Monday, April 26, 2010

When to Intersperse Fact with Fiction

by Julia Buckley
I once read an essay by Carl Hiaasen in which he wrote about borrowing from a real life news story in order to bump off one of his characters. The fictional man in question was a nasty, steroid-addicted fellow named Pedro, who was a security guard at an amusement park. Around the time that Hiaasen decided to kill off his this horrible man, a news story had caught the attention of Floridians: tourists swimming with the dolphins had triggered in the animals what scientists called "high risk activity," which was, Hiassen said, "often aggressively sexual." So he used that particular idea in order to kill off Pedro, who fell into the tank with a super-sexualized dolphin. (1)

Hiassen's mysteries are humorous, and this sort of satire works well with what might be happening at the moment in the real world. But it's always a question for someone writing a novel: How much fact can I blend in with my fiction?

I have found in my own work that I like to weave in certain real facts--characters referencing real crimes or the behavior of real politicians--in order to lend veracity to my fictional world. But of course this can complicate a story; once an editor told me that I was walking a fine line, because my fictional setting was rather vague, but my real-life allusions were very specific.

Still, the temptation to borrow from real life is always there, especially since fiction is meant to echo everything about real life. And certain news stories stay with me for a long time. When it was revealed that a SECOND Austrian girl had been held captive in a subterranean dungeon--this one by her own father, and for 24 years--I couldn't stop thinking about the story. What must it have been like to exist down there, without hope? What must it have been like to give birth to children in that moldy basement--without medical care, without love, without light? While I can envision some horrible things, I doubt my imagination could come close to understanding what that girl felt; even in my fiction I cannot conceive of an act that cruel.

If I borrow from reality, then, I tend to stay in the realm of the satirical, the historical, or, sometimes, the topical. In my first book I drew several parallels to Nixon and Watergate. I made an O.J. Simpson reference because it was pertinent to my fictional story. I also borrow heavily from literature--this may be fiction drawing on fiction, but it also means my characters are reading real books, not made-up titles.

And if I or another author want to borrow something humorous, the real world provides plenty of examples. All I have to do is Google "wacky news stories" to learn of a burglar who said he wasn't robbing a house--merely playing hide and seek. Or of the cat who somehow made it from New Mexico to Chicago on his own feline initiative. Or how a Croation girl woke from a coma speaking not her native tongue, but German, due to a condition called "bilingual aphasia."

The real world provides a rich tapestry of facts which can inform our fiction. The challenge is finding the right facts and the right balance.

(The Hiassen information was borrowed from his essay "Real Life, That Bizarre and Brazen Plagiarist," which appeared in WRITERS ON WRITING, Times Books, 2001).


Sheila Connolly said...

There was a great news story locally last week, that I'd love to mine. Two guys went canoeing off Provincetown (MA), and they claim a right whale tipped the canoe over. One man died, the other was rescued (to tell the tale).

Problem is, nobody saw any whales, only smaller dolphins. My twisted mystery-writer mind immediately said, the guy was dead already, and the other one set it up to look like an accident.

I'm awaiting further news bulletins.

Julia Buckley said...

Ooooh! Great story, Sheila. One can only imagine how many murders are never detected.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Great post, Julia. When I heard Donna Leon speak in NY, she said her protagonist Commissario Brunetti reads whatever she herself is reading. I later read the book she was working on when I saw her, and she'd woven it in in a fascinating way: everybody makes a completely mistaken value judgment about this woman--except Brunetti, because he's had a great conversation with her about books!

And Sheila, I'm fascinated by the detail that it was a right whale. I've gone on whale watches off Provincetown many times, but have only seen finback and humpback whales. Is it a case of murder, in which the killer knows his Gilbert & Sullivan and the right whale is "merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative"?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Oh, and speaking of dolphins, sex, and murder: if Carl Hiaasen's incident involved a man, there is definitely another satiric work in which a woman insists, if I'm not mistaken, on marrying a dolphin, and dies on the honeymoon for the same reason. (Accident? Murder? Too bad they can't interrogate the dolphin.) I can't remember the title or author. Anyone?

Julia Buckley said...

Liz, I'm not familiar with that book, but it sounds bizarre! (In a good way).

Yes, Sheila's story certainly sounds suspicious (or should I say fishy? But that pun doesn't work, since a whale's not a fish. Darn).

Susan D said...

Liz, I thought of that one too. It was by Sharyn McCrumb. I think the woman was the protagonist's lawyer brother's client.

Susan D said...

If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him.

That's the name of the book, but also a concept that always sends a chill up my spine. A battered woman's lament: "If I'd killed him when I met him, I'd be out of prison now."

Julia Buckley said...

Susan, I've never read Sharon McCrumb, but I might have to give her a try . . .