Sunday, September 14, 2008

This is a Work of Fiction

fic*tion (fik'shun) n. - an imaginative creation or a pretense that does not represent actuality but has been invented.
-American Heritage College Dictionary

RO: I am about to write an Author's note for my second mystery novel, The Big Dirt Nap. I didn't do it for the first because it didn't seem necessary. After all, I was writing fiction. Did I really need to explain that these characters didn't exist? This town didn't exist? Apparently so.

My editor thinks I need to explain that there is really no native American tribe called the Quepochas, a fictional group that is referenced in the book. While I think this is amusing, she's probably right. One online reviewer complained that my debut novel, Pushing Up Daisies, wasn't accurate because there was no UConn campus where I had one in the book. It didn't seem to bother her that there was no TOWN, no diner and no people there, only that there was no campus. Go figure.

Is it that readers nowadays assume everything is ripped from the headlines, and they are looking for what they believe to be mistakes? Have the lines between fiction and non-fiction become so blurred that people can't tell one from the other?What the hell..I should probably just call it a memoir. Then no one would expect it to be accurate.

Author's NoteThe Big Dirt Nap is a work of fiction. While there is a state of Connecticut and a University of Connecticut, pretty much everything else in the book just exists between my ears. Any other descriptions, laws, people, places or events that are accurate are purely accidental.

ROBERTA: Interesting Ro! There is an automatic disclaimer on the copyright page of all my books, mostly there to protect the publisher from lawsuits I imagine. Do you think some angry fan would assault you (legally) for making up an Indian tribe? I do kind of like the idea of an author's note providing info for READERS, not just for protection. I would put it at the back of the book if you had a choice. And by the way, do you prefer acknowledgments at the front or the back? And how many other obsessive people even look at those pages? (Aside from the aspiring writers who are instructed to look there for agent mentions as a matter of course...and that's not bad advice.)

HANK: I think it's kind of--funny, actually. Maybe it's because you made up such a believable and clever name for the tribe. But I agree--if it's fiction, it's um, made up.

And yes, Roberta, I always read those pages. It's a kind of--six degreees of separation game. I love to see if I know who they know. Or whether the info is illuminating or revealing in any way. Front of the book or back? Hmmm. Put them in the front and there's the problem of: I'd like to thank Dr. Joe Shmo for all his help in learing about how to recognize fake fingerprints.... So much for THAT plot!

In Prime Time and Face Time, I kind of tweaked the geography of Swampscott, Massachusetts and the highway to the Cape. And I just said so in the author's page. And I make up the names of streets in Boston if bad things happen. In DRIVE TIME, I have to make up names of cars! And so far, I've created a problem car called a Calera. Would you pronounce that Ka-LEHR-a?

HALLIE: Interesting, isn't it, how we write those disclaimers--and yet most characters and situations in a novel (or in MY novels, at any rate) are sparked by something real. In my new book, there's a character who vacuums her front walk...I had a neighbor who did that. And there's a Victorian ark of a house on which my husband and I were (fortunately) overbid; the people who bought it found a hidden room. That house, with its leather wallpaper and stained glass, is in "Never Tell a Lie."
I love reading acknowledgments, too. Aren't they kind of a Rorschach? I'm always curious to discover whether writing the book took "a village" as mine do. And what does it mean, I wonder, when there are NO acknowledgments?

RO: Ugh, there was a typo in my acks. After going over my manuscript so carefully, apparently no one looked at the acks, which by the way were PERFECT when I sent them in.

PS.....Don't forget to come back for Wednesday's post when our guest blogger will be Jane Cleland, president of MWA/NY Chapter and author of the Agatha-nominated Josie Prescott series.


  1. It's tricky using real places, because you don't want to offend people there. Or maybe that's just my "nice girl" talking--after all, a little controversy (stopping short of a lawsuit, of course) is good publicity.

    In One Bad Apple, I used a real town for physical descriptions, but made it more run-down than it may be. I got in touch with a local blogger and sent him a copy before going public with the identification--I wanted his take on whether the town would ride me out on a rail. He had no problem with it.

    And in the glassblowing book I just finished, I refer to a real Arizona Indian tribe and reservation, by name. I've tried not to say anything derogatory about the group or the place, but there are (fictional) individual members who are less than admirable. We'll see how that one flies.

    Funny how people take our fiction as fact.

  2. What the hell..I should probably just call it a memoir. Then no one would expect it to be accurate.

    ROFL. Oh, if only that would let *me* off the hook. }:>

    Great post and The Big Dirt Nap is just a great title.

