Ruth E. Walker
Mark Twain said it well: Truth is stranger than fiction. Write on, Mr. Twain. The best fiction feels real, often because it is imparting some kind of truth on human behaviour. But writers have to watch that their desire to “tell the truth” doesn’t push their stories into a place readers can’t accept.
Many a writer has met with this kind of criticism, “That’s not believable. That would never happen in real life.” But, again and again, we writers cry out, “Real life is unbelievable.”
Well sure. Sometimes so unbelievable to some as to put them in harm’s way.
Many didn’t believe certain politicians could ever rise up to achieve power – Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump come to mind here. And many people still don’t believe that COVID-19 is anything more than a flu bug.
Readers are the arbiters of what is an acceptable “unbelievable” and writers must remember that. If you receive that “unbelievable” feedback from editors or beta readers, take a closer look at how you set up what readers can’t seem to swallow.
Consider Germany in the 1920s and ’30s. Many factors were in place to allow Hitler’s hateful spewing to strike a resonant chord with much of the population. Now, consider what is unrealistic in your work. Did you offer any subtle threads early on to support it? Are there scenes where some character or characters doubt the “unbelievable” and give an opportunity for another character to explain? Did you make the illogical logical – making it fit the situation?
Dealing in “the truth” is tricky business for writers. As Mark Twain suggests, it is stranger than fiction.
Fiction becomes truth
My childhood was full of science fiction imaginings: space travel, aliens, robots, other dimensions, time travel. But it was all fiction. Until, that is, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and space travel became believable.
But aliens? Other dimensions? Time travel? Impossible. Imagine the US military ever taking UFO sightings as real…oh wait.
They have? Cool!
Now coined UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon), the strange documented sightings are the subject of a 2021 Pentagon report and investigative interest. The jet pilots and sonar operators were not all nuts after all. The possibilities boggle the mind. Are these elusive sightings alien technology or have foreign governments got some super secret experiments going on? Or are we being visited by our own future via time travelling tourists? “Look Mira. That’s what they called ‘cars’ back then.”
Do you see where I’m going with this? Were your writing wheels turning?
Truth becomes fiction
Strange and unbelievable truths have been an interest of mine for as long as I can remember. Odd, out-of-the-way museums and tourist traps have always offered up great stuff. In St. Petersburg, Florida, a taxidermy display of a two-headed calf was eerily intriguing. In that same over-filled museum – a true labour of love with faded typewriter labels and signage announcing each item – I puzzled over the series of plaster death masks of Beethoven and other famous folk.
All of this clutter cheek to jowl with the “world’s largest collection of seashells in North America.” How could anyone deny it. It was there in black and yellowing white, typed with the energy of righteous truth, right down to the errant “e” that always arrived a pica or two above the other letters.
One day, I’m writing a story about Elmira Everley who sits in a cramped back room, hunched over her old Underwood typewriter, unsticking the “e” key every time she has to use it. And she uses it a lot. Elmira loves Sebastian Kohl who owns this museum and he happily accepts any and all donated items, no matter their supposed provenance or condition…including the Underwood that Hemingway wrote on. Hmmm.
I’m not the only one inspired by real life. There’s been many unbelievable real situations that have found their way into books and movies.
True crime writer Ann Rule wrote “The Stranger Beside Me” after discovering that the serial killer she was tracking turned out to be her friend, Ted Bundy. Imagine her shock to learn the sadistic murderer of at least 30 young women was the “kind” psychology student she worked with at a crisis hotline in 1971.
Life is full of intriguing situations and people. In 1928, Christine Collins reported that her 9-year-old son Walter was missing. Five months later, the Los Angeles police arrived with Walter who they found in Illinois. But Collins said it wasn’t her son. The boy said he was Walter and the police were convinced that he was. The poor mother was considered “hysterical” and ended up in a psychiatric ward for questioning. Eventually evidence connected Walter’s disappearance to a serial killer. This story – or a version of it – became the Clint Eastwood film “The Changeling.”
So many other true-life situations have been recreated in books. Emma Donohue’s novel “Room” finds its real-life roots in the story of Josef Fritzl who chained his own teenaged daughter in his basement for 18 years.
The life of five-year-old Sheru Khan who fell asleep on a train and ended up 1,500 kilometers away. Adopted by an Australian family, the now-adult Saroo Brierley used Google Earth to pinpoint his original home and family from bits of landmark memories he still held. The book “A Long Way Home” became the inspiration for the film, “Lion.”
Some real-life inspiration for you
Imagine attending a funeral for a woman, mourned by her husband and her seven children. She was brutally murdered and her husband is devastated.
Who is standing on the sidewalk outside the funeral home? His beloved wife? Unbelievable!
You can bet her husband was truly shocked, especially after she proved not to be a ghost. But his shock wasn’t related to her being alive as much as what happened to the money he’d paid a gang to murder her. They told him they disposed of her body. Yet here she was. Who was in that coffin? What kind of hitmen choose to not murder the wife? What would happen next?
This February 2016 article in The Washington Post caught my eye. You can read all the details if you want.
You can first wake up your muse and head to your creative space and see where this set up of a story takes you. What kind of hit men would take money to murder someone but then not do it? Did she persuade them to stop? Imagine what kinds of “moral codes” were motivating them. And why didn’t she just head straight to the police instead of letting the charade continue? And once again, who the heck was in that coffin?
There are so many threads to pick up without knowing the rest of story. Let’s see what you come up with. Then read the rest of the story. It’s unbelievable.