aprilhenry (aprilhenry) wrote,

"But it's fiction!" - When is it okay to make stuff up?

An earlier post on bibliographies prompted someone (someone I like) to make an off-the-cuff remark about it being fiction, which means you can make stuff up.

Yes and no. And for me, the no is a big no.

When I wrote Circles of Confusion, I did tons of research on Vermeer and forgeries and how the art world works. Art collectors have read the book and contacted me to compliment its accuracy. In my mind, the book gives you an interesting made-up plot - and as a side benefit, you learn about art, about lost art, about Vermeer, about Hans Van Meegeren, and about Hitler's art collection. You can bring these facts up at a dinner part without saying where you learned them or worrying that they are wrong.

Around the same time, an art dealer who had been imprisoned for fraud wrote a book called Thief of Light. And he wrote about Vermeer and Van Meegeren - but all his "facts" about Van Meegeren were wrong. That made me mad. People finished his book thinking he was an expert and they had learned something - but they hadn't.

I think when an author writes authoritatively about something, he or she should research and only bend the facts a little, if at all. I remember a guy in a writing class who was writing about a girl who won a barrel-racing contest in 1952. One day he came to class, downcast, and said he had discovered girls in barrel-racing didn't start until 1954. I don't think that was a deal-breaker.

When you do research for the fact-based parts of your novel, you'll learn all kinds of things you didn't know. Many will suggest story twists and turns.

For Square in the Face, I did research on leukemia, bone marrow matches, and treatments. For Heart-Shaped Box, I talked to a coroner about how to disguise the time of death of a body. For Learning to Fly, I learned about money-laundering and read the accident reconstructionists's reports on three multi-vehicle car crashes. For Shock Point, I researched overseas bootcamps. (My editor actually made me tone down things that were taken from reality, thinking they were too gruesome). For Fire, Kiss, Electric Chair (2008), I researched ELF and tree sits.

For Shadows Walking Backward (2009), I talked at length to blind people, went to a guide dog school, and had a blind person review the book. I also read tons and tons of books about being blind. So if readers come away thinking they understand blindness and what used to be called "facial vision," they will be right. It won't just be something I made up. I don't think you make up history or how things work or things a reader can reasonably think are true. Your story, your characters, yes. The other, no.

Stepping off my soap box now.

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Tags: lying
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