The Writers Circle: Truth in Fiction

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

When writing fiction, do you include real situations and people in your stories? Do you worry about people recognizing themselves in your work? How do you alter true elements from your life and include them in your writing?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

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Just the Facts, Ma’am

newspaperAnd get them straight. Know the difference between stalactites and stalagmites because no one likes tripping over stalactites in a cave – it means they’re traveling bat-like, feet up, and feeling nauseous at being upside down. And if you don’t know the difference between elicit and illicit, you may find yourself punctured by barbs volleyed your way by irritated readers. No one likes reading falsehoods, whether in non-fiction or fiction. People want certain inalienable facts to be correct and well established. Even science fiction should begin here on Earth.

As a kid I figured a word in print was a word in fact. I’ll always remember the first time I knew that to be wrong. I’d been reading a kid’s book, not one that was famous or remarkable in any way except that it occupied time in my boring life. The main character was a homely girl with few talents who was looking for something to make her shine – the same thing every lonely kid wants. A friend washes her long hair and discovers that, wet, her hair is curly. Thing is, wet hair, soaking wet hair, is straight. If curly hair is ever going to hang like iron rods, it’s going to be when the shampoo has just been squeezed out. Curly hair releases its springs as it dries, each tendril winding around its invisible cylinder to make a singular corkscrew among hundreds of corkscrews. I know. I have curly hair. I didn’t trust anything else that happened in that book and it was one of the last kid’s books I ever read. Healthy skepticism isn’t a bad trait to have but how unfortunate to have developed it in an activity – reading – I loved.

A colleague is writing a story that included a common if potentially dangerous medical condition, one of those events you learn to recognize when taking emergency first aid courses. Once trained, the markers are obvious, the course of action to protect the victim is well established, and the possible outcomes are reliably documented. When her story detoured through a completely inaccurate set of medical events, from onset of crisis to the all-clear sign, I wondered if she was trying to hint at the characters taking control by faking the medical incident in order to confuse the other characters. Discussion proved that the writer simply didn’t know her stuff and made up a scenario that fit her plot. Unfortunately the whole scene threw the book out of kilter and made what was supposed to be climactic, silly. The tone of the book went from thrilling to ridiculous.

One of my books relates a devastating local event that happened in our city when I was a teenager. It forms the backdrop of the story. A very dear friend who lived right next to the event, a huge fire, gave me first hand information based on what she saw, literally right out her window. She told me things I couldn’t have discovered any other way. But she had one crucial piece of information wrong: the year. I knew the actual year, and it was critical to my story to be accurate. She’d even loaned me the dozen or so saved newspapers with the fire as front page news, the date of the fire on top of every page. It provided a trove of facts and details I’ve incorporated into the story. I chalked up her error and insistence that she was right about the wrong year to stubborn one-ups-man-ship, or to the occasional quicksand of her golden years and her temporal distance from the event. (No, I didn’t argue with her. She was a dear friend and there was no need to point out her one little mistake. I did make it right in my book.)

In Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, the main male character exhibits a gift for building and repairing (and later for finding hidden) radios. In the hands of rebels, radio transmissions reveal secret Nazi strategy. Thus conveyed, partisans are scuttling the Axis war machine. Fascinated by the ability of radios to condense time, to breach borders and allegiances, Doerr learned everything he could about their operation, how they’re built, how they can be located, and how they transmit across radio waves. A world of beauty and horror, of innocence and moral redemption, is made palpable through the simple but thorough descriptions of mollusks, birds, diamonds, and radios, all of it dependent on in-depth knowledge of the actual items.

Isabelle Allende is famous for lapsing into magical realism in many of her books, a jaunt into what is physiologically impossible yet essential to the story. In The House of the Spirits, based on historical events in twentieth century Latin America, the violence and abuse of a powerful male figure is juxtaposed by the loving spirituality of the women around him, and eventually leads to his reformation. One woman famously plays piano without lifting the piano lid. The connection to a world outside of science and pragmatism lends a radiant quality that makes the accurately depicted historical events ever more exquisite and horrible and ultimately comprehensible.

The difference between knowing what’s real yet choosing to present what isn’t, and not knowing the difference, is what makes one writer’s works celebrated, the next, criticized. Writers must build on a scaffold of fact and history. We may deviate but before we leap off the beams, best we know the tensile strength of the steel and the likelihood that we will be able to fly. I want to hear my readers gasp as they soar over chasms, to touch rock safely on the opposite side. Or believe they have.

The Fear Chronicles: Which Holds are Barred?

I am a person who races to Google the moment I’m done watching a movie that is based on real events. I want to know what was true, what was embellished, and what was unabashed fabrication. I read about the events and the people, lingering over the photographs in particular. I go back and forth between photos of the actor and the actual person. How closely does the actor’s hairstyle match the person’s? How well does the 2010’s actress wear those 70’s glasses? What character is actually an amalgam of three people?

I like to think about why things get changed in the transition from reality to fiction, especially when reality seems interesting enough. I remember one particular movie (the name of which escapes me now), in which the main character had a daughter. In real life, she had a son. I wondered what the point was in changing the sex of the child—the child, who had no bearing on the story whatsoever. Was there a dearth of boy actors that day at the casting call?