    Interesting to see how 'you lot', as my grandmother would say, wrangle with this on the other side of the fiction/nonfiction fence.

  3. Hi Ro,
    Apologies for the mental lapse and forgetting to add to the blog.

    I actually ask my editor to put a note into a manuscript to explain when I make things up. I invented West Kent, so I could have a small town in Rhode Island where incompetent cops and deviant school teachers could work without inadvertently casting suspicion on anyone.

    In Teaser, I added a note so everyone would know I made up The Providence Centre Mall and just didn't get the name of the real mall wrong.

    I think if your style is realistic, readers will search for familiarity in the setting. They get a kick out knowing the bend in the road you are talking about. And they do notice when they suspect a hole in your local knowledge.

    I think its only fair to give advance notice when you are deviating from realistic format. So, I guess I agree with your editor. But that might be the journalist in me.

  4. Since you make the tribe sound so convincing, Ro, I think a note would be appropriate. Folks do tend to automatically believe things when they see them in print. I know I believe things first--then wonder.

    In my next, Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts, I take huge liberties with the city of Cincinnati. I ask for indulgence for the made-up stuff in the acknowledgments (which my editor edited--isn't that funny?!).

    I'm out of power here in Southern Il--at the Panera checking in. Gosh, I miss being online!

  5. I guess the first book I can remember that mixed fact and fiction was Ragtime. Although I suppose Shakespeare did it all the time. (Don't you love that I'm mentioning myself in the same breath as Doctorow and Shakespeare??)
    ...I love "you lot" and wish I could use it without appearing affected. Jane Tenison said it all the time in Prime Suspect. Grandma must be very cool.

  6. Ys,Ro, Ragtime was lifechanging like that. The Waterworks. And the wonderful wonderful The Alienist. And that one about the Chicago Worlds Fair.

    Oh, and does anyone remember the title of a mystery about a teacher in maybe--Erie? Or Buffalo? In 1899 or so? Who was there when they first turned on electric lights?
    Something like that. It featured Grover Cleveland. It's driving me crazy that I can't remember...and I loved the book. First Light? Something like that..

  7. No joking that the reverse condition isn't much fun,either. Since I've both signed NDAs and have a compassionate ethic when it comes to writing about victims and their families, my opening disclaimer says upfront that the 'who, when, and where' have been changed as needed to protect identities, but that the 'what, why and how' are as true as one person's perspective can possibly make them.

    It's an ethic I can write with (and live with myself, afterward), but the whole current burden-of-truthiness issue makes me pretty tired some days.

    As a reader, I'm fully willing to enjoy a book with the opening terms defined. With fiction I need less definition of terms: Fiction means fiction to me. I wouldn't worry about an invented town or mall or clan of nudist Scotsmen with dirk fixations. With narrative nonfiction/memoir, if someone says upfront X, Y, and Z are actual places, and my brother still has a pulse, but 'Auntie Mav' is the woman I wish had raised me--a sort of cross between June Cleaver and Lt. Uhura-- a figure of imagination to replace the woman who actually did. Auntie Mav was very real to the boy of this memoir--I've got my definition of terms and can read forward happily.

    But I do like that definition of terms. I can't yet easily equate memoir with boy-this-is-what-I-wish-were-true as a genre convention. I certainly can't write it that way.

    What's David Sedaris' response to the question: "Is your work true?"
    He says: "It's true enough." I read him with pleasure and one eyebrow lifted.

  8. Not quite sure this is relevant. I wanted to write the "American Siblings" script as a true story. However, there were too many characters and some details were not totally clear to me. On top of this I kept getting questions like - "Why does he marry the elevator operator at the hospital? Shouldn't it be a nurse?" Grrrr.. I knew I had to composite characters to streamline the story. That alone started to distort what actually happened. The settings were exactly as they happened - however the script became a "based on a true story" one.

    I have since decided to actually write the story as a memoir - that should give you a chuckle Ro - because the story is very poignant and I think I could write a very compelling read - that already happens to be a screen play. The good news is: I'd be able to keep the story much more intact in the memoir. Not sure if I'd need to keep the character compositing. I'd at least be able to breakout a few more significant charaters.

    Hmm... I'd still be at 'a mostly true memoir' - Oh... now I know why Susannah ROFLed over Ro's memoir content!!! So, yeah, it's pretty tough to make the memoir completely true for a variety of reasons.