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  • Writer's pictureTessa Floreano

Writing 'faction'

Straightjacketing fiction or filling space between the facts? You decide.

'Faction' is a made-up word (not mine) intended to encompass a body of work that is a mix between fact and fiction. This is a different beast than creative nonfiction, which is rooted in accurate fact, but is not written to entertain based on writing style or florid prose. In my view, 'faction' is not wholly accurate nor wholly imagined. In 'faction,' a reader can't always tell which part of a novel is fact and which is fiction.

Max Ernest Portrait
"Max Ernst, portrait" by milagroswaid is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As an author, I find my best stories are based on 'faction,' and with each book I publish, I intend to include an Author's Note in the back of the book. A note from me to the reader to shed light on which important supporting characters and events are real and what parts I chose to use about them as-is and which are not real.

In all my stories, I channel historical figures, most of whom the reading public know very little about. Most of the real people I write about have been dead for more than half a century and are never the protagonists of my stories. Rather, they're part of what I call, The Protagonist's Periphery (btw, I'm writing a conference session with this title).

My historical mysteries include local figures and minor celebrities, the not-too-famous of their day. They are the supporting cast to my protagonist and antagonist, and the fact that they are real people, adds so much color to the stories I write. In some ways, writing about real people makes it easier than writing about the main characters, who all require fictionalized backstories, character quirks, families, professions, and so on.

I also incorporate all or parts of real events, and they're often a driving force in the plot. Writing about real events also lends an air of credibility and intrigue to a story, drawing people in precisely because they might learn more about an event that happened that either they're already interested in or had no clue. Sometimes a nugget of truth can go a long way to form the basis of a story, occasionally stretched beyond the original event through imagination. Imagination can take a tangent to the extreme.

Incorporating real people and real events can be tricky. Litigation over slander and libel, especially in the United States, is a sobering possibility. How literal can an author be when writing 'faction' about people and events without backlash? One thing I do is to have a coherent ethical system. That is, I make note in a spreadsheet when and why I've changed something about a person or event. This could include change in the weather, who was or wasn't present at an event, etc. I figure if it is plausible that so and so would do such and such, then I allow it. If, for example, if it has been documented that a real person was at an event, I can't say they weren't there.

Some publishers have authors include a disclaimer like this one: "This is a work of fiction. Some names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. In the case of real people, the motives I've attributed to them are fictitious."

The latter sentence in italics is my own and I'm not 100% certain whether a publisher would allow it as-is. If I'm using real people as characters, I cannot truthfully say they are fictitious and though I'm no legal expert, I would think the above sentence ought to cover me and my publisher against litigation.

In Keeping it Real: A Rough Guide to Using Real People As Fictional Characters, Cath Murphy states, "If you make a character look, sound and behave exactly the same as someone you know, then you’re straying outside the bounds of fiction...Even if past events are a matter of record, the thoughts, motives and attitudes of the main players often aren’t, which is where the fictional element comes in."

Murphy's quote basically sums it up for me. As much as I can, I research first-hand accounts and original sources like newspapers, magazines, and letters from the period in which I'm writing. This helps me get into the mind and feeling of a character and their environment. The description of real events, if noted in newspapers and non-fiction books, are supposed to be objective. Sometimes, the journalist's opinion about an event creeps in and that transfers into historical 'fact' in the mind of the reader. Sometimes the writer doesn't mean to infer their opinion, but it happens.

In my research notes, I still can't get it all nor do I feel the need to get it all correct when it comes to a minor historical person or event. As long as I don't defame a person or completely distort a historical event, the people and events of history are fair game. I don't want to wear a straightjacket when I write, fearing litigation by a family member thrice-removed from my real-life character or readers bellowing historical inaccuracies at me on social media. I venture intentionally between the spaces of a factual account or what is known about a real person or event. These spaces provide me with the freedom to explore ideas and activities that matter to me as well as to let my imagination run wild. I think the story the readers get in the end is better for it.

In a recent article in The Observer, writer Arundhati Roy was giving her opinion on whether her activism detracted from her fiction, and she said, "In the old days, writers were political creatures also, not all, but many. It was seen as our business to be writing about the world around us in different ways. So I don’t feel threatened or worried about that. For me, my fiction and my nonfiction are both political. The fiction is a universe, the nonfiction is an argument. The idea that writers are being reduced to creators of a product that is acceptable, that slips down your throat, which readers love and therefore can be bestsellers, that’s so dangerous. The point of the writer is to be unpopular.”

While I wouldn't go so far as saying I want to be unpopular as a writer, I would agree that it is a writer's job to be writing about the world around us in different ways. Even though the worlds I write about are often in the past, there are themes I explore — women's empowerment, social justice, families in crisis — where I use a combination of fact and fiction that are very much relevant to readers today.

Ultimately, by employing the technique of 'faction,' I want my characters and the real events I include in my stories to (again quoting Murphy), "...jump out of the page and into my audience’s mind with a single bound. "

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