banner ad

Walking the Line Between Fiction and Fact

Walking the Line Between Fiction and Fact

A Session with KJ Steele

Let’s be honest. Writing fiction can sometimes be a bit of a rebellious romp of literary freedom. When else do you ever get to create and orchestrate the minute details of someone else’s life? You can say what you want to say and do what you want to do. Ditch the itchy boyfriend and take up with six new lovers the very next day. Be meek and pitiful in one character and then powerful and even destructive in the next.

The blank page becomes your sandbox and you can make the rules. Somebody doesn’t like what your hero is saying? Throw sand in their eyes. Then laugh. Be as sassy-cat as you can; the wielder of the pen does not bow down to anyone. “Hey little wife, you’ve gone and shrunk all my underwear again.” “Oh, yes dear, I know. But they really do fit you so much better now, don’t you think?” Purr.

In some ways it might even be fair to say that writing fiction is like the golden pathway to Ultimate Visceral Bliss. However, as with all golden pathways, there are a few non-negotiable rules that keep us as writers from tumbling ignobly overboard and that allow us to remain on our happily delusional paths.

Now, you might hope that in fiction writing creativity will trump all. However, while creativity is obviously a very essential key component to good fiction writing, it is certainly not the cornerstone that the work should be built around. There may be some stretch in this in the case of magic realism or fantasy, but I believe that – strangely enough, with any masterful piece of fiction – the facts will trump the fiction every time.

Now, that may seem like a restrictive or possibly even an oppressive statement so let me explain:

When an author produces a work of creative fiction – be it a novel, short story, play, etc. – they are basically entering into a relationship with the eventual reader of that work. Like in all relationships, the sticky-glue that makes this all work is trust. The author creates a pretend world and asks the reader to suspend their disbelief for long enough to allow their imaginations to become engaged by that world and share in its adventures.

And, as in every successful relationship, each party has responsibilities to uphold. Readers must agree to allow themselves to become vulnerable enough to enjoy the story without undue judgment. And the author of that story must unfold it with a sensitive eye on not asking the reader to stretch their suspension of disbelief  so far that it snaps.

In essence, the facts will form the platform that the fiction will dance on. And it is by necessity a dance that will see a constant intertwining of fact and fiction as they imperceptibly weave the author’s creative world into the reader’s imagined reality. As important and integral as the fiction obviously is to the piece, it will remain the accurate portrayal of the facts involved that will instill the writing with the authenticity required to enable a reader to trust in its validity.

Let’s play with this concept for a moment so you can get very clear on how instrumental the facts are to good fiction writing.

 

Exercise 1

Pick a subject from the list below and write a creative paragraph or two incorporating it into a storyline. Attempt to be as descriptive as possible. Be detailed. Don’t research anything at this point. The idea is to just write as expressively as you can. Then continue on through the list and repeat the exercise with each subject.

Bass fishing

Olympic freestyle skiing

World War Two

Making sourdough bread

Flying to the moon

Once you are done writing your paragraphs take a few moments to read them out loud. Do they sound pretty good to you? Great. Then, clearly, it is time to do a little research. As you’re researching, go over each paragraph carefully and check what you’ve written against the factual information you find. Don’t change anything at this point, though; just make notes of the correct facts and become aware of any inconsistencies that arise in what you’ve written.

Once you’ve done this, go back and re-read your paragraphs out loud. Notice how glaring those inaccuracies seem now after you have become aware of the facts regarding each subject. Being informed about the facts will undoubtably cause considerable jarring to your creative tranquility as you now attempt to read each piece. Your mind cannot help but try to interject and object over each inconsistent detail offered. And that is exactly the experience a savvy reader of your work will also have if your facts are not correct when your piece is published.


 

And yet we are not talking here about writing biography or documentary, so why place so much emphasis on the facts? After all, this is fiction – a make-believe story. So how far does the writer go as they attempt to straddle that invisible line? This is an important question and one I encountered early on when I set out to write my novel The Bird Box.

I believe this question of how close you want to remain to the facts is one of the primary concepts authors need to establish before they introduce too many words onto the page. How true to the facts are you willing to stay in the context of your story? And by this I mean the facts that are negotiable. Many are not. But more on that later.

