SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
This winter I switched writing modes from fiction to non-fiction and back again, which made me ponder the difference between the two. In a way it’s something I do every week, since I write news articles in addition to my column. News is news, but my columns … well, granted that they sometimes have news in them. Still, they’re intended to be humor or opinion, or both.
The great thing about a column is that even when you’re telling a true story, you can embellish just a bit. For instance, my lawn mower really did explode; but does anyone actually believe the Great Exploding Lawnmower Incident led to a FEMA investigation and the discovery of a broken mower blade in the fuselage of a 747?
If I’d written that as fact, I’d have probably been hired by the White House Press Office.
I slowed down promotion efforts for my novel some (but not enough that I won’t remind you about the January 30th book singing) so I could finish the text for my non-fiction book, tentatively titled Smoky Days and Sleepless Nights: A Century or So With the Albion Fire Department.
Catchy, huh? No?
So the question is, what’s easier to write? Fiction or non-fiction?
That’s easy. With fiction, you can lie.
Not that people haven’t fibbed in non-fiction works. It’s also true that real life creeps into fiction, from time to time. In Storm Chaser, the main character is made up, but he’s a member of two actual organizations, one police and one firefighting. Many of the scenes take place at real locations, such as Chain O’ Lakes State Park.
Still, real life has challenges that fiction doesn’t. If my story isn’t working, I can change the order of scenes, stick in a new character, or bring in an evil twin. If I don’t like the way things happened in Albion in 1930, I’m pretty much stuck with that sequence of events.
Also, facts can be hard to come by when writing an historical book. I recently discovered, after some 20 years of researching, that Albion’s first fire chief lived on West Main Street. Exactly where? Don’t know. What did he look like? Don’t know. What was his personality like? Beats me.
I invented Chance Hamlin for Storm Chaser. He lives at the end of Prickett Street in a little village called Hurricane; he’s a tall, blond haired, blue eyed guy; and he’s kind of a jerk, although for good reason. Pretty much the opposite of me.
So yeah, fiction is easier, with one exception. What if I wrote a novel about A.J. Denlar, Albion’s first fire chief? I could turn him into a living, breathing person. If I’m wrong about his personality … who’s going to know?
Oh, but historical novels have their own danger. You have to do an insane amount of research, and get every detail right. Would Albion have telegraphed for help during a fire? What would Denlar have worn? How did the people of 1888 power their video game systems? Many people who love historical novels love history, and believe me, if you screw something up they’ll call you out on it.
That’s also a problem in non-fiction, of course, and therein lays the danger of writing my book SDaSL: ACosWTAFD.
Um, maybe I should skip the subtitle.
I may not have to worry about vocabulary or dress so much, but I still had to figure out what actually went on, and sometimes that wasn’t easy. There’s a tendency of newspaper writers to assume their readers know certain things – they write for the present reader, not the future reader. It was true with official records, too: Not much detail. Even right up to 1988, where I stopped the narrative (gotta leave room for a sequel), I sometimes didn’t have all the information I was looking for.
If I get the date that the 1929 fire engine arrived in Albion wrong, it’s not likely I’ll get caught; but if I screw up the details of the 1976 truck’s purchase, somebody’s bound to call me on it. To make matters worse, I didn’t interview any of the people who may have remembered something from half a century ago, both because I ran out of time and because I hate conducting interviews. Okay, what I mean to say is I ran out of time because I put off doing interviews. Besides, the manuscript length hit 45,000 words, which is short for a book – but had two zeroes more than I originally planned, when I started 25 years ago. Once you figure in photos, I didn’t have much space left for quotes.
So I researched as best I could, surmised and guestimated on the old time stuff, and I think I’ll be okay for at least the first fifty or sixty years. Hopefully my status as amateur historian will bring me some forgiveness of any mistakes, but I have to admit it’s a scary thing.
I mean, you’re writing about people who actually existed, and some still do. I don’t care to dive into personalities – I’m just in it for the fun of discovering history – but it’s scary. Suppose I get beaten up? They don’t sell angry reader insurance; I checked. Still, I’m going ahead: Finishing the manuscript, looking for more old photos, getting set to publish.
Yeah, fiction just isn’t this scary. I’m not likely to get chased down by Tom Sawyer, or even James Bond.
Although with Bond, you can never tell.