Originally published by 49 Writers. Photo by Clark Fair.

I was a teen in 1990s Soldotna, Alaska—the setting for my debut novel—so people often ask me if The Ocean in My Ears is a thinly disguised memoir. The short answer is no.

Sure, I was probably every bit as frustrating, angsty, and confused as Meri, my teen protagonist. She attends a high school that I worked hard to make seem real, writes poetry and journal entries that I painstakingly crafted to feel like this teen girl’s private thoughts, and she loves other fictional people with as much passion as I could conjure onto the page. However, Meri exists only there, on the page, moving from scene to scene in a world I made up.

So yeah. The Ocean in My Ears is fiction.

But the content is not exactly untrue. For starters, I wrote with a devotion to facts. I took great pains, for example, to align the whole book to the actual 1990-91 calendar (holidays, weekends, etc.) and coordinate the characters’ timelines accordingly. Pro tip: notecards helped me synchronize Meri’s life events with the school calendar and actual historic events.

I had rules, you see, the kind to which anyone writing historical fiction must adhere. In the beginning, I didn’t think of myself as writing “historical fiction,” and, honestly, when I first read the Kirkus Reviews categorization, I’ll admit to being slightly offended. Or maybe it was more a sheepish vexation the way a… ahem… mature person buying liquor feels when not asked for ID.

ME: Really? But I was in high school only… nevermind.

But I digress. We were discussing truth.

Yes, I did mine bits of my own experiences and use details from my life to build scenes and create a sense of realness. That’s what writers do. We make fake people and almost-real places, and we use whatever magic tricks we can to render a near-authentic experience. (I’m giving a class on my magic tricks, if you’re interested.)

True-to-life landscape descriptions are also kind of a big deal to me, and I generally kept places in the novel and other setting details accurate, though not if accuracy messed with or impeded the story. Like in real life, there were two Dairy Queens—one in Kenai and one ten miles away in Soldotna—which was unnecessarily complicated, so I fudged them into one. I sort of reinvented the high school, in part because the real Soldotna High School split into two different schools my senior year then later merged back into one.

Still, I worried over each decision to veer from precision (though admittedly, I took great pleasure in making up an alternate high school universe). I know how people who live in a place-used-in-fiction can be. Even in a novel, readers can get hung up on writing that “doesn’t get it right.”

Thus, I aspired both for a sense of truth and a uniquely imagined world inside the book. An elaborate fabrication that feels genuine, which made for a tough balancing act.

At the beginning, when I was writing small vignettes, I stuck closer to my own experiences. I mined both my past and my present for starting points. But slowly, the characters transformed into wholly their own people and drove the narrative. As an arc began to take shape, the story developed internal inertia. I gave my imagination full license to change earlier scenes and create new, entirely fictional material.

Any bits close to the truth of my own life that managed to hang in through revisions now serve as tiny touchstones, reminders that I did, in fact, author this story. For the most part, Meri’s experiences aren’t true to my own life. Not in a play-by-play way. But there is a kind of deep truth there. I definitely wasn’t Meri, but she is, in many ways, a girl I wish I would have been. She evolves over the course of the novel into a more reflective and introspective person, and she has an agency I never had. She confronts wrongs the way I should have, but didn’t.

Real-life teens often don’t understand their situations and experiences until much later—maybe not until full adulthood. But fiction isn’t real life. It operates differently. Fiction asks us to consider possibility. What if a teen did have a broader and deeper sense of her circumstances? What if this girl was stronger? How would a more empowered girl confront the things I couldn’t?

As a mother of a daughter, I’m still answering those questions in life. But in fiction, I was able to explore countless possible questions and answers. In The Ocean in My Ears, I could simultaneously consider what is, what was, and what could be.

Though set in the “historical past” of 1990, the issues tackled in the novel are relevant today. Meri confronts the same challenges many small town kids face, and while my own lived experiences are relics of the past, this novel’s mixture of fact and fiction is an elaborate fabrication for present-day readers.