The Bird Box is a historical novel set in an insane asylum (as they were still loosely referred to) in the mid-1950s. It was important to me to set the novel in a fictional version of a very real asylum I had once visited. By choosing to fictionalize a real place I both created and alleviated some of the basic complexities associated with the usage of facts in fiction writing. While my decision to create a fictional asylum gave me the artist’s freedom to re-create an institution that was in no way physically confined by the constraints of historical reality, it also, in the same stroke, required me to understand and convey the factual workings and particulars of the institutions of its day.

Be forewarned. Nothing will sink a good story faster than a poorly researched fact. As soon as authors establish the time and setting they have locked themselves into a boxcar full of factual details that will either serve to inform their story or – if they get them wrong – run it quickly off the rails.

Let’s look at an example from The Bird Box. I had chosen to set this novel inside a mental institution in the mid-1950s. This decision constrained me in several ways. Not only did I need to be aware of the interior workings of an asylum, I also needed to be aware of the factual information of the world outside of the asylum walls and convey how those events may have been reflected in the lives of my characters.

In the following example we meet a character, Mr. Seymour, who has been profoundly affected by The Great Depression. He holds an old, folded up newspaper in his hands (my research showed patients were allowed to read the newspapers). Now, although it has already been established that the time of the novel is much later than when The Great Depression actually occurred, we see that the date of the newspaper is October 28, 1929. An astute eye will notice that this was not actually the day the stock market fell, precipitating the beginning of The Great Depression. In actuality it was the day before. So, was this a factual slip-up? Or was it an intended placing of fact?

Everyone was excited. Not just the patients but the doctors and nurses as well. Even the attendants, who held the unenviable task of keeping the event in order, could not contain their enthusiasm.

Idle chatter had centered around little else for weeks. The promise of a fancy tea and dance social had fragranced the monotony of institution days like a bouquet of sudden roses. Everyone who had been issued a pass to the assembly hall had been on their best behavior. Smiles broke out quickly, and silvery peals of laughter occasionally rang out like beacons of hope.

Jakie had been keeping his head low, intently inspecting the flowers, eavesdropping on the air as the women’s walking groups had passed him by. Rapidly chattering, they busily formed alliances of trade: hats for shoes, hairdos for seldom-used corsets, secret intrigues for the telling of who-stole-what-kiss-from-whom at last year’s big gathering.

In the weeks prior to the dance, Jakie had felt just as excited as the rest—confident even. He knew from the nurse’s chatter that Dr. Davidson had decided to bring the girl upstairs in an attempt to socialize her a bit. The thought of it had caused Jakie to go all gooey inside. In fact, when he had first overheard the nurses opining about the doctor’s decision, he had whooped out loud and jumped a punch into the air, garden spade still held in his fisted hand. Reprimanded by Nurse Mildred’s scowling face, he’d quickly recovered, theatrically feigning that he had been stung by a bee.

Now, his initial excitement had abandoned him, having morphed itself into a serious case of anxiety. What little remained of his fingernails had been further gnawed down far below the quick.

Standing up from his bed, he again chased stubborn wrinkles down his pant leg with the palm of his hand. Bustling with agitation, he strode back and forth through the ward several times before being hollered at to stop. Settling in front of the heavily barred window, he made a quick study of himself. It always surprised him how he looked. He felt years older.

A rub of dissatisfaction nudged him when he glanced down at his shoes. Years had gone by since he had used up the last of his shoe polish. He had no money to buy more. Surreptitiously, he scanned the room, eyeing up boots and shoes that sported a fresh polish. An expensive-looking pair of tooled-leather dress shoes caught his attention. Puffing on a rolled-up wad of newsprint, the retired barrister, Mr. Seymour, stood erect and unapproachable next to the supply room door. He stared vacantly at the impeccably folded, yellowed newspaper he read each and every afternoon at precisely four o’clock. Prominent red circles on the front page rallied deliriously around the bold black date: October 28, 1929.

“You going to the dance this afternoon, Mr. Seymour?” Jakie asked as he sidled over.

The older man’s walrus face clamped down menacingly. “Who wants to know?”

Jakie swallowed thickly, impotently extending his hand. “It’s Jakie, sir.”

“Well, you can tell that nincompoop it’s none of his business!” Mr. Seymour bellowed.

Jakie jumped. “Sorry. I was just wondering—”

“Wondering what?”

“If ya were going…to the dance?” Jakie replied carefully.

“Then why not just ask?”

“Uh…I did ask.”

