Squawk Radio

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Liz on Truth and Fiction

Yesterday, while writing, I had to create a fictional chapter of a real fraternity for my hero to have been in while in college. And I’m already bracing myself for the e-mail I’m bound to get from people telling me Georgetown University doesn’t HAVE a chapter of Eta Kappa Nu. So I’m going public now saying, “I know that. I researched it and everything. Even went to the Eta Kappa Nu homepage to see what the name of the Georgetown chapter would be and saw that there wasn’t one. So I cop to--gasp--making one up for the made up hero of my made up book.”

I also know the University of Southern California doesn’t have a campus in Santa Barbara, but I put one there for a book anyway. My heroine’s ex-husband in HE COULD BE THE ONE was an abusive SOB she met when she was a student of his in college. I wasn’t comfortable putting an abusive SOB on the faculty of the English department of the very real University of California at Santa Barbara, so I made up another college for him to be an abusive SOB for.

I can do that you know. On account of I get paid to make stuff up. But damned if I didn’t get angry letters about it anyway.

And once, I created a fictional county in eastern Kentucky for my hero to have grown up in. It was early in my career, and I didn’t want to step on the toes of anyone living in a poverty-stricken Appalachian county, and I went on at length about the hardship my hero suffered growing up. So I made up a county based on several like it in that part of the state. Then I got letters from people telling me, “Hey, you’re a native Kentuckian. You know there’s no Hazard County. What were you thinking?” Nowadays, I probably would have gone ahead and cited a real county. Back then, I just wasn’t sure what the protocol was.

But even now, it’s not easy toeing the reality line in fiction. I do try to stay as realistic as possible when I’m writing about places and things, but sometimes, I have to, well, make stuff up. I had a heroine who was a waitress in Louisville in one book, and although I had her visiting A LOT of actual restaurants in my hometown, the one where she worked was fictional. I needed an owner and manager and staff for her place of employment, and had I used a real restaurant in town, even if I said nothing but glowing things about it, I would have been replacing everyone who worked there in reality. On the other side of that coin, for another book, I had a little girl who actually attended my son's very real school. But although I described the place realistically, I never mentioned the school by name. The protective mom inside prohibited me from drawing attention to it.

I tend to mix and match reality and fiction when I write my novels. But that’s okay. Novels are part truth and part fantasy. The feelings and experiences and reactions of the characters can be very real, even if their surroundings aren't always. But whenever something in a novel doesn’t ring true, maybe it’s just because it, well, isn’t true. And maybe, just maybe, the author already knows that. As long as the reader has a good time reading, this author, at least, feels like she's done her job right.

So how about you? Do you readers get peeved when a writer takes literary license with your hometown or a city you love to visit and know well? Or do you like to being in on the writer's little joke? Do you writers try to keep things as realistic as possible, or are you like me, bending the rules to suit your needs?
Elizabeth Bevarly, 8:28 AM