The Reality in Fiction

I’ve talked about this one before – how much of what I write is based on real life, how much isn’t – but the topic came up again today, so I thought it would be fun to revisit.

First, a quick shout-out to the students of Olympus High who attended my career day sessions.  Wow – I was caught off-guard by how many of you came, and even more by your hospitality and your great questions.  And thanks for not booing at me for going to a rival high school.

Without really talking about “Where do you get your ideas,” I managed to spend a bit of time addressing this topic during the two sessions.  One of my favorite parts about writing is being able to draw on the things I observe, and then incorporating them into my writing.  It’s true, but it isn’t real – if that makes sense.  Most writers, I believe, are working toward a level of truth in their writing, without writing autobiography.  Though I’ve had my fair share of interesting events both tragic and funny in my life, I don’t really have a compelling need to write about my life.  I will, however, borrow gratuitously from it if it fits a story I’m working on.

My first kiss was no where near as good, nor as funny, as my character Mattie’s was in My Brother the Dog, so despite how many people think that was a story about me, it really wasn’t. It was based in part on my mother and my uncle, and it drew in aspects of me, my kids, my friends, and my observations.  My mother really did tell my uncle Don to stand on the front porch of her friend’s house and hold his own leash, and my uncle really did obey.  Everything else is a product of my own making.

In The Deepest Blue, Michael wants to have his dad’s girlfriend Maggie adopt him rather than return to live with his crazy mother.  Both of my two oldest children have asked their step-parent to adopt them, but not because of a death.  I did use the emotions and experiences of losing my dad to help with the emotional truth of the story, but again, the story isn’t about me.  Michael is partly my oldest daughter, partly my son, but not based on either of them completely.

Now I’m working on a Young Adult novel entitled The Guide to Everything I Should Have Known (Before I Got Knocked Up). The main character here is Robin.  She learns that she pregnant the summer before her junior year and decides to give her baby up for adoption.  This is an experience I most certainly know nothing about with the exception that I was adopted myself (as was my husband, my sister, my sister-in-law, several close friends, and the daughter of one of my best girlfriends).

I have a lot of resources to draw from in order to make the story real, but the story won’t be about any one of these people specifically.

There are exceptions, of course.  In SlipStream, a S/F YA novel I’m about half-way finished with, a character named The Director is loosely based on a former boss of mine of whom I don’t have nice things to say.  In The Deepest Blue, Michael’s mother is an amalgam of my husband’s ex-wife, and  my ex-husband’s second wife.  Another novel in process (with the working title St. Mary’s of Bethlehem) features a nasty-tempered biology teacher who bears a striking resemblance to the one my oldest two kids had in high school.

Never cross a writer.

I would never name these individuals by name, nor give enough information for anyone other than me to know whom the characters are based on.  But it wouldn’t matter either way.  Friends and family have a tendency to read your work with an eye toward identifying themselves or others they know.  Acquaintances are just sure that you’ve written about your self, and people who are paranoid think you’ve written about them.

You can’t possibly win with that last group.

Sometimes we write the truth as we observe it. Sometimes we write the truth as would like it to be. And sometimes we write the truth as it really was or is.  I’ll refer again to my favorite Emily Dickinson poem:

                              Tell all the Truth but tell it slant-

                              Success in Circuit lies

                              Too bright for our infirm Delight

                              The Truth’s superb surprise

                               As Lightning to the Children eased

                              With explanation kind

                               The Truth must dazzle gradually

                                Or every man be blind-


4 thoughts on “The Reality in Fiction

  1. I may have quoted this before, but a Lit Professor once said, “For it to be good fiction it need not necessarily have happened, but it must be true.”

    I loved your advice to ‘never cross a writer.’ So true. They have long memories and have to write whether they are paid or not. It reminds me of the old saying about newspapers, “Never argue with people who buy ink by the gallon.”

    Dr. B

  2. mapelba says:

    I’ve never wanted to ask a writer if their fiction is based on real life. If I like the story, that ‘s enough. It bothers me when some readers feel that it isn’t a worthwhile story unless it is true or at least very possible.

    People ask, “Is it a true story?” as if that were the most important thing. My mother-in-law won’t even bother ever reading a story that couldn’t happen in real life. Drives me crazy.

  3. Kim Justesen says:

    In the past few years, so many “true” stories have been revealed as fabrications (or at least enthusiastic embellishments) that finding a “true” story is really a challenge. I stick with fiction that, like Dr. B. says, may not have happened, but is true none-the-less.

  4. slorri23 says:

    I am so glad that someone has answered my question. I am a disabled woman that has dreamed of writing a book all of my life. I have been disabled for 5 years now, went through the depressions and all of that mess. Then I realized, now is the time to live my dream. I have the story, it is a great story. But I have no idea how to even start a novel. The story is real, but it is fiction. I am taking a writing course that is teaching me to write from the beginning, without even an idea. So I am starting a new novel for the class and I have found that I have so many ideas for a novel. One is an indian mystery/romance, story. I know a Native American that is telling me the inidan people will be offended if I write a fiction book about an indian tribe that doesn’t even exist except for in my mind. She says if I write things that are not true about them the Native Americans will be offened. What should I do in this case? I really don’t understand where she is coming from if it is not about a real tribe and I make up traditions or rituals that are not true. I will still write the book, hoping not to offend anyone.


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