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[SWP: Behind the Book] Inspiration and Invention
Written by
Ellen Sherman
September 2015
Written by
Ellen Sherman
September 2015


The inspiration for my new novel, Just the Facts, came to me at a friend’s 50th birthday party while I was hanging out by a Cosmo punch bowl. I was regaling a woman I’d just met with tales of my exploits as a rookie reporter in 1978, right after my college graduation. Maybe it was the drink, but she seemed highly amused and said, “You should write about this!”

Eureka! Within months, I was immersed in what I conceived as a year-in-the-life type of book, fiction loosely based on my intense experiences at a small-town paper. I had been quite green as a journalist in an era when it was so much easier to get a job. It was not commonplace then, as it is now, to know what one might pursue after college, let alone have several internships in one’s chosen field before graduating. Thus, I made lots of mistakes right out of the gate, which I believed would provide the foundation for a humorous and poignant account.

For all who endeavor to write, it is a process of discovery – and for novelists, also of invention. Looking over the first draft, I realized that, in addition to the misadventures of a fledgling news writer, I had the beginnings of a more interesting plot involving possible corruption among local politicians, bureaucrats, and real estate developers. The problem was that this plot did not begin until the last third of the book and was compressed. My job now was to start the reporter’s investigation much earlier, and thread it throughout the story.

As I rewrote, I learned how a reporter would unearth this type of scandal (for nothing like this had happened to me!) using the resources available in the seventies. As Nora, my protagonist, grows as a reporter, the reader discovers how it is done. While writing the first draft, certain themes emerged that have remained, deepening in subsequent drafts: a sheltered woman facing her fears in a real world filled with holdups, tragedy, and corruption, which she is assigned to cover; a young, inexperienced woman navigating what was still very much a man’s work world; the question of whether a reporter, or anyone, can be truly objective.

Ultimately, the timid Nora is braver than I could have been in her shoes. For me, this was exhilarating; after all, what’s the point of writing fiction if one’s characters can’t exceed one’s limitations? As Nora becomes stronger, she realizes that a lot of her fears emanate from her parents because of scary things they’ve done or said when she was growing up. Like so many of us, she discovers that she must reexamine the “stories” she has been told, or told herself, that have held her back. Thus, she gets the chance to grow not only as a reporter, but also as an individual.

Although a writer may feel quite lost at times while writing and rewriting – I tell friends I am in the muddy middle – it is a gift like none other to come out the other side and finally hold the pages of a fully realized work. My pub date was September 8th, so now my novel has gone out into the world, and I am grateful for the enthusiasm and support it has received. Of course, it is difficult not to fantasize – and worry – about what future readers will think. But as Elbert Hubbard once wrote: “Art is not a thing – it is a way.” 

For more information about Just the Facts, visit

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  • Ellen Sherman

    Hi Cate,

    I am delighted that you found my post and that my book will prove helpful to you for some background research. I am already interested in your novel after your description of that secondary character. Please keep me apprised as your novel journey continues. And very best of luck with it!


  • Ellen Sherman

    Thanks a lot, Michelle. They say that, when recounting an experience, people exaggerate, embellish, or lie 3 times in 10 minutes, on average; I think, when writing fiction, the process is accelerated! I agree that the characters and settings do become so real, though -- and that it's amazing. Lots of luck with your book too!

  • Michelle Cox

    This is a great post, Ellen!  My book is historical fiction, but I based some of the characters on real, ordinary people from the past and then exaggerated them.  Sometimes people ask me how much of the story is true, and, to be honest, I have a hard time remembering!  So real have these characters become to me.  Isn't it amazing?  And I love your last line about art being a way, not a thing.  Lovely.  Best of luck to you!


  • Ellen Sherman

    Thank you for this compliment, Nancy! I appreciate it.

  • Nancy Gerber

    Such an interesting look at how a writer's mind works.

  • Ellen Sherman

    Thanks for your nice comment, Mardith. Yup, tight prose dies hard!

  • Mardith Louisell

    Interesting post, Ellen, and captured in a few words the process of making a novel out of fact. Can tell you were a journalist!

  • Ellen Sherman

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, Carole. I so agree that "truth" in fiction comes from being able to explore through your characters what you perhaps can't deal with in "real" life. Your novel sounds intriguing; I'm going to check it out!

  • Carole Bumpus

    Ellen, I appreciate your description of growing the character at the same time as growing your craft . . . in so many words.  I, too, switched from a non-fiction piece into fiction because it gave me tools to reach into the depths of my characters in a way that a superficial observation could not.  Your line:  " . . . this was exhilarating; after all, what’s the point of writing fiction if one’s characters can’t exceed one’s limitations?" was exactly the thrill I received when I created a character out of my own experience but one who surpassed me at every turn.  I look forward to reading your book.