How Much of Fiction is Fiction?

how much of fiction is fictionSo you pick up a book by an author you love, and before you begin the story, you read the author’s note.

“If you’ve ever been to Anytown,” he/she says, then you know that the river flowing downtown doesn’t stop at Everywhere Street. In fact there is no Everywhere Street. And let’s face it, the river is more like a mud puddle during the months this book is set. This is a work of fiction, and so I changed geography and climate just a bit to suit my story. Get over it.”

Well, it’s unlikely the author would say “Get over it,” but that’s really what they mean. Because works of fiction set in real places do take some getting over. Depending on how qualified an author is–or believes she is–facts have a habit of changing.

How much of fiction is fiction?

Geography isn’t the only target to take a hit when novelists go to work. History can sometimes change. It’s not unusual to learn from an author’s note that a song mentioned in a story didn’t really come out that year, or a politician wasn’t in office until the next year. We bend facts to suit our stories. And if we’re smart, we let our readers in on the secret. We admit our fudging right up front so that we don’t get five hundred emails telling us what we already know.

So how does an author decide whether to use a real place or their own creation when writing their story?

I have some rules I’ve developed for my own work. I create new places for the following reasons.

  • If a character or a situation might bring shame to a real town, or somehow imply that the town was filled with deceit and treachery.
  • If a place is so filled with history, customs and rituals that I could never be completely accurate.
  • If no part of the story would be enhanced by real geographical or cultural details.
  • If I’m writing a small town series that will take place over several years, I create my own town so that I don’t have to do continual research or step on multiple toes over time. (Yes, I’m talking about my Ministry is Murder series.)

I often use real places, too.

  • If the story “hints” at the setting but doesn’t demand a lot of real life details, I use an actual place. Toms Brook for my Shenandoah Album series is an example–as is Asheville for my Goddesses series–but all the books in those series are, for the most part, set in the country. For that reason I felt safe mentioning the towns, but most of my research focused on the general areas or on specific neighborhoods I could easily research.
  • If a town or area is important to establish the culture or situation my characters live in.
  • And finally if a town is so darned interesting I just can’t pass it by.

That last reason is why I’ve set my latest book in Tarpon Springs, Florida. To be one hundred percent truthful, since making that decision, I’ve had to decide, after the fact, how best to incorporate Tarpon Springs into my plot. Usually it works the other way. We visit a place and the setting inspires a story. This time I came up with the story and then visited the place to find ways to make it necessary, even vital.

Of course re-creating a plot this way means that I had to be open to lots of changes.

When I began thinking about the book, the story certainly didn’t have a Greek restaurant on the Sponge Docks, or a large Greek family dancing in and out of scenes. I didn’t have a scene at the Epiphany celebration, and I had never been out on a sponge boat.

All that changed. I was completely hooked by the setting (not a sponge diving pun, I promise) and relentlessly, setting merged with plot to become the book I’m writing. My title, by the way, is Lies and Other Mercies, although, after writing approximately five million books, give or take, I am not foolish enough to think this will necessarily end up on the cover. But that’s between us.

Deciding how much reality to incorporate into fiction is not a simple matter, and these days it’s hugely controversial.

If you don’t believe me, check out the hoopla around the novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. That link will take you to the Washington Post and a story about the way the author’s life has been threatened. But there are a gazillion other articles detailing the pros and cons of the story. If you’re in the mood for a controversy and are tired of the impeachment drama, try that one on for size.

As for me? I’ll only say that I abhor violence, and violence directed at an author who tried to humanize the ongoing immigration crisis, is especially abhorrent. I haven’t read the book. I don’t know if the book really trivializes the actual experience or the work of authors with more immediate knowledge of the crisis. I’m not taking sides. I don’t know how much fact is in Cummins’s fiction, or how much fiction eclipsed the facts.

I will say unequivocally that enough with the threats, okay?

Here’s what threats will reap. Novelists will be terrified to use any facts in their fiction, for fear they will offend someone. They will be terrified to write about anything they don’t know so intimately that they could pen the book in their sleep. So they will write fewer books, with less imagination, and more covering their butts.

Even fantasy writers, who by definition are, for the most part, not writing about the “real” world will worry that something they say will equate to a real life situation and they’ll receive threats, too, for something they may not even have intended.

Facts in fiction. Fiction in facts. Let’s hear your thoughts on what you want your favorite authors to do. Write about only the things they know intimately? Or use their writing power to imagine stories that may or may not be plausible. In the end, readers always decide.


  1. Catherine Larklund on January 30, 2020 at 4:57 pm

    I just read about this controversy in the newspaper this morning. Yes, I’m that old. While I consider myself to be pretty liberal, the whole cultural appropriation thing drives me crazy. If all authors only wrote about only what they know intimately, what a dreary world we would have. I’ve always tried to keep cultural relatively in mind when I read about different times and places. This only makes sense. Also we are talking about fiction. Do people not understand the concept of fiction? If she had written a nonfiction book, ok maybe. Still a writer’s job is to write. That’s the job description.

  2. Nancy on January 30, 2020 at 6:59 pm

    I enjoy reading a fictional tale about a real location, especially if it’s a place I’m familiar with, and I would hope the author has their facts right. I think they should use their fiction with the characters and not the locale, unless they do not use the real name of the place. That would usually upset the reader, especially if the location was denigrated.

    It bothers me when an author gets harassed for what is written especially if the information is factual.

  3. Judy M Zell on January 30, 2020 at 11:08 pm

    This was a thought-provoking blog, including the article you linked to about the author of American Dirt, although I have not read that book. To answer your question, I expect historical fiction, which has been my favorite genre lately, to be historically and geographically accurate. For other types of fiction, either make up a town, or keep it fairly accurate.
    When I am traveling, my husband and I both like to read books that are set in the places we are visiting. We discovered Tony Hillerman’s books many years ago when we were on our first trip to New Mexico, and he was faithful in describing the Navajo people and geography. He died a few years ago, and we are pleased that his daughter is continuing his detective series.
    When we are at home, we sometimes enjoy reading mysteries set in places which we have visited. We like Francine Mathews’ books set in Nantucket. We like the mystery series by Sue Henry and Dana Stabenow which are all set in Alaska. Last year we read two series by Paige Shelton, one set a ski resort town in Utah, and one in Edinburgh, Scotland. The last time we visited Edinburgh, we met one of my other favorite authors, Merline Lovelace, on the tour bus. I was delighted the following year when her book came out that was set mostly at St. Andrews Golf Club, just outside Edinburgh.
    In short, I believe that the locale is important to many of us readers. Since you announced last year that you are writing a book set in Tarpon Springs, and since I hadn’t been there since I was a teenager, I went back to Tarpon Springs a month ago, while I was in Florida for the holidays, just so I would be better able to picture the sponge docks and divers, the Greek restaurants and bakeries, their churches and brick streets, when your book comes out this year. I can hardly wait!

  4. […] I was at it I also explored the way we sometimes ignore facts in order to advance and suit our particular plots. I listed some general rules I’ve created […]

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