While the general categories of fiction and non-fiction are distinct book categories in the publishing world, there is good reason to tie the two together in your novels. It will technically still be classed as fiction, but a combination of the two can be really powerful. My debut novel, Take Me to the Castle, was a fictional story, written within the framework of communist Eastern Europe, and the resulting secret police activity and fractured family relationships. I wanted to use my research skills to bring the facts to life through the eyes of a young girl, Jana.
Mixing fact and fiction is no easy task because, while you have all the facts to hand after months or maybe years of research, you have to be careful not run the risk of any of the following temptations:
– Information dump. Too many facts and the reader will switch off.
– Twisting the facts. Inaccuracies will water down your plot and make the story less believable.
– Lose your creativity. If you feel the need to stick too tightly to the facts, the plot risks being underdeveloped. You don’t want to become fenced in by tight constraints if you are writing fiction.
What is the best way to weave the two together?
It is important to make outlines after your research so that you have a clear idea of where you are going with the plot. If you begin to write before entering into the research you will end up doing a lot of painful rewrites. It’s best to avoid unnecessary rewriting if possible.
Strike a balance between the two, erring on the side of fiction rather than fact. Too much factual information, and you will end up writing non-fiction, which is fine as long as you are clear about defining your work.
Be creative and don’t be afraid to play with the facts. Use your imagination to fill in the gaps and show the reader your interpretation of the events from a unique angle.
Why will this work?
Given the constraints, you may wonder whether it is worth bringing fact into the arena of fiction at all. I would argue that there are many periods throughout history, and many key events in life, which need to be recorded and written down, and I believe this can be done really effectively through fiction.
Think of The Paris Wife and it’s subject, the first wife of Ernest Hemmingway. What has made the book so successful has been the fact that it gives you a window into the life a famous writer at at time that we know little about.
Magda has just been released in March, and tells the story of Magda Goebells in chilling reality but it is, in part, a fictional representation of the facts. It’s fascination lies in the fact that it covers the difficulties of mother/daughter relationships and the horrific period that was Nazi Germany. It gives an inside view into the life of Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebells.
Two of my blog readers and fellow writers also wrote their books based on periods in history:
Tom Gething wrote Under a False Flag based on the overthrow of Marxist president, Salvador Allende, in Chile in 1973. The books is based on a series of recently declassified documents from the period and includes a wealth of historical research.
Marianne Wheelaghan published The Blue Suitcase in 2011, telling the story of her Grandmother, Antonia, through her diary as she grows up in Germany during and in the aftermath of World War II.
Have you read any other good examples that you can add to the list? Many of these are political. Can you think of other examples?
Nicely crafted thoughts on the challenge and potential of playing in the overlapping zone of facts & fiction. It is really an exciting terrain to explore.
Hi Fiona, An excellent post! I couldn’t agree more about the pitfalls of writing fact and fiction together. I came across all the temptations when writing The Blue Suitcase and will face them again when I write the sequel. But as a writer, it’s worth the risk because it can be very satisfying to pull off this kind of hybrid novel, not least because you are giving the reader a fresh perspective on an often very familiar subject, and in doing so usually bringing a lesser known truth to light. Thanks again for another great post – and for the mention 🙂
Pleasure. Thanks for your comments, Marianne. It’s a hard but an important combination. I think you can write more quickly with pure fiction but using a factual start point can create a highly valuable story.
A good summary of the challenges. And thanks for the mention!
Pleasure. Glad you enjoyed the post.
I find sometimes the facts and ideas that interest me can get in the way of the narrative – I hate it when this happens in books I’m reading too, and things get slowed down with stuff that strictly isn’t moving the action on. My solution is to write notes for a non-fiction book alongside the novel, so that nothing’s wasted and it’s easier to focus on just what the story needs
That’s a really good idea, Jenny. It seems a waste not to use the facts but they have to inform your writing rather than take it over.
This is really interesting. I think if I ever decided to mix the two then I’d intentionally be very light with the factual side rather than try to use locations, characters etc that were trying to be absolutely real. I love books that do it well – the trouble is (as with movies based on real people) that the the line in the reader’s kind between fact and fiction becomes incredibly blurred.
Yes, it’s a difficult balance and I think even more so in films as the visual cues are less subtle. Interesting points.
Interesting. This reminded me of Interpreters, by Sue Eckstein, which I enjoyed recently.
Thanks for the recommendation. Glad you enjoyed the post.