This is an article I have just had published in Red Herrings, the magazine of the Crime Writers’ Association, of which I am a member, which I thought might interest
When you talk to writers, one of the subjects that evokes some of the most passionate debate is the blurring between reality and fiction.
There are those writers who argue that stories come out of real life experiences, that the writer has gone through tough times therefore they are able to best tell the story.
This may be true to a degree. When I was writing my first novels as a teenager, I tended to write about aliens and war zones and my father’s constant mantra was ‘write about what you know’. They were wise words - wise words now, wise words then - but the problem was that I did not know anything. I was a schoolboy, what could I know?
Now, aged fifty and some more, I know so much. Too much in many ways. I know what deep personal loss feels like, know what it is like to be diagnosed with illnesses, know what it is like to see loved ones suffer, know what it is like to be made redundant by employers. To me, it is inevitable that those experiences inform my writing.
Others, however, recoil from that approach, arguing that that the key is in the word ‘fiction‘, that stories should come entirely out of imagination. These writers - and let me say from the outset that there are no rights and wrongs here - say they do not wish to draw from personal experience but would rather let their imagination run riot.
I suspect one of their reasons for the standpoint is that if you are writing about real events, things you experienced yourself, it is difficult to make the transition to fiction. To illustrate a point, I taught a writer who was penning a short story based on a house in which she once lived. She was really struggling and when I asked her why, she said: “Because the house I knew had four levels but that does not feel right for the story.” My response was to suggest she chop a floor off the house because this was a fictionalised account. She did and it worked.
The thing that has concentrated my mind on this subject at the moment is my new novel The Secrets Man, which has just been published by The Book Folks.
The Secrets Man can trace its beginnings to one of the most difficult experiences of my life, the serious illness experienced by my father. Ironically, the very man who suggested I write about what I know.
As the illness, and the dementia that accompanied it, took control of his mind, he disappeared into another world, one where nothing was as it seemed. He would hallucinate in ways that were frighteningly real to him. And to his family.
And as I sat at his bedside day after day, I started to look around the hospital ward; Dad slept a lot during the illness which gave me the time to examine my surroundings. What I saw was five other beds, five other patients, each of them in a world of their own. A man murmuring to someone who was not there, another man directing traffic that did not exist, a third conversing with someone he was convinced was his wife but wasn’t. And as I watched, the idea for a novel started to roll out.
My idea was this, and this is where fiction departs from fact. What if one of the patients in a fictional hospital was an elderly villain who had been, in his heyday, the henchman of one of the city’s gang leaders? What if the elderly villain was known as The Secrets Man because he was the one entrusted with the secrets by the gang leader? What if, as illness unhinged his mind, his tongue was loosened and he started revealing those secrets? What if in the next bed was a retired detective who knew exactly what was he hearing and viewed the comments differently than those who simply wrote them as the ramblings of an ill old man? And what if one of the officer’s visitors was my main character DCI John Blizzard? Where would the story go from there? Who would want the old man silenced?
Of course, that’s where the fiction well and truly takes over. None of the events in the novel took place. Characters were created, scenarios invented, incidents dreamed up, but at its heart was truth and that truth kept coming back to inform my writing. Every time I stalled in the writing process, all I had to do was cast my mind back to the three months my Dad was in hospital and the inspiration flowed.
Let me say immediately that this was not an easy thing to do. Dad’s illness was a horrible, traumatic, painful time in the lives of those who love him and basing a novel on it was the furthest thing from my mind. But, as any writer will tell you, ideas have a life all of their own and when they come knocking you can’t really turn them away. Before I wrote the novel, I felt I had to ask my family for their approval. What happened to Dad was real and painful and I did not want to exacerbate that even though what I had penned was a work of fiction. They agreed I should write it; they know how the writer’s mind works.
The novel does draw heavily on those experiences, though. The first scene in which we see Blizzard is when he is climbing the hospital stairs because he is trying to keep fit after a warning from the chief constable. Reaching the top, he pauses, listening gloomily to his wheezing chest then catches sight of himself in a mirror and realises how old and ragged he looks.
Now, I could have imagined that, I’m a writer, it’s what writers do, but that scene happened to me and it felt more powerful because it was real. Blizzard was me in those moments, had the same concerns, the same gloominess. I am not getting any younger (I have checked with medical people and this is true, apparently) so the aches and pains of someone well past his fiftieth birthday do assume greater prominence than before. It I felt it, then so could Blizzard.
And that is where I think writers benefit from drawing on real life. Yes, you change places and people, embroider scenarios etc but at heart it’s as real as it comes.
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