Please welcome guest writer Sam Russell with a post about writing fiction based on fact.
Let’s dispel a myth: you don’t have to write what you know. However, you need to know what you write. Fiction is neither real nor unreal; it exists between places of factual certainty and the avenues of an author’s imagination.
The first thing you need to know about writing fiction, whatever the genre, is that you must get your facts right. Those tidbits of information lend fiction its authenticity, so it’s essential that you do them justice. A reader will only believe a lie for as long as it holds some truth, and those truths have to be accurate.
But how do you do it? How do you take the everyday and draw a new existence from it? How do you write fiction based on facts?
You need two tools at your command before you begin: experience (personal, professional, or both) and the ability to research.
Armed with these, you can then pick any number of methods from the following list to make your fiction come alive in a reader’s hands.
- Become aware of the world around you. Stop right now and keep still. What do you hear, see, smell, and feel? What do you taste? Take note of what jumps out at you. This will help you build believable scenery to act as a backdrop for your story.
- Eavesdrop. Every writer does it, so don’t feel bad.
- Watch people. Writers do that too, so you are once again released from guilt.
- Watch yourself. Indulge in your own private senses and thoughts. Why not build a character based on your own personal traits or the person you’d like to be?
- Keep observational records of the above. These can be kept in physical notebooks, on scraps of paper or sticky notes, in digital files – wherever. Just write them down.
- Become obsessed with something you know nothing about. If your character loves drinking posh tea, learn all you can about tea. Your character would have that knowledge, so you need to know it too!
- Read as much as you can on everything that interests you and also some subjects that bore you.
- While reading, whether it be fiction or non-fiction (especially non-fiction), take the occasional note about something that catches your interest. Research further and find out how much is true – you’ll soon find that a lot of fiction is based on factual evidence.
- When conducting research, use books more than the Internet, but don’t be frightened to get a leg-up from Wikipedia first. It’s a great place to start but a terrible and limited place to remain.
- Gather facts, information, and experiences and link them together into a loose version of the story you want to write.
- Fictionalize the personal stuff, encoding and encrypting it until only you know the secrets held within. This means making the experience universal – that is, relatable for everyone – and removing any actual names, places, and sensitive details.
- Be specific. If you’re going to write about a spider’s blood, write about how it’s not red like mammal blood because of the presence of hemocyanin, which, when oxidized, turns blue. It’s these small but true facts that, when littered through your fiction, make the reader sit up and think, this is real.
- Don’t let facts and research get in the way of the story. They are not the story. They are conduits of information that give the story realism, lungs that breathe life on the page. You’re writing fiction, so it’s okay to include the odd non-factual detail if it makes the story flow better.
Every writer has a different way of using personal experiences and research to their advantage. Sometimes it seems like there’s no right or wrong way to do it. But there is a wrong way and that’s being dishonest in your writing, with your reader, and yourself. It’s changing the name Hannah to Anna. Frankly, it is being lazy with the material you have at your disposal.
With so much out there and in yourself, you need not fear being dull. The most ordinary fact, that bumblebees fly, can be made extraordinary if you observe their flight and learn more about it.
Look around and tell me: what real-life event or fact can you take and write into fiction? Share in the comments.
About the Author: Sam Russell is the genuine fictitious article and knows his way around turning reality into fiction and fiction into reality. He writes short stories, is working on his first novel, and blogs for the GKBC Writer Academy.
Sam, Nice job of bringing your points to life, especially liked the spider’s blood analogy. I started writing novels about advertising because I know so much about it from being in the biz for twenty years and can get all the details right. And as you say, I can fictionalize the personal stuff. Problem was, no one had any interest in buying an ad novel until Mad Men debuted. Now I’m going to epubllish Ads For God, my first ad novel and am writing a second. So fact-based fiction is now alive and well for me.
