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.

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