones seem too private.
Yes, some authors totally rely on retelling through characters what they have done or tried to do. Ernest Hemingway is one example. He lived it; and when he quit living it, some say he lost interest in writing and life itself. (Of course, it might just be that hereditary depression was more a factor for him than writing-- or not).
What I realized I do use in books are the emotions that were connected to those moments. An example is something that happened well over thirty years ago when in the middle of the night I had gone to the kitchen for a drink of water, seen a glow, and realized our sheep barn was on fire.
You never ever forget a moment like that as you know there are animals in that barn. Some penned and some free but a barn on fire is a tragic event. I have never used that story in any book. What I have used is the emotion I felt in that moment. I have used it when writing a certain kind of dramatic scene for a character seeing something happen that they want to deny is real even while they can see it is. I can get inside their head because of what I went through that night. I can use the emotion from the event even though I have never and never will use the event itself.
Probably it's what all writers do to bring life to their characters-- at least those who don't document their own lives. They remember how it felt the day they lost a loved one because of being rejected. They remember the moment they learned someone they loved loved them back. They remember their child being born-- then growing up and leaving home. They remember loving and then losing a parent. They remember walking in a meadow of wildflowers, filled with butterflies (well actually I have used that one)
Writers use all they have lived, but it doesn't mean they have to use real people or events. They do have to use real emotions (at least if they write romances) that they have experienced, which fit a particular scene. The exact event does not have to ever be used to find it stimulated the imagination and brought forth the right words for what is happening in the book.
Using real emotions is how a writer makes the fictional moment feel real. It is real because the writer is pulling up their own to get across what is happening inside the character. Maybe there are writers who don't do that. It could come down to a debate regarding how to write rather like the debate between method actors and those who say their lines without personalizing them.