The Truth about Fiction

My blogger pal Erin Faye recently asked me an interesting question on Twitter.  When I sat down to answer her, I found I couldn’t do it in 140 characters.  Having just read DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND, she wanted to know if a restaurant in the novel, called Grillmarks, was a real place in New York, or if I was referencing a local restaurant in Florida by the same name.  The answer is oddly complicated.

No, it’s not a real place in New York. But, then again, neither is The Hollows.  The Hollows is a fictional town, a construct of my imagination.  It’s some hybrid of the place I grew up in and a kind of ideal location that I find myself fantasizing about occasionally.  And, beyond that, it is a place that has taken on a life of its own.  It has its own spirit and personality, much in the same way as my characters.

Because I have created it, I have to fill it with streets and businesses, and give it a geography that readers can visualize.  I have to give it a history, as well as a community vibe.  By this I mean: What’s it like to live in The Hollows? What do its residents have in common? What holds them together as a group? What tears them apart? How do they respond to tragedy?

So when it comes to naming places, like Pop’s Pizza or The Hollows Brew, or Grillmarks for instance, where is that coming from?  The best way I can explain it is this: The writer’s brain is like a stew, for lack of a more delicate analogy.  And everything I experience, see, hear, feel and imagine is an ingredient.  When I sit down at my keyboard, I am serving from that pot.

There was a Grillmarks near my home, and I have been there more than once. I think it has closed down.  It was a perfectly fine place to have a meal and gather with friends.  But it made no special impression on me other than that.  When I wrote it into The Hollows, it wasn’t that place exactly.  Nor, at the time, did I even remember that there was such a place.  In fact, I never thought about it at all, until Erin, my blogger pal brought it up this past weekend on Twitter.   It was a just a restaurant that Jones and Maggie had visited, and that was its name. Fictional people, in a fictional town, eating in a fictional restaurant.  But it’s all as real to me as anything in the actual world – maybe more so sometimes.  The Grillmarks in my book is more real to me than the actual Grillmarks.

It is not the first time this has happened.  In BEAUTIFUL LIES, Ridley had a dentist with certain qualities and traits.  He also had a name.  Coincidentally, it was also the name of a dentist I had visited locally.  And the character description wasn’t, apparently, very flattering.  I happened to meet his ex-wife at a book event, and she — with a good deal of glee — asked me if I had been describing the real dentist. It was absolutely not my intention.  I had changed dentists, and completely blanked out the other doctor’s existence.  He was a character in a book and nothing more; he belonged to me.  But there is no way whatsoever to explain that – not in polite conversation, or in 140 characters. Obviously.

All novels, at least for me, are a delicate balancing act between the real and the fictional.  I often write about real places, but because they are filtered through my imagination the telling of those places is not always completely factual. (Although I do strive for accuracy, especially in New York City, which is my heart’s hometown). I may want it to rain when it doesn’t rain often, or the sun to set at a particular time, or for a usually busy street to be deserted.  The real Angel Fire, NM is much further from Santa Fe than it is in ANGEL FIRE my first novel.  I liked the name of the town; I wanted it in my book.  So I moved it closer.

My fiction is informed and inspired by truth.  And my books are mosaics of the real and imagined.  Everything is autobiographical and nothing is.  In DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND teenager Willow Graves is a bit of storyteller.  Okay, she lies.  She reflects on this tendency: “The best lies contained a little bit of truth.  Some details but not too many.  More than that, though, you had to believe the lie yourself.  You had to be the lie.”  It’s really not so different in fiction.

(Thanks Erin for asking the question that made me think about this and put it down on the page!  If you’d like to read her blog, click here.)