Friday, July 5, 2013
Blending Fact and Fiction
Writers are frequently asked: "How much of your fiction is based on the facts of your life?"
If we follow the advice commonly given to writers, i.e., “Write what you know”, the answer to that would have to be "a lot". What most of us know best is our own life. We may not understand it, but we know it. It’s the world we inhabit on a daily basis. So, it’s good advice–and a good place to start. But how do we do that? Most of us don't live large, heroic lives, so how do we shape our small experiences into interesting stories? The story, Generation Unto Generation, contained in the collection A Perfect Wedding - http://amzn.to/z5Dko7 - is probably as close to an autobiography as anything I'll ever write, but even that isn't 100% fact.
I don’t claim to speak for all writers, but here’s how it works for me. I choose an experience that I find meaningful and, needing to share my feelings, I write about it. I portray it as faithfully as I can, but the wonder doesn’t come through. The words don’t do justice to the feeling. It’s mundane. So I embellish it. Add a little drama. It’s too personal. Will readers be able to relate to it? I change some of the details, hoping to make it more universal. Punch it up a bit. More details. More drama. Almost without realizing it, I take the essence of the experience and transform it into something new, something that I hope will convey my sense of wonder. My experience becomes fiction.
A variation of that first piece of advice is: “Write what you want to know.” More good advice.
Here, I might start with an event that makes no sense to me. I take an inexplicable action and try to understand it by creating a fictional scenario that explores the event from various angles. I make up characters who represent different facets of the puzzle and try to imagine it from their conflicting points of view. For me, one of the joys of writing fiction is immersing myself in another personality, whether it's the heroic figure I’d like to become or the villain I won’t let myself be. Still, even the most bizarre characters and events that I make up come from somewhere–something I’ve seen or heard or read about.
There’s another option to writing about what you want to know. Suppose I decide to set my story in a time or place completely foreign to the world I inhabit. With enough research, that’s possible. I can look up facts to make any setting credible. However, I still have to use my imagination to blend the characters created from the world as I know it into the setting dictated by the facts of a different environment.