Small or big changes interest me when it comes to playing around with nonfiction, and not just in relation to film. I recently finished reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King, which borrows from history. JFK, Jackie Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, Marina Oswald, and other real-life characters, are appropriated by King and interwoven into a time-travel novel. The basic premise involves the main character traveling back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination, in the hopes that other terrible events will not happen, such as the shootings of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his afterward, King talks about the amount of research that went into this story, and he also mentions that he plays around with some events to suit the needs of his novel. He tries to be as true to actual events as possible, but there are things that he made up. There are some scenes in which he imagines what Lee and Marina say to each other, like when they give their baby daughter, June, a bath. He pushes his fictional characters into collision courses with Lee, Marina, Jackie, and even George de Mohrenschildt. Fictional and nonfictional characters meet, have conversations that never took place, and influence each other’s lives.

Now, you could say, “Of course all this happened. This is Stephen King we’re talking about. He writes fiction.” And that’s true, except usually he doesn’t write fiction based in and on reality, or some part of reality, anyway. Now, because I like doing the research when something is based in fact, and because I know that King is a fiction writer, I can come to the realization that how King is using real-life people is not “real.” It’s for effect, and for impact.

But I honestly don’t know how I feel about this. My conflicted feelings might be silly, considering how many “based on real events” movies I’ve watched and enjoyed, and considering how I understand that film is an art form, and sometimes real life doesn’t suit the art, so things have to change. Why should literature be any different? Why shouldn’t I be as on board with a novel or short story that borrows from reality, or a poem that borrows from reality? (Full disclosure: I have written such poems.)

I don’t know. There is something about looking at the cover of 11/22/63 and seeing a picture of the Kennedys in the motorcade in Dallas on the day that JFK dies that is strangely disconcerting, because it feels like I’m about to read nonfiction, but I’m not.

In Anne Lamott’s beautiful book about writing, Bird by Bird, she mentions a writer friend who basically says that everything is text, meaning, I suppose, that everything and anything in life can and should be used as fodder to write. No holds barred.

But still I am conflicted. Is it okay to put fictional words into the mouths of nonfictional characters? Is it okay to dress them up and position them like action figures to suit our own stories? Is it okay to imagine their lives—the parts that aren’t known by the general public, that aren’t recorded and cataloged— through our stories? And is it alright to appropriate an important moment (say, the JFK assassination) and paint around it with our own bright and fictional colors?

What do you think?

 

 

Where is your line?

Over the years of blogging on a number of sites reaching varying audiences, I’ve been challenged with the question many bloggers have; “What, if anything is too personal to write about?”

My late husband didn’t like me to ever mention him or events around our family life which involved him, so I generally respected this; the closest I may have come was to write observations of a more general view on a topic or theme. But apart from that, not much was sacred.

I have more blogs than I would like to admit, some are kept more up to date than others, and some specifically for a purpose and left to stew for a time. I write under a few names, given the breadth of genres and audiences I have reached in the past. My reasoning siting my wish to market a certain brand of writing under one name and another under another, not wanting to water down or dilute the other should there be misunderstandings in the future. I know I am not alone with this reasoning as I have friends who may publish academic papers or articles under one name and fantasy or erotica (for example) under another.

Under these different blogs, I have shared some pretty personal things, my fears, guilt-ridden decisions, my doubts and my meltdowns. Although I have a thin line separating business and personal, its certainly not as strong, or defined as many others. Who I am, where I have come from, my experiences and all the nobly bits in-between is such a big part of my writing, that its difficult to separate. I do understand that this thought process doesn’t work for everyone and in no way am I suggesting that all writers need to be transparent with every meltdown they have, nor to hide every emotion they experience.

Where is “The Line”

I think I have hit mine, given the traumatic events from last year. I suddenly was unable to write – anything. It has taken me 9 months to feel confident enough to write articles, much less blog posts detailing emotions. Writing fiction seems a distant dream for me at the moment, as I struggle to deal with the raw emotions bubbling to the surface every day.

I’ve seen and read others blog and write about their experiences, whilst not exactly the same as mine, similarly horrific, and similarly heart breaking. I honour their bravery and had always thought I’d be the one to continue blogging and sharing myself; yet faced with the events from last year, I am unable to process and write about them on a private level, much less share it publicly.

I’ve been approached a number of times by various people suggesting that if I wrote my story, it would not only help others and help me in my healing process, but would stand the chance of being one of those great chic lit books many of us dream about publishing. I have no doubt it would break the hearts of readers as they journeyed though the character’s landscape; but I cannot begin to write it. I have hit my line… and I am as surprised as anyone to realise that I had a line.

I would suggest that the line is a personal thing, that there is no hard and fast rule as to what or where it is.  Trust your intuition as to discovering what and what it is and share only what you feel comfortable with.

Clarity and Connection

One of the beautiful things about blogging is the immediacy of connection with readers. Although writing has an intimacy, blogging, coupled with its networking ability provides feedback and best of all clarity

Writing will always be a part of who I am, and I understand that by expressing oneself through text comes strength and wisdom. I just wish I could flick to the end of the book and see if it all turns out ok.

Do you have a line? What or where is your line?  Do you share everything?  What the most weird or deeply personal thing you’ve ever shared on your blog or site with your readers?