Sorting Fact from Fiction
Sometimes it’s very easy to get so carried away when writing a novel that the lines between fact and fiction often become blurred.
It means that writers sometimes end up mixing fact with fiction (otherwise known as faction), which isn’t a new phenomenon; it’s been done for years and is extremely common. There is nothing wrong with using real places or events as a backdrop or setting for your fictional characters. There is nothing wrong with using historical figures within the story, but bear in mind that you can’t really put words into their mouths and treat them as you would fictional characters, because you cannot truly know their personalities, so you can’t presume to know what they would say or do. Also, you can’t write about what is unobserved. It’s a very thin line to tread, so for beginner writers, it’s best avoided.
Writers blend fiction with fact because they can apply a fair amount of artistic licence to the story, but mixing known facts with fiction requires attention and focus from the writer to ensure these two elements blend in a way that seems perfectly natural and factual to the reader, without deliberately misleading them.
Novels such as The Da Vinci Code used many fictional elements and tried to pass them as fact. This is where fiction and fact become blurred and misleading.
The dilemma for the writer is to sort fact from fiction in order to maintain a sense of reality. And that means any writing, no matter if a novel or a short story, should always aim for clarity. Writers should ensure that the facts don’t get swallowed or overshadowed by the story. Some good examples are Roots, by Alex Haley, or In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
When done correctly, the factual lends a voice to the fiction. That said, facts are not fiction or vice versa, so it’s important to keep them separate if you are aiming for clarity, but you want to reflect reality within your story without distorting, changing or even erasing the truth.
So, how do you sort fact from fiction?
Facts are what we know as true. This is important from a research point of view because writers should avoid warping the facts (unless the novel is specifically a sci-fi or fantasy novel and such facts can be subject to manipulation), because readers are very astute and will pick up on inaccurate information or deliberate bending of the truth. For instance, the assassination of President Kennedy happened on 22 November, 1963. That’s a factual occurrence you cannot change, so writers have to understand that factual elements such as these form the interior strength to your novel by providing an accurate background.
Don’t try to fool the reader by skirting around facts or making them up as you go along – they won’t thank you. This is especially important if you are writing an historical novel using fictional events around factual characters, or fictional characters interacting with historical events.
Whenever you research for your novel or story, the first place you might look is the internet. It is an ocean full of information, but not all of that information is accurate. And because facts are vital to back up any story, the approach to research should be thorough. That means writers should double check everything and cross reference any facts they wish to use. Sometimes the best way to do that is the old fashioned way – by going to the library.
Sources for factual information:
- Internet – some sites like Wikipedia, are full of flawed information, so don’t think that anything here is established fact.
- Library – probably the best place to research and cross reference your information.
- Groups, Associations or Organisations – they can provide the kind of information that isn’t always easy to come by.
Remember, if you miss anything or your facts are full of errors, the reader will spot it and it will put them off reading anything else you’ve written. If you can’t get your facts right, why should they bother reading any of your work?
Even though we’re in the business of writing fiction, that does not mean we have to ignore the facts. If you are writing about a specific period in time, ensure that you reflect the reality of it. If you are writing about an actual place, again, make sure you have the correct information to describe it and integrate it into your narrative.
- Don’t ignore research.
- Don’t make up ‘facts’ and pass them off as accurate.
- Don’t deliberately mislead your reader with facts
- Double check/cross reference your research – be thorough.
- Aim for clarity – ensure the facts endorse the fiction.
- Keep it simple.
Fact and fiction can co-exist in any novel. Just be clear that facts remain facts and the fiction doesn’t envelop them.
Next week: Reading your novel out loud