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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Truth Amongst the Lies: Why Fiction Needs to be Factual

NaNoWriMo is a blasted challenge for me. See, I don't actually get 30 days to write—I get just a little over a third that number. That's because I'm slavishly devoted to my day job, which is fraught with 12-hour computerless shifts. Horrid, horrid thought for a writer to be cut off from the ebb and flow of words for such long stretches of time.

I suppose it's a writer's saving grace that writing is mostly mental: I believe that writing is only 10% typing and 90% thinking. It just seems more apparent to me during the month of November. This time of year, I tend to quantify my writing efforts and, like every other good little Query Tracker enthusiast, I obsess with the numbers.

As a writer with limited screen time, I have to work very hard to make sure I make the most of my typing time—usually by using my thinking time to fullest advantage. Sometimes, though, that turns against me and I start to overthink the story.

And that's almost as bad as not writing at all.
Truth in Fantasy
I'm a speculative fiction author with definite fantasy leanings. My favorite genre to read is high fantasy, the stories that make you work to unlock every storyline, every character, every unique world element. I love complex family hierarchies, social and ruling systems, and unique magical theories and arts. I thrive in those worlds where there are no limits beyond the authors' imaginations.
But when I stop reading and start writing, I find myself thinking about the facts in fiction. A lot.
Research takes up a huge chunk of my thinking time. Historical periods, locations, events—accuracy is important to my story telling craft. It's not enough for me to spin a tale—the story must have strong, believable feet upon which to stand. Truth is the structure that suspends my disbelief.
"Suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief is a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative. Suspension of disbelief often applies to fictional works of the action, comedy, fantasy, and horror genres." Wikipedia, the font of all wisdom (and probably the number one cited reference for high school term papers)
A "human interest and a semblance of truth" can mean so many things: an honestly-portrayed emotion, a genuine personal experience, an accurately described setting, a relevant recounting of an historic event. Our stories must ring true enough so that the reader may become one with the story, a part of the telling itself.
Someone who doesn't read fantasy may believe that the very nature of fantasy would be at conflict with truth. Not so. Fantasy begins the moment a writer frees himself from the bound of reality, the point where he utters "what if…?" and takes the first step of discovery.
And what could be more truthful than capturing that journey from an honest emotional perception or an accurate portrayal of the setting?
That journey— whether through outer space, deep under the earth, or entirely within the realm of a character's psyche— must always have a truthful element, even if the character is completely alien. If not, the human reader may not connect to it. 

As for me, my word count is balking at the moment because I'm neck deep in Civil War maps and regiment muster dates and the Pennsylvania Bucktails. I'm trolling historical society websites and getting really close to hitting up a history professor or two. Why? Because I need a setting for my NaNo story. The book isn't about the Civil War or soldiers or battlefields. But there's a house, next to an unmarked cemetery, which a character believes may have been a Civil War regiment's temporary camp.

It's not a huge part of the story. It's only a vehicle to explain what happened in the backstory.  It's not the most crucial element of the book.

But it needs to be right. It needs to be plausible. It needs to be something that could possibly have happened 150 years ago or else I'll just feel like I slapped something in there to fill a space.
I can't do that. I need that element of truth in my possibility.

What I should do is shut off the Internet, pick a non-threatening place in my manuscript, and get back to writing. I can skirt the truth for now and avoid the places where I'd have to make open declarations. I can focus on the characters and their relationships and their trials, seeking the human interest and the truth of their discoveries. Just because there's a ghost or two in it doesn't mean it has no base in reality. There is still a lot of truth to be told.

But I know that sooner or later, I'll go back to flipping open one of my books on Gettysburg and looking for a hint so my characters, human and ghost alike, don't remain homeless forever.

Thanks a lot, Coleridge. First Xanadu, now this. You know to really make a girl overthink everything.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde as well as WORDS THAT BIND. She also writes for YA and NA audiences under the pen name AJ Krafton. THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, her Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is now available.


Karen Baldwin said...

You mention 10% typing, & 90%thinking....but I think researching takes up the bulk of my time. I my lifetime I hope to use quantum physics to stretch time when I write. :)

Ash Krafton | @ashkrafton said...

I bought a Time Turner when we went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Orlando. I think mine is defective because I only seem to lose writing to.e when I use it.