“Objection!” Mr. Seymour thundered. “Judge! The witness is blatantly lying on the stand.”

“But…I did ask,” Jakie protested.

“Overruled! Now what do you want?” He glowered down at Jakie expectantly.

“Uh, I was just wondering, sir, if you are going to the dance?”

The whiskery face pulled around to look at Jakie as if he had just materialized. “The dance?”

Jakie nodded slowly.

“Oh, I’ll go if there’s no way around it. Why do you people insist on pestering me about such things? Damn inconvenience on my time. I’m a busy man if you must know. A busy, busy man.”

Seeing the course of the conversation was working Mr. Seymour into an uncomplimentary lather, Jakie tried a different turn.

“That is a very nice jacket ya have on, Mr. Seymour. New, is it?”

“Same’s I wear every day,” the old barrister replied, eyeing him suspiciously.

“No! The same one?”

“Doubting my word then, are you, boy?” he challenged back.

Jakie shrunk. “Not a word of it, sir. Never! It just looks quite new.”

“It’s not, you ninny!”

“Maybe,” Jakie ventured tentatively, “maybe you’ve been slimming a bit then.”

Mr. Seymour brightened.

Seeing his break, Jakie quickly pulled a rickety chair toward him, raised up his knee and placed a foot upon its seat. Hiking his pant leg up, he pulled it unnecessarily high in order to better expose the shabby disposition of his footwear.

Mr. Seymour, inquisitively patting both hands around his ample girth, remained entirely oblivious to Jakie’s shoe’s obvious need. He inclined his head to the side and whispered, “I suppose I have dropped down a few pounds.”

Jakie withheld a grin as he elaborately refastened his laces several times. Finally, Mr. Seymour quit patting and looked down to see what Jakie was doing.

“I say! You’re a right awful mess there, aren’t you?”

Working a look of confusion across his face, Jakie looked up.

“Your shoes. God-awful mess.”

Jakie rubbed the heel of his hand over the toe of his shoe, as if to erase the well-embedded scuff marks. “Not so bad, really. I’ve only just polished them.”

“Rubbish!” Mr. Seymour spluttered.

“But I did.”

“Overruled! The evidence against it is overwhelming.”

Looking down at the offending shoes, Jakie shook his head shamefully. “S’pose you’re right. Well, it’s too late to do anything about it now. I’m clean out of polish.”

Mr. Seymour leaned over the bulk of his belly and perused Jakie’s other foot. Setting back against the wall, he puffed heavily on his paper cigar.

“It seems quite evident to me that you cannot go to the dance dressed like that, can you?”

Jakie opened his mouth to agree, but Mr. Seymour continued on.

“At any rate, those shoes will have to be polished. Otherwise—” He dropped his voice. “Otherwise, all the young ladies are going to think you’re a loony-loon!”

Splitting into a fit of hysterical laughter, he drew a battalion of stern stares as he strode past the nursing station. Making his way over to his bed, he shoved the frantically restuffed Bible sitting on it onto the floor. Riffling through his tiny bedside table, he impatiently waved Jakie over with his free hand.

“Well, hurry up, will you. I’m not a shoeshine, you cabbage-head. I’ve better things to do all day than sit about shining your shoes. I’m a busy man if you must know. A busy, busy man.”

“I’m sure you are,” Jakie replied, smiling lightly as he sat atop Mr. Seymour’s bed, Mr. Seymour taking a seat on the one across from it. Taking up Jakie’s foot, he meticulously set to work with the polish.

“Represented Jesus once, did you know?”

“You don’t say.”

“I just did say, you ninny!”

“Right. I believe ya did.”

“Pleasant enough man. But see here…” Mr. Seymour leaned forward menacingly and shook a meaty finger in Jakie’s face. “Now that in no way means that I’ll be vouching for the fellow’s character, you understand!”

Jakie leaned back slightly, shaking his head. “No, sir. I hadn’t thought ya were.”

“Well, I’m not! If I recollect correctly, I think he may have been my last case before I moved in here.”

“Seems likely, Mr. Seymour,” Jakie agreed. “Quite likely, in fact.”

This example shows perfectly the way an author walks the line between fiction and fact. Placing the date of the newspaper one day before the stock market crashed was intentional. By doing so, I was able to suggest how Mr. Seymour, a once successful lawyer, was so devastated by the economic collapse of his life that his mind simply refused to acknowledge it. He still dressed every day for work that he no longer went to. He felt himself in a constant state of busyness and each and every day he re-read an old newspaper that had been printed one day before his world collapsed around him, taking his sanity along with it.

