The problem with writing fact-based fiction

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The problem with writing fact-based fiction is … well … facts. They can really mess up a good story.

I’d read that the Mortemarts, the family of Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan, lived on rue de Rosiers.

Perfect: rue des Rosiers is not far from where Claude des Oeillets, my main character, lived when she first came to Paris. It worked into the story perfectly. Their lives do become entwined; nobody knows how their relationship began, but as a novelist it helped that they were walking distance from one another.

Twice I scouted rue de Rosiers on research trips to Paris. I took many photos, but more than that: I walked the cobbles, dreaming.

Unfortunately, I didn’t read the fine print at the back of one of the texts. Hôtel Mortemart was on another rue de Rosiers, a street that is now named rue Saint-Guillaume … far, far from my heroine Claude.

And that’s not entirely certain, either. Some accounts claim that Hôtel Mortemart on rue Saint-Guillaume was built in 1663?three years after the young women meet.

So where were the Mortemarts living in 1660?

I’ve spent all morning researching possibilities (when I should have been writing). Vivonne, the eldest child, was born in the Tuileries palace. Both high-ranking parents served the King and Queen for three months of the year, and were likely entitled to live there … so that’s a possibility, although they certainly would have had a residence of their own in Paris.

I’m not really sure what I’m going to do about this. I could leave the setting as it is and make a note about the change in the Author’s Note or on my website.

Or I could change it, place the Mortemarts either in the Tuileries or on rue Saint-Guillaume …  difficult, and not necessarily good for the story.

I’m still perplexed.

Joyce Carol Oates on “biographically fueled fiction”

Fact-based fiction? Biographical fiction? What does one call fiction that is based on the life of a historical character? I like Joyce Carol Oates’ expression: “biographically fueled fiction.”
 
Here’s what she had to say about it in a review of a biographical novel about Emily Dickinson in the New York Review of Books:

In these exemplary works of biographically fueled fiction it’s as if the postmodernist impulse to rewrite and revise the past has been balanced by a more Romantic wish to reenter, renew, and revitalize the past: not to suggest an ironic distance from its inhabitants but to honor them by granting them life again, including always the stumbling hesitations, misfires, and despair of actual life….

Just a snippet … I’m packing for France: research with wine and cheese.

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The thin (and fuzzy) line between fact and fiction

The thin (and fuzzy) line between fact and fiction

It disturbs me that “fiction” is getting such a bad rap in the U.S. press, that publishers feel they can’t market a novel, but that a true story is okay, that readers hunger for “truth” and will pay for it.

Since when has memoir been held to documentary standards? Memoir is a story created from life. I write historical fiction, and in delving into the research, I’ve come to see quite clearly that historians write fiction, as well. The line between fact and fiction is fuzzy, always, and I don’t understand this urge to nail it down. Facts can be misleading, and fiction can be revealing.

Story is how we explain the past — our history — to ourselves. Story is a powerful tool, and it is story that sets us apart from the world of animals (at least insofar as we know!).

Yet I’m guilty myself, I know. I love that “wow” moment when reading historical texts, thinking: Imagine: this actually happened. I think the issue is not whether something is true or false, but the understanding, the contract that is created between the author and reader. The outrage is: “We have been misled.” Frey’s memoir was more fiction than fact, but was marketed as fact. Even so, I have trouble understanding the furor.

One of my first historical reveries was brought on by a diary I read of a Quaker young woman in 18th century England. I was swept away by this “true” account. On my next trip to London, I researched her life; it was there that I learned that the diary was fiction, a novel. I felt disillusioned, let down, but then thought: “What a good novel.” For it drew me into the world of the past in a very real way – and that’s what fiction can do that fact cannot.

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The fuzzy line between fact and fiction

The fuzzy line between fact and fiction

I just posted to my research blog my thoughts on fact, fiction, and that messy realm in-between: “The fuzzy line between fact and fiction.” It’s certainly relevant here, as well.

Here is the blog:

It disturbs me that “fiction” is getting such a bad rap in the U.S. press, that publishers feel they can’t market a novel, but that a “true” story is okay, that readers hunger for “truth” and will pay for it.

Since when has memoir been held to documentary standards? Memoir is a story created from life. I write historical fiction, and in delving into the research, I’ve come to see quite clearly that historians write fiction, as well. The line between fact and fiction is fuzzy, always, and I don’t understand this urge to nail it down. Facts can be misleading, and fiction can be revealing.

Story is how we explain the past – our history – to ourselves. Story is a powerful tool, and it is story that sets us apart from the world of animals (at least insofar as we know!).

Yet I’m guilty myself, I know. I love that “wow” moment when reading historical texts, thinking: Imagine – this actually happened. I think the issue is not whether something is true or false, but the understanding, the contract that is created between the author and reader. The outrage is: “We have been misled.” Frey’s memoir was more fiction than fact, but was marketed as fact. Even so, I have trouble understanding the furor.

One of my first historical reveries was brought on by a diary I read of a Quaker young woman in 18th century England. I was swept away by this “true” account. On my next trip to London, I researched her life; it was there that I learned that the diary was fiction, a novel. I felt disillusioned, let down, but then thought: “What a good novel.” For it drew me into the world of the past in a very real way—and that’s what fiction can do that fact cannot.