Thursday, October 18, 2018

Using Facts in Fiction

Typically, when facts and fiction are mentioned together, it is as fact or fiction. Yet another application of the two words has a very different meaning: facts in fiction. Why is this important to writers and readers alike? Making sure a story is factually accurate when appropriate grounds that story and allows the reader to suspend disbelief.

When I retired from teaching elementary school, I began my second career—writing fiction. My first stories centered on my interest in dance. Seventeen years of lessons and performances throughout the Pacific Northwest provided fodder to keep my fiction real. Still, my experience alone didn't seem quite enough, so I researched professional dancers and read ballet stories. Then I sent Marta and Lynne, my two seventeen-year-old dancers, off to join a ballet company set in Billings, Montana, in the late fifties.

My original intent to write a single young adult story grew into a trilogy, 84 Ribbons; When the Music Stops—Dance on; and Letters to Follow—A Dancer's Adventure, which follows the budding careers of my two aspiring ballerinas. Sharing their hard work during practices and performances provides opportunities to accurately depict classical ballet, while focusing the story on my own growing up years, the 1950s, adds interest and authenticity. For example, the girls lived with relatives or in a boarding house, they used phones that hung on the wall, and they traveled by bus and train. I knew that time well and could convey it with realistic ease.

The trilogy also introduces readers to real places. In book one, 84 Ribbons, Marta comes to appreciate the prairie about Billings, the vista from The Rims, and the Yellowstone River near Lake Josephine. In When the Music Stops, book two, she returns to western Washington and the Pacific coast, an area where I've lived my entire life. Book 3, Letters to Follow, showcases Lynne on her trip to France to join a summer dance troupe and tour famous locations, many of which I'd personally visited. (The rest were thoroughly researched before being included.)

Did the careful attention to authentic details pay off? Absolutely. The trilogy received recognition, including a ForeWord Magazine feature and awards from Feathered Quill and Moonbeam Children's Book Awards, and was an Eric Hoffer finalist. By adding facts into my fiction, I created interest for a wide range of readers, ages 13 to 90—from young girls currently hoping to have a career in ballet to seniors who remember the time period in which the story is set. Tasman, my fourth novel and a very different kind of story, was runner-up in the 2018 Hollywood Book Festival.

After finishing the ballet trilogy, I jumped back a century into 1850 to write about my visit to the ruins of the brutal British Port Arthur penal colony on the southern tip of Tasmania. We toured the Isle of the Dead and the settlement, stepped into convict cells and the isolating silent prison, and visited the prison church. The quiet rural setting held ghosts of its former purpose that I couldn't forget. I knew I had to write the story of the real young man I'd learned about through the museum displays. After months of researching and reading fiction and nonfiction, Ean McClaud emerged. Once he stepped onto the page, the adventure began. Tasman—An Innocent Convict's Struggle for Freedom tested his patience, his strength, and his resilience as he grew into a three-dimensional character that compels the reader to keep turning pages, all the while cheering him on.

It has been said we should write what we know. I say, "Write what you know and what interests you." Add facts to your fiction to bring depth and authenticity to your stories. In my case, realistic fiction grew from a mixture of personal experiences, interests, and research. No matter the genre, using facts in fiction makes stories spring to life for both writers and readers.

If you wish to connect with me, please visit PaddyEger.com I love to talk about writing.



Paddy Eger is the author of The Ballet Trilogy, and Tasman - An Innocent Convict’s Struggle for Freedom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

15 comments :

  1. I think this is why I'm enjoying a new focus on historical fiction both as writer and reader. Excellent post, Paddy.

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    1. I agree that interest, personal experience, and research are an unbeatable combination when used to make a story real. Surprisingly, even science fiction and fantasy can benefit from these three elements. Research may uncover some unexpected possibilities that can be based on current knowledge and science. Personal experience no doubt enhances those genres, especially when creating characters, both human and alien.

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    2. Thanks for your reply. I stumbled into historical fiction and loved where it led me.

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  2. I have been to Port Arthur and the museum there, and also found it inspired a short story about a convict. It's the interactivity of the installation, which is brilliantly done - you are assigned a convict as you enter and you experience the exhibits as that convict. Very memorable experience.

    Port Arthur also has a more recent historical significance after a mass shooting in 1996 that prompted the passing of strict gun laws here.

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    1. I agree that living near or having visited a location in a book helps a story to come alive. Facts make sense and can be proven. Feelings about a place, however, are more elusive and difficult to glean from simple research. For example, one author whose books I edited visited several of the places in Europe where the bulk of her stories take place. Her ability to transfer her emotions and impressions of those areas bring a realistic feel to her stories.

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    2. The museum is exactly why I wrote a short story about my visit.But I didn't feel that was enough so I wrote the novel

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  3. Excellent post, Paddy, and welcome to the Blood Red Pencil. I was just talking to someone last evening about the "writing what you know" dictate. What you've expressed is a great combination of mixing what you know, what you want to know, and what you research into a compelling story. I've learned so much writing about subjects I didn't know, combining it with what I did.

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    1. So far, all my stories take place in areas where I have lived or at least with which I am quite familiar. This is the first part of using what I know. Plots often grow from personal experiences or those of friends or occasionally news items. Personal interests may be assigned to characters with the hope that they become real to readers. As you note, Polly, it's the combination that creates a compelling story.

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    2. Writing takes me much further than writing a story. It opens new ideas about the worlds I think I know and love and invites me to learn more so my stories carry more weight.

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  4. Clever use of setting to move a ballet story to Billings, Montana, overturning the expectation that it would be in a big city and the options and expectations that provides. Makes the story far more interesting. Good tip for writers who struggle with their premise: move it somewhere unexpected.

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    1. The unexpected absolutely works because it opens doors and windows to places readers may never have been and experiences they may never have had. Great tip, Diana.

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    2. I appreciate your noticing that I jumped in the deep end and invented a ballet company where none existed. They now have an active arts community in Billings.

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  5. It sounds like you are a very careful researcher, Paddy. :-) I'm sure your readers appreciate that. Your book about the Tasmanian penal colony sounds fascinating. I'll have to add that to my TBR pile. :-)

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    1. Meticulous research is a must. Readers may be well informed about the areas and/or topics of our stories. They have to ring true if we are to keep those readers as fans waiting for our next book.

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    2. Thanks, Ann and Linda. I actually love doing research and learning more about facts to enhance my fiction. I will admit that I occasionally get lost on rabbit trails, but even those lead me to new, important information.

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