Fact or Fiction

As a writer, I’ve always contended that most writers draw on their personal experiences and the people and places they know as fodder for their work. This may not be true of every writer, but it certainly applies to me. I’ve dabbled in creative non-fiction, but my forte lies with fiction … at least
most of the time. When I think back about the novels and short stories I’ve written, I realize that I have borrowed people, places, and situations from my past. Of course, being 72 years old gives me plenty from which to draw. I guess the question is, where to we draw the line?

I just finished reading a non-fiction piece entitled DEATH SENTENCE. It’s the story of a New Jersey man who murders his mother, wife, and three children, and then disappears for 18 years. The author, Joe Sharkey, has done exhaustive research of both the murder and the 18 years that followed. When I finished reading the book, I looked at my wife and said, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Had I written this convoluted plot and character study in one of my novels, would any reader have been able to suspend their disbelief long enough to finish the book? I rather think not.

So where do we draw the line? That’s a hard question to answer. Working with our writers’ group, The Milton Workshop, gives me plenty of feedback on my writings. I usually limit my biweekly offerings to a single chapter, feeling that will give my fellow writers more than enough to digest and critique. I am never disappointed. They are a very insightful and thorough group. Their questions and comments about a piece are always thought provoking. They will effectively dissect and evaluate the characters and the plot line: Why would he/she say that? Would so and so really react that way? Is that comment true to character? Why would the character do those things? Do you really think that would or could happen? That’s a little hard to believe. And, of course, they go on from there.

When I apply these questions to what I’ve written, I have to take a step back and analyze them from a more objective position. Many times, I find myself in agreement with what has been said, but there are times when I do not. I guess that’s the bottom line … trying to determine what is true and
believable for the piece I’ve written. I have to ask myself, “How will the reader really feel about this? Will the reader accept the character or situation, or will they be forced to shake their head in disbelief, close the book and set it aside?” That’s the chance we, as writers, have to take. Sometimes, it’s a difficult determination, but it is one that has to be made in order to keep the reader turning the pages.

Five Minutes of Fame

My wife and I have been watching a Hulu series entitled The Path. It stars and is produced by Aaron Paul. Paul came to fame as the apprentice/ accomplice in the well known series, Breaking Bad. Since that time, he has starred in many films.

The Path is a story about several families living in a religious cult, which they refer to as a movement. A couple of weeks ago, the head of the cult singles out a young man for a special assignment.

“I need someone I can trust on the ground in Milton.”

The young man replies, “Where’s Milton?”

“Delaware” is the immediate answer.

In the next episode the leader visits the young man at his new post. The leader is wearing a light blue tee shirt with a dark blue silhouette of Delaware on the front. The name, Milton, is scrawled
across the front in bright white script. Of course, the setting is simply the inside of a building that could be anywhere. But hot damn, we’re suddenly famous.

Delaware often shows up in novels and TV shows but never, to my mind, does Milton. Once The X-Files set one of their scenes in Angola, Delaware. We thought that was pretty cool since, at the time, we lived right down the road from that resort. The show depicted a large motel/restaurant complex
illuminated by a mass of sodium street lamps. Of course, it bore no resemblance to any spot near Angola. Angola only boasts one restaurant and no motels.

Milton is equally obscure. The picturesque, quaint little town at the head of the Broadkill River is home to just over 3,000 inhabitants. We have no cults…or none that I know of. You can buy a tee shirt here, but it will tout Irish Eyes Pub, Po’boys Creole Restaurant, Dogfish Head Brewery, or the Milton Historical Society rather than the one from the series. Still, it’s a nice place to live and is close enough to the ocean beach resorts to be convenient without being subjected to the crowds that throng there every summer. No, Milton is not famous, but it was exciting experiencing the recognition if only for a few minutes on national television.

And I did kinda like the tee shirt.