Thanks for reading and responding to my article. You’ve got a great opportunity to draw attention to your work, especially given your personal experience and expertise. Being so immersed in a unique area, such as advertising, can give great credence to writing and makes for a more convincing experience for your readership.
Do you have a favorite author who displays realism through fictionalized fact?
All the best to you with your debut, Tony. I hope it draws the attention it deserves.
Thanks again for reading,
I am really confused. Stories about experiences in my life are absolutely true: escaping a hurricane; travels in Africa; I write truly about these experiences because exactly what happened is worth the tell; I change my name and the names of the people involved doing things they really did.
So, is this creative non-fiction? Or narrative fiction? I just change character names; not the experience.
Susan, it sounds like nonfiction, probably memoir. You’d want to include a disclaimer stating that the events are true but names have been changed.
I am working on my debut novel and I have run into a question that is relevant to your article. I am writing about a murder that happened in 1871. The setting is a real town that was a boom town in the Old West. Most of the buildings are gone from that time, although a few exist. My setting there is a parlor house from 1871. I don’t think there are many large houses left to base it on. The problem would be easy except my present day main character is going to inherit this house and restore it to its prior grandeur. Any idea where I could look for research to get ideas on how it would have looked then/ I’ve tried online, but it hasn’t been much help. Thank you for the article and any help you can give me on this.
Your best bet is to hit the books with this one. I’d recommend taking a trip to a large library that has archiving facilities as your first port of call. The staff there will be able to assist with any materials that they may have which relate to the specific time and place and if not, they may be able to point you to a similar set of results.
I’d also suggest seeking out historical societies for research as they will be just as rich with information as an archive center.
Historical accuracy can only go so far, however. Records can be sketchy, they get lost over the years or they can sometimes be downright inaccurate, depending on who wrote them and how they wanted to portray their ‘truth’.
The trick with filling in the holes is to know your characters and their circumstances, and then to imagine your way across the gaps with your research as platform. As a writer, you have the artistic license to be flexible with the information you have. After all, you are writing fiction. But remember to keep that grain of truth in there.
I recommend reading Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ as these are exquisite examples of an author who has not only done their homework but also used their skills and imagination to create a successful narrative. She’s as factually accurate as she can get but she has traveled inside her characters to show us a world history can’t.
Good luck with your research. Keep digging and you will find what you need.
Thanks for reading and asking such an engaging question!
All the best,
Great post! This reminds me so much of Michael Crichton. All of his books are packed with true science, making them feel real, like they could actually happen.
I agree. Using scientific research can definitely make a story more believable.
I’ve been journaling since I was about 16, on my relationships. I’m 46 now, and the last 30 years of journaling have mounded to, well, quite the story. From deception, to love affairs, mental abuse from Bipolar husband, having children, family money fights, death, suicide, divorce, office affairs, the demise of friendships, the creation of the most incredible love encourages, and the destruction of them as well, (just to name a few). Journaling has kept me … saine. I have had trusted girlfriends read the Journals, and they have always said I need to publish these … yes, for entertainment, but also self-help, healing, and coping. How do I engage in writing the “truth” without compromising personal details of people involved?
Lisa, that’s a choice that each writer must make individually. One option is to simply write the truth (memoir). Another is to fictionalize and use the truth to inform a novel. I have heard of writers who let people review and approve what’s been included in both memoirs and novels inspired by real events. That way, the people who might be compromised get to have a say in how much of their personal details are exposed. This is why I stay away from memoirs or novels based on true stories about people I know. I just wasn’t comfortable going anywhere near it, especially as a fairly private person myself.
I am writing a fact-based story about family friends that were involved in an organ failure and a donor. I was not involved but am aware of how the story played out. I am not able to give all the details such as where details (conversations) took place and things like that. How much must be actually true and how much can be my interpretation?
Once you stray from the facts of what happened, you are no longer writing non-fiction. You could then say it’s a novel inspired by true events, but it’s a novel (fiction) nonetheless.