How Writing a Memoir Reshaped My Approach to Fiction

April 7, 2018 | By | 4 Replies More

My memoir Sweet Hell on Fire was written about a year in my life when I worked at a prison. It was the darkest time to date, and the most transformative. When I started writing, I thought it would be—if not easy—a rather straightforward process. Just write down the facts, right? The recounted events already happened, so they can’t hurt me anymore and they can’t do anything else to me. Or so I thought.

Writing about them changed me both as a person and as a writer.

As Hemingway said, “It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.” That’s what I did. I sat down at my laptop and opened my veins all over the page. I cried the whole time I typed certain chapters of the book. I usually send my work to a beta and/or a critique partner, but I didn’t do that with this one. I simply kept bleeding.

Every time someone opens that book, every time they take that journey with me, they’re opening those scars all over again. Prying them wide, like some horror peepshow. They’re free to inspect every weakness, every sorrow, and all the dark places in me. But I also invited the readers to the joys, the stars in that black sky, and even the dawn and the sun.

I maintain that the act of reading is an intimate bond between reader and writer. We invite each other into private spaces. There’s a piece of me inside every person who has ever read my book, and there’s a bit of them in me, too. They’ve let me in, they’ve let me touch them in ways only the written word can.

So how did this change me as a writer? How did it influence me in my other writing?

Firstly, it taught me a lot about trust. About reader expectation. As my friend Deb says, when you buy a book, you’ve bought a ticket to a destination, and you don’t necessarily even know where you’re going to end up. Just that you’re going to take this trip with the author. (Unless it’s genre fiction, because then you know the destination. That’s why we read genre.)

Of course, I write for myself. Even in the memoir, and even though what led me to commit to tearing myself open was the hope that my struggle could help someone else. That was part of my healing, I think—to know that my pain meant something. It was useful to someone else. But in writing that memoir, it’s not just a look into me. It’s a look into a world that most readers have been shielded from, and that’s for a reason. I was graphic, but I only shared the horrors I thought the reader signed up for. There are things I have in my head that no one needs, but I signed up to guard them. To keep them locked away, and I have. I will.

It’s the same with my fiction. The reader is trusting me to thrill them, to make their heart beat faster, to scare them just a little, to give them a glimpse of something awful, but to bring them back to their stop safe and sound. I walked the tiers with cannibals, sex offenders, killers… I interacted with them every day. Some of them told me quite a bit about themselves. I don’t put all of that on the page. A fair amount, to be sure, as I want to give the reader the thrill they signed up for. I wouldn’t mind keeping them awake at night…maybe just once or twice.

But in the end, it is fiction.

Second, writing the memoir taught me about balance. It taught me that, just like life, these characters are going to go through good and bad. That’s how you make it compelling. I teach workshops on how to write to compelling villains based on my experiences, but I can distill it down to the American Horror Story tagline: All Monsters Are Human. We don’t love people for their virtues. Not really. We love them for their faults, because it makes their virtues that much more virtuous. When we turn the mirrors on ourselves, most of us are more acutely aware of our faults, so that’s what we identify with. If we share the same faults with someone, maybe we can share the same virtues, too.

Most importantly, writing the memoir taught me that honesty will always stay with a reader. Well, how does that translate to fiction? Because isn’t fiction essentially a lie? No, not at all. Fiction is our modern mythology—the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world of around us. Sometimes of our own thoughts, others of our actions. That mythology lets us choose our own adventure. When we’re reading a thriller, we’re trying to decide if we would do what the protagonist does or, conversely, if we would do what the antagonist does. When we can see that every villain is the hero of their own story—when we see their truth and it makes sense to us—that’s something that reverberates long after the book is closed.

Thanks for letting me chat with you today. I hope you check out Tooth and Nail, and it makes you look over your shoulder once or twice.

Sara Lunsford grew up in the long shadow of the Big House at Leavenworth. She learned how to drive on the back roads behind the prison, and a camp inmate named Doc taught her how to play darts. She would frequently put on impromptu concerts in the Guard’s Club while her parents organized events. As an adult, she now feels all those inmates should be given compassionate release for being forced to listen to her singing. She wrote her first story at a young age after watching The Exorcist–it was a terrible mash up about a possessed paraplegic who killed all of her friends, and after working in corrections herself, has gone on to write everything from instructional manuals and disaster plans to genre fiction.


Find out more about her on her Website

TOOTH AND NAIL, Sara Lunsford

“The Vigilante” was my case. He killed killers. Rapists. Drug-dealing scum. All the ugly crumbs that fell through the cracks of willfully blind justice. I spent five years hunting him until I realized I didn’t really want to catch him. So I walked away—from the case, from my failure, from my big-city life in Detroit to start over with my husband in Merryn, Kansas.

My devils came with me. Bodies matching his M.O. were found in a cold storage unit wrapped up in macabre tribute—each victim with some tie to me. He won’t let me go, won’t let me run. There’s part of me that doesn’t want him to. It’s the same part that wonders if his way might be the only way. At least as far as my husband is concerned. I found Jacob’s Altoids tin in our fire pit—it was full of human teeth. Trophies from the women he raped.

He’s a special investigator for the KBI, assigned to the task force that’s supposed to be hunting this master predator. He’ll never be caught unless someone takes matters into their own hands. When he’s sleeping soundly, so trusting next to me in the dark, I tell myself I’m a good cop. I’m no Vigilante. But I’ve been wrong before.

“Kept me awake trying to figure out all the twists and turns” Amazon Review

“Sara Lunsford absolutely hit it out of the park with this novel. It’s gritty, edge-of-your-seat reading that will keep you up far later than your bedtime” Amazon Review



I was a bad mother, a bad daughter, a bad wife, a bad friend. Boozed out and tired, with no dreams and no future.
But I was a good officer.

Sara Lunsford helped cage the worst of the worst, from serial killers to sex criminals. At the end of every day, when she walked out of the prison gate, she had to try and shed the horrors she witnessed. But the darkness invaded every part of her life, no matter how much she tried to immerse herself in a liquor bottle. She couldn’t hide from the things that hurt her, the things that made her bleed, the things that still rise up in the dark and choke her.

With a magnetic, raw voice that you won’t soon forget, Sweet Hell on Fire grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. It’s a hardscrabble climb from rock bottom to the new ground of a woman who understands the meaning of sacrifice, the joy of redemption and the quiet haven to be found in hope.


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Category: Contemporary Women Writers

Comments (4)

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  1. Dana Delamar says:

    I read and loved both of those books, Sara. You’re a hell of a writer. Thanks for sharing your stories and some insight into what you’ve learned.

  2. Sara, thanks for sharing what you’ve learned. I’ve found my memoir writing to be transformative, too. I thought I had learned all my life lessons after I went through my saga–my young son’s rumble with a brain tumor–but it’s the writing now, 20 years later, that is teaching me so much about myself. It’s more painful, but cheaper than therapy. If I ever try my hand at fiction, I know this experience will inform every word.

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