Writers of all stripes must write the truth. Even in fiction, where we make up characters, events and outcomes, truth is important. Except when it’s not. What’s the difference?
Writing Tip for Today: Here are some tips for writing truthfully in all your work:
Fake News Facts
If you are writing memoir, creative nonfiction or personal experience, you already understand that telling the truth is vital. Yet sometimes we must fudge the facts to keep readers from getting confused. A few years ago, a memoir which told the story of a girl raised by wolves was debunked. The agent who sold the book as well as the publisher (and likely not a few readers) were embarrassed and angry. Nobody wants to be taken advantage of, and with the sensational fabrication here, everyone involved with the book felt righteous indignation. You can’t say you were raised by wolves if you’ve only ever seen them on TV. I always tell students, “If you were at Woodstock and your second cousin twice removed was with you, it’s awkward to spell out that relationship—you could say “relative” or a friend was there with you. But if you never were at Woodstock at all, you can’t write that you were there. Likewise, an old story about a toddler who melted a plastic magnet in the oven argues that it’s better to give readers an instant clear picture rather than distracting them with a detailed but factual account. In this case, the magnet was one of those plastic alphabet letters you stick on the fridge. The writer called it a “blue plastic duck magnet” instead. The instant picture of a blue plastic duck trumped the alphabet letter—readers weren’t forced to wonder which letter, which color, etc. The duck wins out for clarity and reader engagement.
Phony but True
In fiction, especially period or fantasy genres, it’s fun to make up stories about made-up characters. Yet with invention comes responsibility. In historical, sci-fi, mystery and fantasy, readers want and demand that the setting, language, costumes and habits conform to standards of the period in which you set your story. If you write cultural details, slang, landscape or costume details without doing meticulous research, you are more apt to get period details wrong. Readers are looking for what they already know to be true, and if something doesn’t seem authentic, they often stop reading. A great example of this was in my second novel, A Sky without Stars, set in the early 1950s. My own childhood happened more in the sixties, so when I had a character wearing a shirt just like that “Beaver” kid on TV, thankfully my editor was a fifties buff and called me out. “Leave it to Beaver” wasn’t on TV until much later than my story. In fantasy, the focus tends to be medieval, so putting a cell phone in the pocket of a knave doesn’t feel right, unless he’s a time traveler. Make sure your phony fiction rings true.
The Universal Truth
The most important truths you write should be the ones we all resonate with. In fact, writing that fails to connect with these universal truths—emotions and knowledge held by almost everyone—is writing that will be shallow. Aim to tap into the truth of being human: we all need love, belonging, basic physical, emotional and spiritual needs, and more. While the story or topic may not have these universals spelled out, the underlying reason it resonates with readers is likely to be one of these ideas or truths. Ask yourself, “What does my character need? What does the reader need?” The answers are probably very similar if you’ve tapped into those universals. “My character needs love (or acceptance or belonging or validation or justice, to name a few) is a worthy quest we all relate to. See if you can name at least one universal truth your current project is about. If you can’t, you may need to dig deep until you hit the truth. Very often, the quality of the writing, and its ability to move the reader, is directly proportional to the depth of human experience expressed in the writing. Great writing costs the writer greatly. It’s the truth.