Writers interested in writing about real people often ask how much truth or fiction they can use without getting into trouble of some sort. My short response is to write whatever will make the narrative most interesting. What follows is a longer answer.
Concerns about truth or fiction sometimes arise for writers who want to use real people as characters in their stories, as I did in Madame Zee. It's useful to not get bogged down in this.
Writing fiction is an extension of what all individuals do naturally as they experience the real world and also think beyond the present moment to recall or imagine events. Maybe we change events in memory, or rationalize behaviour, or fantasize something better for ourselves. In any event, we fictionalize events, even when we aim to adhere to the truth, and if we add enough imagining to our experience, truth or fiction is no longer the issue; they have become forever entwined.
Everyone assimilates and acts out some of what they've read. Characters have as much influence as people, which makes story a powerful tool—whether it is printed in the New Yorker or acted out on a television or film screen.
Some people claim to not enjoy fiction, perhaps forgetting that they soak up fiction in every movie or television drama they watch, and in the video games they play. Whether truth or fiction, and always a combination of both, stories shape our society and us, and in writing fiction, we take part in shaping thought whenever we publish something. Writers in most genres have an obligation to write as truthfully as possible, but "truth" is always constructed.
Fiction has the most impact when it surprises us or gets to the truth of something we know intuitively, but this does not mean that non-fiction is any less a construct. Facts, events, and dialogue are ordered to achieve an effect in non-fiction, just as in fiction, and the effects often change what might previously have been considered fact.
Consider the documentary that juxtaposes facts about an individual in such a way as to illuminate beliefs the individual would deny. Is the result truth, or fiction? What about a fictional piece filled with facts? Truth or fiction? Or a factual piece embellished by the faulty memories of those interviewed? Deciding what is truth or fiction is not as straightforward as we'd like it to be, and most creative writing is at least partly fictionalized, intentionally or not. Readers then imagine the "fictions" we create and make them part of their reality. Are these realities now truth or fiction?
I saw this blurring enacted with my second novel, Madame Zee, a story based on the life of a real woman—the mistress of the Brother XII, founder of the Aquarian Foundation, a cult located on Vancouver Island in the 1920s. More than one person told me that my fictional Zee had altered their vision of the historical woman, but both the historical entries and my story are equally fictional. The historical accounts are terribly biased. They contradict each other. This is not uncommon in historical literature, and accounts of "history" change all the time.
In trying to stick to the facts, we often misunderstand and misrepresent. Sometimes we distort what we learn with faulty memory or perception. But the opposite is also true.
In trying to create, we arrive at authenticity, and in writing about a real person, my goal was not to make readers feel that they knew Madame Zee but to have them doubt what they thought they already knew and to wonder if what they believed to be true was indeed truth or fiction. We should doubt most of what we know because nothing is as we think it is—few factual works are as purely factual as we'd like to believe. We tend not to question the news, our teachers, an encyclopedia entry, and yet each of these deserve questioning.
Writing the novel Madame Zee was a paradoxical experience because the most enjoyable parts of the writing process were the hours I spent going through archival collections looking for facts, and yet working that information into the narrative frustrated me because the more closely I stuck to the facts, the flatter and more one dimensional Zee became. The facts dehumanized her, while fiction made her real.
We've all heard the expression "write what you know." Most writers, in the beginning at least, translate that to mean that they should write fiction about what they know intimately—a career as a nurse or a pilot, brain cancer or HIV, New York city or the Yukon.
Doing so makes use of realistic details that make stories interesting and original. I tried to do this in my first novel, Burning Ground, when I created a character who worked at a fire tower, as I had for several summers. Writing what we know in this way is an undeniably good strategy. But is it truth or fiction by the time it is filtered through our perceptions?
We can expand the notion of writing what we know to include research. If we have no personal experience with a subject, we research it so thoroughly that we have the capacity to impart the same level of detail as if we had lived it. This is also a good strategy, though it is more difficult to use, as nothing is worse than a passage of fiction that reads like notes from a research session.
But after writing Madame Zee, I now view the concept of writing what I know differently again. Sometimes what we know best is an emotional state, and in writing truthful fiction we can write about those states as authentically, as truthfully, as about concrete, physical details.
In writing, we show emotion through physical details and images far more powerful than ones unattached to any emotion. The description of a ship can be interesting, but when the description of the ship is used to show loneliness or raw power, readers are not only intellectually interested, they are emotionally affected, and what affects us emotionally sticks with us. It becomes our truth.
When I first read about Zee, her story attracted me because of her impetuousness, her poor choices, her apparent alienation and talent for unhappiness. I knew more about those emotional states than I will ever know or care to know about Theosophy, for instance, which played a large role in the historical story, and which made me want to nap. So in writing about emotional states I knew, I found the authenticity I felt had been missing in pages of facts. When I stopped focusing so much on whether what I wrote was truth or fiction, the story became in many ways more truthful.
Memorable writing, fiction or non-fiction, explores what connects us and makes us human, not as vague or lofty ideas, but in images. Stories are images linked together in such a way that people and ideas become clear. We tend to tell about ideas, but we show images, which makes strong images the right vehicle for vivid fiction that allows readers to experience events as if they were present.
Fiction makes life interesting. We observe how people and characters act. What breaks them, and how do they put themselves back together? Whether we claim to want truth or fiction, we end up in the same place, with a combination of both. We start with "real" images that evoke "real" feelings that transcend "real" time. But this preoccupation with what is real is naive. Nothing is as it seems.
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