As you can see, a timeline is integral to good fiction writing and one of those nonnegotiable items I mentioned previously. Make sure you draw one out, make note of world events on it, and refer to them often. People are inevitably drawn in and affected in some way by the events of their time. This needs to be reflected – even subtly – in your characters, or they will run the risk of appearing flat and unbelievable. There are several other areas of nonnegotiable facts to be aware of. A few of them would include customs and etiquette of the time, styles of clothing and architecture, mannerisms and speech idiosyncrasies. (No one probably ever said “Hey cool,” back in the 1800s, unless they were talking about the weather!)  And there are definitely more to be aware of.

 

Exercise 2

Now that you have your facts straight, let’s set them down on the page. Go back to the paragraphs you’ve written and revise them to include all the factual information you’ve gathered, incorporating those facts wherever they may have exposed inaccuracies in your writing.

Spend a little bit of time re-reading each piece and be aware of your reaction. You will notice your mind is more at peace; now you’re just following the storyline rather than attempting to gauge or correct the authenticity of the writing. By ensuring the validity of the details in your work, you will have established a sense of trust. And this is of course the experience you are trying to create for your readers; a relaxing swing in the hammock of make-believe that you have strung for them.

Just to solidify this lesson a little further, try passing off each of your paragraphs to some (no doubt) long-suffering and patient readers. Don’t tell them which ones contain the inaccuracies; let them tell you. To make it even more fun (for you) try to hide one inaccuracy among the facts and see whether they can pick it out. However, a word of caution: even if they cannot, be assured someone eventually will. And it will undoubtably be someone who excels at writing reviews and holding your feet up to the Literary Fires!


 

So those are the facts.

Now, what can we fictionalize? Pretty much everything else. Try to think of it as the facts providing not only the platform but also the scaffolding the story will be built around. I tend to find that facts can provide a great source of creative seeds out of which my writing can blossom. And believe me, by placing my novel in an insane asylum of long ago, I can assure you I stumbled across many a fiction-inducing fact that inspired my storyline forward in unusual and unexpected ways.

I had just such an experience as I was doing research for The Bird Box in the Provincial Mental Health Archives. As heartbreaking as such research was, it was also a profoundly valuable source of inspiration. Besides offering me insights into the diagnoses and treatments available at the time, it also provided me with many small factual seeds that I was able to creatively grow into my novel. One of these seeds stand out to me in particular and it was a small, seemingly insignificant detail jotted down during the admissions procedure for one former patient. This young woman was in her late 20s and presented with severe melancholy and exhaustion. She was subsequently admitted into the institution for treatment. This in itself was not striking or unusual. What stood out to me was a brief note scribbled down that listed her as so-and-so’s wife, the mother of seven children. At that point, this particular fact created a jumping-off point for my creativity. I began to wonder and then fictionalize if these brief facts noting her young age and abundance of children could have in any way been a catalyst for her eventual committal to the asylum. Postpartum depression seemed a very real possibility. In this case the facts surrounding this woman’s committal were negotiable. I was free to use them as a source of inspiration without becoming bound within their restrictions. The character that came forward to tell her story (Anna who, although she was only semi-literate, preferred to communicate by writing letters) proved to be both an integral and instrumental part of the future novel.

