We’ve all heard the admonition that we should write what we know. And, sadly, some folks still think that’s good advice. Trust me when I say it ain’t. If it were, there wouldn’t be any science fiction, unless it’s okay to write about stuff you know isn’t possible–at least, not yet. The same goes for fantasy of all shades. What do we really know about dragons, elves, fairies and magic? Hogwarts would be considered hogwash, and that would be a terrible shame.
So, forget that nonsense about “writing what you know.” Otherwise you’re bound to commit the worst possible writing crime: producing something boring.
In what amounts to a corollary to all this, some writers “fictionalize” events they’ve been closely associated with. Maybe it involves a relative, friend, business associate, former lover, whomever. The point is, many of these writers can’t divorce themselves from what actually happened. For them, the girl can’t just walk away, because her real life counterpart hung around, refusing to believe her abusive boyfriend wasn’t a saint. Or, maybe Aunt Bulimia didn’t die from an overdose of chocolate; maybe what did her in was the strychnine that good old Uncle Lester added to her panda poop tea. Whatever. The point is–and I absolutely refuse to sugar coat this–no one gives a damn. If the fictional version reads better than “the truth,” then screw the truth and go with what you’ve made up. After all, it’s supposed to be fiction, right?
Let’s take a look at the flip side of this coin. When folks say “truth is stranger than fiction,” they’re basing the conclusion on reality. Just because something really happened, doesn’t mean anyone would believe a fictionalized version of it. Writers must use common sense, even if it means forcing themselves to do so. (Yes, I know. It’s awful what we must do for our art.) But, consider the sidebar item below, reprinted from the March 22, 2007, Houston Chronicle. Can you imagine anyone buying into this criminally stupid criminal if they read it in your book?
Complicating this issue a bit more, let’s consider the role of history in fiction. I’ve always felt it critically important to present a factual version of historical events, unless my goal is to generate an expressly stated alternative. Getting historical details wrong is a gigantic no-no, except when your whole story depends on it.
For instance, if the core element of your Civil War fantasy is a claim that Union General Ulysses S. Grant actually arranged the assassination of President Lincoln, you can get away with it, and no one will suspect you of an unauthorized release from a psych ward. BUT, if you toss such an absurdity into an otherwise historically accurate portrayal of events, you’ll be lucky to retain even those readers to whom you’re related. (But they’ll forever after look at you funny.)
It’s all about judgment. The “rules,” such as they are, tend to be rubbery. They bend and stretch like a politician’s rendition of “the facts,” which we can almost always count on to be as dead-on accurate as a prediction in a fortune cookie.
Good stories may stretch credibility provided they’re told skillfully enough. The aim of this series of posts is to help you figure out how to do that. Using good judgment is a skill like any other; the more you practice it, the easier and better it becomes.
Next up: Declare war on weasel words.