Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Writing Fiction With Facts

"All fiction is largely autobiographical
and much autobiography is, of course, fiction."
—PD James

Alex Haley taught me about faction. It's the art of finding facts, and filling them in with fiction. For instance, my dad told me about a time he was chased by a bear. It seems like a good story, but that's all I remember and now he's dead and unavailable to give details. Grandma's diary mentions a summer during the Depression when they lived up the canyon in a tent, and I know my dad was sandwiched between a couple of brothers, all just a year apart.

Mel, Alan, Jiggs, 1932

So when I tell my grandkids about a little boy named Jiggs, I combine those facts, and create a story about three brothers who wandered away from their campsite and surprised a bear who chased them down the mountain. There's a crashing river to cross, a tumble or two and a lot of roaring tossed in for color, but my grands learn some history surrounded by names, locations, dates, and personalities in a memorable tale. It's faction.

A rewarding way to practice your writing skills is to create a little faction. Try this: remember yourself at ten.
Now, what year was that? Oh, yeh, that was the year I was the tetherball champion. I think. Anyway, I had Miss Paschel and she read us all the Wizard of Oz books. And I was in love with Steven Jones and I wrote him mushy letters. One time at church we were in the coat closet at the same time and our mothers discussed our affair right in front of us! And then he found out I wore glasses, so basically it was all over.
Now you've got a few facts to work with. After all, you're the expert on your own life—you don't need to ask a soul if you got it right!

For the next step you'll need a piece of paper and a pencil. Spend five minutes googling: History in 1959 (Alaska and Hawaii became states—I remember that!) Just skim the list and pick a couple of facts that jump out. Now google another few categories: Music in 1959, Movies, TV (I loved Rawhide! That was the year Bonanza started?) Jot down some particulars.

You're ready! Open your blog, your journal, or your mouth and tell your story. If it helps you get going, begin with "Once upon a time ..." I like to start with a quote and then weave details into the backdrop of the scene.
"You wear glasses?" Steven's new front teeth looked enormous as he chewed on this little tidbit. I knew my whole class would know by morning recess. Of course, they were supposed to know because I was supposed to be wearing them, but who would take me serious as a tetherball champion if I had an elastic band holding red plaid specs on my face? We had just pledged allegiance to our new flag—fifty stars were now staggered in the blue background instead of the even spacing of forty-eight.
I would go on to describe my teacher, tell how I loved story-time right after lunch, how I still remember the Patchwork Girl and the time a hornet flew in the window and stung Miss Paschel on the ear while she was reading. (OK, that's the faction part. All the details I want my grands to know about me need a plot to stick to.)

At the end of this little exercise you'll have written a memoir. Memoir is a writing genre—you can major in Memoir, but you don't have to—and it's such a useful way to practice your skills! Even the most amateurish attempts are valuable as a record, and writing something down solidifies it in your own memory. And hey, somebody's going to embellish your stories. It might as well be you!

1 comment:

Mamma Sass said...

Hi. I am a long time stalker of your blog. I so enjoy reading it.

I love to read and write...but life (and children;)) has just gotten in the way so I don't do much of it. I hope to change that.
I also do genealogy and family history albeit more as a hobby and personal fulfillment. I minored in it in college, but it has been many years since then. I am looking to begin writing my family history and personal history...but I would like to read up a little more about the writing process of how to do this. Not only on a factual level - but for fun - a factional level...exactly what you wrote about today. Do you have an favorite books based on how to do this?

Also, I am hoping to begin teaching a writing class in the fall to novices and more experienced genealogists here in rural AK. I am looking to pull together a list of reading materials and suggestions for the class. I have only read a few and am looking for more. Could you help me add some to the list? What are your favorite books on the "How To write" personal history and family history.
Thanks for your help! And your blog!