Friday, August 3, 2012

How to Fuel Compelling Plots from Past Religious Experiences

Today's guest post in the religion and fiction series is by M.E. Anders, whose past experience in a religious cult have fueled her writing. Here, she explains how to mine your past for the gems that will make your novels shine. Thanks in advance for sharing, M.E. This is a great post!

Butterflies equal transformation
(at least to the Chipper Muse)

Have you ever encountered a negative experience that sent you reeling in the aftermath? You are not alone in this dilemma. As a writer, you have the potential to transform your negative experience into fuel for a compelling plot. Now you can answer the essential question, “What should I write about?”

As a religious cult survivor, I discovered my solution to psychological healing was through crafting novels with a foundation in my religious past. I was born into an extreme branch of the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement. I spent my first twenty years in that suffocating cultic environment before embarking on my escape plan. (If you'd like more details about my story, you can check out my essay, Cultic Devil Daughter.)

Five years later, I have penned three psychological thriller novels, two of which are cult-centric. These novels are NOT autobiographical, but they do utilize much of my exposure to religious dictators, cult hierarchy, and the dark side of religion. In essence, I turned my own negative personal history into a captivating story for my readers.

You want to do the same? Here are five simple steps to get you started:

1.  Recognize the Trauma.

Some of us are afraid to admit that we survived trauma. We want to appear normal. Our society often upholds a standard of perfection for personal achievement. If we do not fit this mold, we feel damaged. We should not be afraid to seek professional guidance or counseling in our recovery process. 

For example: I waited five years before I felt comfortable discussing my experience with a psychologist, but I wish I would have sought immediate assistance while going through my initial cult recovery process. 

Tip: Don't rush through this first step. 

Remember: You can only move on after you fully recognize the trauma.

2.  Feel the Emotion.

Allowing ourselves to feel negative emotions can become uncomfortable. Should we avoid feeling negative emotions in lieu of only the positive emotions? Before we can utilize these negative experiences in our writing, we must indulge our negative emotions. If we want our readers to deeply feel the characters' angst, we must first do so as the author.

For example: Growing up in a cult, I was brainwashed to believe that I should never feel negative emotions. Our motto was, "Fake it 'til you make it." In other words, ignore all the negative and focus on only the positive. Therefore, I tend to bury all my unhappy feelings without fully feeling the hurt. But I learned to overcome this suppression.

Tip: Don't be afraid!

Remember: You will tap into the full extent of these emotions in your storytelling! 

3.  Write Your Experience.

Should we journal our traumatic experience? Yes! This puts us one step ahead in our writing.   We will utilize these journal entries as a resource for our writing.

For example: I recently went through a unique divorce situation. In my research to connect with similar soon-to-be-ex-wives, I realized there were limited discussions on my specific situation because of its sensitive nature. Immediately, I began journaling my experience on a daily basis, which resulted in 60,000 words on the topic. That's a book in itself! After allowing myself time and space to clear my perspective, I plan to utilize these pages for their raw emotional content.

Tip: Don't feel guilty!

Remember: If you have not yet written about your experience, do so as soon as possible.  I would most highly recommend writing about your experience WHILE YOU ARE GOING THROUGH IT, if possible.

4. Choose Memoir or Fiction.

This is the shortest step of all. We need to determine whether to tell our story through memoir or fiction. Some writers are better suited to telling their story as fact. These are the powerful non-fiction writers among us. Others of us prefer to elaborate and exaggerate ad infinitum. We must make this distinction before writing.

For example: I prefer to dramatize my writing. Sticking to the facts is constrictive to my creative nature, so I utilize my religious cult past as a jumping-off point for my storytelling.

Tip: Don't feel pressured!

Remember: Each person's story is better suited to one medium or the other.

5.  Plot Your Book.

Lastly, we need to start plotting that book. Are we Plotters or Pantsers? Plotters feel more comfortable plotting out their stories before actually writing the book itself. Pantsers just start writing their stories from page one. If you are a Plotter, I would recommend Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder AND Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. You can organically pull pieces from your own story to inform your plot. If you are a Pantser, I would recommend On Writing by Stephen King. As we are writing our story, we simply reference our journal entries for their raw emotional content.

For example: I'm a Plotter! I storyboard plotted my novel before I actually began writing. If you want to see an example and pictures of this process, you can check out my storyboarding here.

Tip: Don't procrastinate!

Remember: Read books about writing suited to your style of plotting or pantsing.

Thanks for hosting me today, Chipper. (You're welcome, M.E.!) I appreciate the opportunity to talk about how my experience as a cult survivor and a writer intertwine. If I were still religious, I might (almost) "thank God" that I grew up in a cult because I have twenty years of experiences to tap into for my storytelling career.

Readers and Writers: What negative experiences can you be thankful for, now that you know how to transform them? What tips could you add to this list for using past experiences to inform your own writing process?

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.E. Anders. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

My life reads like a tale of escape from a modern-day Jonestown. Born the preacher’s kid of a burgeoning fundamentalist society, I battled critical thinking as the unforgivable sin. Mining those experiences for storytelling, I pen psychological tales exploring the difficult questions of the human condition. These sagas excite the mind and stop the heart. Weaving webs of twisting plots are my specialty, horror tempered by mind-bending drama. My passion is to shed light where all is darkness. To bring hope to those living in shadows. Fiction and fact blur seamlessly into my gripping thriller novels.

To connect with M.E. Anders, find her in the following places:


  1. Excellent content and a positive outlet for our emotions - I plan to write more of my trauma after reading your article.

    1. Thanks for chiming in, Becky! Good luck on writing your story, too. :)

    2. Thanks for stopping by, Becky. Yes, M.E. offers some great advice. I'm glad you enjoyed it and can make use of it right away.


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