Dear Dr. Davidson,

May 14, 19–

I hope Sir that this letter finds you well. I am writin you once agin to ask you to please be a good soul an post the letter I include to my dear Husband an Children. I implore you Sir an beg of you to make sure it gets done cause I have no news of my loved ones for so long now I think it is possibly 2 or 3 years. You can not even begin to unnerstand my pain sir at having to wonder for so long what has befell them. As you know I was broght in here to this asylum after the birth of my 9th child. I would admit Sir that my brain was tired an not working rite for a while there but I can assure you doctor that I am not insane as some in here are. I am not an educated women this I am sure you can tell as my father was not of the opion that it was nessarsary to educate girls as we mostly ending up marrying an settling down. Which seems to be the truth of it Sir as that is surely what I did myself although as a child I had thoughts to become a doctor of medicine like your self an I would spend any spare moments which were not many sitting on the porch of my grannies house trying to read my grandfathers books which filled two large book cases although no one else thought them of much interest. I could not read much of the words Sir but I could get by looking at the pictures an some times I would lose sense of the time an I took more than a few beatings for not getting the hogs fed on time which was one of my jobs then. But I did not mind the beatings so much Sir as when I was reading I felt in a different place an it was worth the beatings to get to go there if only for a short while in my head. I did not get to know my grand father Sir an I am sorrowed by this as they say he was a lerned man an had studied at a university for some years before his own father was killed an he had to quit an go work in the mines to take care of the large family left behind. An they say he was killed by the Pleurisy Sir but I am inclined to doubt it as I have seen how my mother looked away when it was spoke of an I know too Sir something of the symptoms of that dread disease an when I asked of his health my mother would only say he was fine one day an dead the next. Which makes no sense Sir as you know in the case of Pleurisy but I suppose I was not to know any different an I am sure in this case the truth is best left unsaid. My mother was only a young girl of fifteen when my grandfather passed but she was expected to make her own way Which she did Sir an became a housemaid for some folks called newmans an shortly after she married my father who was a farm hand about the place an 20 years her senior. Wether she chose to or had to I would never of dared ask an I suppose it is best left that way. As I have told you before Sir my father was a very hard working man with little time for nonsense an we children were needed to help on the farm so not any of us got much education. But we always did have food in our stomaches an a roof over our heads an we were not beaten often but only when we needed it an even then not terrible hard as some did who got broken bones to show for it. Sir I wonder after my children every day an my Husband as well. An I think it must be going on 3 years now at least an I find it an intolerable thing to be locked away like this when I know my babies are growing up without me an surely you agree Sir that this is not rite that a child should grow up without its mothers love cause she is unfairly locked away an can not return home evin if she would like to do so. It is not rite Sir to keep me locked away like this. This place is like a prison an I have done nothing wrong. You do not know what it is like in here and I know that is not your fault as so many patients need your care but I can assure you this is an awful place not fit evin for a dog. I could tell you things that go on in here that would make you very mad sir if you saw them for yourself. The nurse here are very meen sometimes not all of them but some of them for sure, Nurse Jenny is kind an genteel with everyone evin Myrtle who is crazy as a bat an thinks nothing of going #2 on peoples beds Oh Sir can you evin begin to unnerstand my despair of being in this place??? I work hard from erly morning an am always the last to bed cause the night brings me nuthin but the most painful kinds of despair. I dream I am home with my family an happy to be so sir an then I wake an I am still in this writched place and I cry great sobbing tears I cry Sir I am not ashamed to tell you cause what kind of mother would I be if I did not??? You do not know sir what it is like to pass the day in here. If it was not for my duties in the kitchen preparing the meals I think I should have already gone completely mad I do not know Sir if you have hear from my dear Husband but I would beg of you to tell me any news that comes your way I do not unnerstand why I have no answer to my many letters sent surely my childs will of missed me by now??? An you can not imagine the sadness filling my heart to know my baby has grown without me all these years an would cry if I took her in to my arms to hold cause she would be fritened and not know who I am. An can that be rite Sir??? Surely you agree that is not a rite thing Sir??? I want sir that you would come to see me an see for your self that I am good now to return home. I was a good wife to my Husband Sir an a good mother to my children I worked from dawn till late at nite each an every day sir an it were no burden My Husband had said I was quarlsome sir an I do not defend my self in this regard I some times was so an I relies the errors of my ways now I was young an foolish once sir but I will assure you I am no longer that way

As you can see, as long as the author observes the constraints of the non-negotiable facts and writes within their context, the fiction can play out fairly freely. In fact, the facts will play a vital role by informing the fiction and enhancing the authenticity of the work as a whole. So, facts are your friend in fiction writing. They demand that you slow down and authenticate your work. However, they will also provide the support network that is needed to keep your carefully crafted fictional world from imploding around a misplaced faux pas and subsequently losing the trust of your reader.

 

About the Author…
KJ Steele is a writer who has learned that the process is not so much about choosing what to write as it is about having the courage to write what chooses to be written. Having spent the first half of her life creating an amazing family with her husband, Victor, she intends to spend the rest of it creating equally amazing fiction. She is the author of one previous novel, No Story to Tell. She lives in British Columbia, CA.
http://kjsteele.com
The Bird Box

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

Top
%d bloggers like this: