If Fiction is by Definition a Pack of Lies, How Accurate Must I Be?
I love doing research. One of the joys of writing is my freedom to choose subjects that interest me, then read, surf the Internet and travel to find out everything I need to know. Okay, sometimes I just want to know things because I do. I know, as I’m delving deeper and deeper that I will never use the facts I’m uncovering, but I just can’t seem to stop. It’s either too much fun or early signs of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. I’m not taking any bets.
In June I had the pleasure of visiting Asheville, North Carolina for a week. Asheville is not unfamiliar to me. As our children were growing up our family spent portions of nearly every summer in Western North Carolina, and a son moved to Asheville the moment he was able, where he worked, completed college and began his own business. Now he’s a tried and true member of the community, with an extra bedroom for his mom when she needs an Asheville fix. Grown children settling down in beautiful places are one of the childbearing bonuses no one mentions.
When I was planning my newest series my brainstorming buddies, aware of my connection to the city, suggested Asheville as the setting. I knew they were right. Asheville is picturesque, multicultural, and unique. The things I didn’t know could be discovered, plus I have my son and old friends who will be only too glad to answer questions. So in June, I set out to see if my optimism was founded. Would I be able to do a credible job of representing the area?
Authors are faced with many tasks when they begin a story. One of them is how true to life they’ll need to be. Here’s an example: The first scene of my novel takes place in a park on a playground. I wrote the scene before I made my trip last week. I described a typical park, with just enough detail that I thought I’d be safe. But no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find all the elements I’d used in just one park. The elements were there, but split between two parks I visited. So, do I name a real park to give the scene more authenticity while simultaneously setting myself up for emails that say: “There is no Blankety-Blank in Doo-Dah Park?” Or do I simply name a section of the city and hope nobody’s that picky? This is fiction, after all, and my merger of two will not defund the city’s parks and recreation department.
Or how about discovering that Trust and Luck, two nearby townships with names that fascinated me the moment I heard them, aren’t laid out exactly the way I envisioned them. Can I move actual townships? Just a little? Redesign roads leading off them? Expand their boundaries? What must I be true to? What can I fudge?
These questions will haunt me as I write. But they are small problems compared to the big one that makes most authors break out in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. What about all the things I think I know that I really don’t? All the mistakes waiting around the corner because I’ve never thought about them? Those blithe convictions that are teetering on a mountain ledge as I’m leaning over to erroneously name distant peaks, none the wiser?
I do love research. I do love Asheville. I do love fiction. I’ll throw all that in the cast iron kettle of my imagination and stir and stir. The result? A pack of lies or a sterling depiction? We shall see.
In an introduction to Horizon (Dell 1945), Helen MacInnes discusses soldiers who recounted that, post battle in WWII, they looked for the town central to Assignment in Brittany. The town was fictional as, for security reasons, MacInnes tried to give the Nazis no “scrap” about the resistance.
I don’t know Asheville as well as you do, but it is in a lovely area of Western NC. I go thru there everytime I drive between our house in GA and my mom’s in Johnson City, TN. One of my nieces got married there a few years back, a cousin lives nearby in Brevard, and my parents honeymooned at Grove Park Inn in 1942. So I’ll be anxiously awaiting this new story of yours.
I can understand the dilemma an author has when she or he sets a story in a real place, and you have verbalized it very well in this post. We go to the Outer Banks every summer for a week, so I was looking forward to reading Nicholas Sparks book Nights of Rodanthe when it was published. I’ll have to say I was really aggravated by a few things he had in that book, and some that he left out – aggravated enough to write him. Didn’t hear back from him, and didn’t expect to, but I’ll tell you a couple of things that bothered me. He had the doctor driving from Ocracoke to Rodanthe on Hwy 12 like there was no ferry involved – and those of us who know that area know that you can’t do that. So why not just mention the ferry from Ocracoke to Hatteras? Another thing that bothered me was that he had the house on the beach, with trees blowing against the windows during the hurricane. Sounds reasonable, except that if you know the area you know there aren’t trees that big on the oceanfront – on the sound side maybe, but not on the oceanside. Neither of these things would have bothered me at all if he had not used the name of a real town, even if he still had it somewhere on the Outer Banks but with a made-up name. To put this in the context of your Asheville story, I’s suggest making up a name of a park if you are saying that the location is Asheville – maybe even something that would incorporate some Asheville history but that isn’t an actual park name. The mountain peaks in that area are possible to get right, so I’d think knowing readers would object to your using one that is not there. How did you handle this with Tom’s Brook, VA? I didn’t realize that there actually was a town with that name until earlier tonight when I started thinking about this. At least with Tom’s Brook there are probably fewer readers who know it as a town than there will be with Asheville. It is so interesting to me to read about your process in your writing.
Good morning Emilie, this is my first comment on your website. I just finished the “Happiness Key” trilogy, including the novella featuring Olivia. Can’t wait for your new book considering I live just 20 minutes south of Asheville. I don’t think you have to worry too much about keeping truth/fiction separated. The settings for John Hart’s first two novels take place in Salisbury NC and surrounding Rowan County, in which I was born and raised and other than the places that are public domain (courthouse, jail, park, hospital, and other generics), it has been fun to try to “imagine” the home, farm, store, etc. to which he might be referring. I’m newly introduced to your books via the interview you did with Diane Chamberlain and I look forward to many pleasant hours with you.
It’s always part of the challenge to figure out what to “expand” on and what to use exactly as is. Nancy makes a good point that sometimes very obvious details are misrepresented. My guess it that the author never made that trip to Rodanthe himself and didn’t “guess” a ferry was part of the deal–although that should be in any tourist guide. This is the danger of writing without visiting and doing extensive research. I always hate reading books about New Orleans that call the streetcars “trolleys” or “cable cars.” As I said, though, the hardest part of all is figuring out what we really know and what we “think” we know. In the case of the park, I think I’ve decided not to give it a name. 🙂 That solves all my problems, but doesn’t give it the ring of authenticity a label might. On the other hand, no one in Asheville will come after me. Not for that, at least.