fiction fik’shen, n an invented or false story; a falsehood; romance; the novel or story-telling as a branch of literature; a supposition, for the sake of argument, that a possibility, however unlikely, is a fact (law).
We lie for a living. We make up stuff out of our heads and write it down in such a way that we hope whoever reads our words comes halfway to believing it’s true. Or at least that it could be true.
OK, on Weird World perhaps.
Playing fast and loose with the truth is all part of what we do. I’m as guilty as the rest. I take fake things and dump them in real places, and take real things and dump them in fake places. Sometimes I take real things and dump them somewhere else that’s real, but just not where they belong. Sometimes, I don’t even realise I’m doing it until a long time afterwards.
When I wrote my first novel, KILLER INSTINCT, I invented a tumble-down hotel, The Adelphi, which was revamped to become a nightclub where much of the action takes place. I describe it on the opening page:
‘The New Adelphi was a nightclub that had risen phoenix-like from the ashes of the old Adelphi, a crumbling Victorian seaside hotel on the promenade in Morecambe. It had a slightly faded air of decayed gentility about it, like an ageing bit-part film actress, hiding her propensity for the gin bottle under paste jewellery and heavy make-up.’
Entirely fictitious. And yet, I was doing a photoshoot in an entirely different northern town some years later – and I’m talking probably a decade here – when I came across this boarded-up old building. And it was just so right for the book, that it was a spooky experience. It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for the Adelphi on Morecambe’s seafront, but it was so close it might as well have been.
And then, in HARD KNOCKS, I wanted a big spooky manor house in the middle of a forest in Germany. I invented the place – the little village of Einsbaden, where my equally invented Einsbaden Manor would be located – but I wanted to anchor the place in some kind of reality. I still have a cutting in the HK file of Wannsee, the house where senior Nazi officials gathered to discuss Hitler’s Final Solution. It was the right imposing shape, with a dark past, and it had a flat roof, which lent itself to all kinds of plot points. I had no qualms about removing it from its real location and transplanting it to mine.
I know writers who have no difficulties with using real things in real places, even for the most grisly scenes, but I’m always reluctant to do that. I remember the story about a TV writer who used the registration number of his own car for the murderer’s vehicle in one of his own screenplays. Obviously, he had no objections to this. But then he sold the car…
I remember another author who needed to have her main protag’s vehicle registration in the story, and she deliberately invented a combination of numbers and letters that could not exist, so could never have been given to anybody and cause problems further down the line.
The reason this has been on my mind lately is because I’ve just been off scouting locations for something I’m writing. How far do I go towards keeping it real? And does it matter if it’s not?
I wanted a particular type of mid-terrace house. They don’t exist in the location I wanted to use, but they are more common a few streets away. Moving my protag’s house by a couple of streets is no problem, especially as I only suggest the area, not an exact street name.
I wanted to be able to walk along the river between points A and B. Google Earth shows you can do it. Reality shows it’s gated and securitied up the wazoo, to the point where bending the rules would be counterproductive. Fortunately, an alternative route happens to fit in with the plot much better, as it allows my protag to see something there that will help them later. And there’s the odd burst of humour that I’m sure I’ll manage to slip in somewhere, if it’s appropriate:
Of course, to find this funny you have to look closely at the sign on the wall of the building:
I know these are small details, but ones I feel it’s important to get right. I know most people understand the definition of fiction, but nevertheless I like to blend fact and fantasy and hope that they can’t really see the join.
However, later in the story requires a big public location where lapses in security allow Bad Things to happen. I could use a genuine location, but I’d rather not, and I’m not quite sure why that is. Am I hoping that, by the time the reader reaches this point in the story, they’ll be invested enough in the characters to make the jump from reality to fantasy without a hitch? Or am I just squeamish?
After all, my characters are invented, but the tools they use are not. I’ve occasionally extrapolated something that’s available now and taken it to the next step, as I did with a computer program in FIRST DROP, but I don’t invent new types of aircraft or weaponry – I use what’s already available. Trust me, there’s more than enough out there!
I try not to make unnecessary mistakes with geography, too. I’m still grateful to an eagle-eyed copyeditor who spotted the fact I’d got Charlie Fox riding the wrong way up a one-way street in Manhattan. Not that she wouldn’t be prepared to do that, if the occasion demanded, but it didn’t. When I needed to have Charlie driving from Boston to Houston, I worked out the entire route – carefully avoiding taking her through the middle of NYC.
But still, I’m happy to make up an entire village, or housing estate, if I feel it fits in better with the story I want to tell.
So, my question this week is, how far are you prepared to go in inventing places and objects for your work, and does it matter to you as a reader if you’re mentally following a character through familiar territory, and they suddenly take a turning into a street that isn’t there? Do you notice? Do you care?
This week’s Word of the Week is tartan, which everybody associates with a checked material as worn by Highland clans of Scotland, where each distinctive pattern is the mark of an individual clan; something self-consciously Scottish – hence Tartan Noir for dark Scottish crime fiction. But Tartan® is also a type of all-weather track for athletic events, and a tartan is a small Mediterranean vessel with a lateen sail, while a tartana is a little Spanish covered wagon.