Wednesday, 1 February 2012

But It Really Happened - The Perils of Writing Real Life Events as Fiction

At some point in every term I know someone is going to give the feedback that an incident in a story is unbelievable, at which point the writer will say, 'But it really happened.'

The fact that something is true doesn't automatically make it believable. Firstly, truth really is sometimes stranger than fiction. Weird coincidences happen. People behave dramatically out of character. Chance strikes families for good or bad. Life is random.

Secondly, if it really happened - and to someone you know, or even yourself - then the chances are whatever you write will be coloured by your knowledge of the ins and outs of the character details, the location the event takes place in, the effects and repercussions that are relevant to the story today. You will probably write something that is utterly clear to you, but lacking in the information that will make it live for a complete stranger.

We need concrete detail. It's not enough to say Uncle Bob's house, because that means nothing. We need inter-war semi, chocolate box cottage, country mansion. We need to know if it's crumbling or in perfect order. What is it made of - brick? stone? What are the windows like? Do they let in much light, or are they small and dirty? We need all the information that we might use if you were making Uncle Bob's house up.

We also need meaning. Yesterday I was talking with my mother about Call the Midwife. I knew that my mother had trained as a midwife in Edinburgh after the war and wondered what her take on the programme was. It turned out she hadn't bothered to watch, so that was a bit of research lost, but she told me a story about going to a home delivery and, on her way back to the hospital, leaving the placenta on the bus, and having to collect it from Lost Property. Great story - to me, because it's my mother, because I've heard it before, because it's family history.

It's a lousy story, actually, because nothing happens. She just collected the placenta from a mildly startled Lost Property man and took it back to the hospital. There's lots of meaning for me, but none for you. If you were to fictionalise it, you'd have to find a meaning somewhere - perhaps she learns to be more confident, perhaps she learns the dire consequences of being forgetful, perhaps she falls in love with the Lost Property man, perhaps she's mistaken for a mad axe murderer, perhaps she's blackmailed by Satanists looking for suitable material.

Which leads to the next problem - inhibitions. You may be reluctant to embroider a story that features a real family incident starring a real member of your family. You may not want to tread on toes. You may feel that it's cheating, somehow, to alter the facts. And above all, you may not realise that what's a great story to you (because it really happened to you or someone you know) might not be a great story to me (because I have no connection with it).

So tread carefully round the truth. It's almost certainly unbelievable, but not necessarily in a good way.


Liz Fielding said...

As my Dad used to say, "never spoil a great story by telling the truth". Here endeth the first lesson for the writer.

Philip C James said...

Once listened to a good actor read his latest foray into writing short stories. He freely admitted they were all anecdotal recounters. The one he read was exactly that; like life, the anecdote petered out with no dramatic denouement, punchline or scorpion's tale.

It takes something extra to be a writer! Thanks for reminding us of it, Sarah.

Sally Zigmond said...

Oh Sarah: How true! I lost count of the times this happened when I was giving feedback to stories that had been submitted to QWF magazine. I might suggest that an incident was unbelievable/too coincidental. I might even suggest ways to make it work better in the context of fiction.

'But it really happened',came back the aggrieved reply, followed by variations on either 'you don't know what you're taking about' or 'but I can't change the truth' or both.

My reply (which I never sent, by the way) was 'Truth is a poor imitation of fiction.'

Susan Alison said...

Not only that, but there are many things in 'real life' that don't enhance anything - either in real life or in fiction. A landscape painter is not going to paint in the real dropped beer cans, the real plastic bags caught in the trees, the real scum on the local pond - not unless that's the point of the picture.

Great post. As ever.

Sarah Duncan said...

Liz - love the sound of your Dad!

Phil - that's exactly it. An anecdote is not fiction.

Sally - did you know you and Jo and QWF published my very first story? Not based on real life, of course...

Susan - that's a lovely metaphor, it's spot on.

Wayne Borean said...

Hah. My mother-in-law was the district midwife. All the local cops knew her, and her car. If she was speeding, she was on her way to a delivery.

She's speeding, and some cop she's never seen before pulls her over. "Where you going so fast lady?"

"I'm the district midwife, and I'm on my way to a delivery," she says.

"Right," I believe you. "What's the address?"

Mom told him the address. "My god, that's my place. It's me wife!" the cop yells. He jumped on his motorcycle, and he beat her there by a couple of minutes.

Mom still laughs when she talks about that one.

Not sure how she'd write it up though. Mom is the Poet Laureate of the Temiskaming District.


Sarah Duncan said...

Wayne, that is a great midwife story about your mother. Love it!

Wayne Borean said...


She's got a pile of them, including the time she delivered a baby at Roger Moore's house. Yes, that Roger Moore. My wife was a little girl who was a huge fan of "The Saint." She didn't go with Mom that day, and was quite put out!

We've been trying to get Mom to write them all down. I'll have to call and talk to her again. She does email, but she's really not into technology.