Writing Excuses 9.9: What to do When Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Nancy Fulda is back this week to talk with us about the truth, and what do to when it’s stranger than fiction. Sometimes real people’s names are just too cool, and if you were to put them in a book nobody would believe it. Sometimes actual, historical events are so ridiculous there’s no way you can get away with putting them in a story that you expect people to take seriously. And sometimes real science is just not going to be believed by your readers.

So how do you get away with using these things, with writing your stories in true places? Sometimes all it takes is the hanging of the right lantern, but in many cases you must go to great lengths to re-educate the reader without breaking the fourth wall or otherwise knocking them out of the story.


Run your character through a double-funnel extruder and see what’s at the end.

Chimes at Midnight: An October Daye Novel, by Seanan McGuire, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal

15 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.9: What to do When Truth is Stranger than Fiction”

  1. A favorite example: look at the life of the pirate Mary Read. I double dog dare you to write a biography of her. She actually used that old “I shall disguise myself as a man and seek my fortune” trick four times (once as an infant) and pulled it off every time. How well? When Calico Jack Rackham took her ship, he forced her to piracy because she was the only one who mounted a decent defense against his boarding. Yeah. She was he “best man” on board.

    Once on Rackham’s ship, the other famous female pirate, Anne Bonney (and Rackham’s girlfriend) fell in love with Mary, thinking she was a man. When Rackham’s ship was captured by the British navy, only three people held the deck to fight. Two of them were Mary Read and Anne Bonney.

    There’s more. There’s way more. All the swashbuckling tropes are there. Every time you turn a page, you find yourself saying “Nooooooooo. I could never get away with writing this. This never happened.”

    Yet the only surviving historical sources say, “Yep. Sure did.”

  2. I’m particularly fond of the English organist and composer (really – I’m not making this up!) Soorjo Alexander William Langobard Oliphant Chuckerbutty.

  3. I’ve had experiences that I’ve been outright told aren’t “real” because there is someone who has staked her career on telling everyone that my kind of experience is false. And I believed her until I actually experienced it myself. She’s wrong.

    You can recover memories after you forget them and get them correct AND get them verified.

    When I write it, though, no one believes me because it looks like tropes… and people cry out cliché, not real, psychological community does not support this, and so on. Even though it happened to me and I got it 100% verified. Down to those niggling feelings, the headaches, etc.

    Even professors in the psychological community teach students that you can’t recover memory once it’s lost, but there are people and events in my life that fly in the face of that. Including a terrible day where I woke up and couldn’t control my thoughts because it was too busy trying to reintegrate older memories I wasn’t conscious of, being told that my lost language was almost perfect–except that I talked in baby talk and in a regional dialect that I hadn’t listened to while growing up in the US, various objects feeling familiar to the point I would insist on seeing them again–but not being quite able to recover what it was about. And then all of that got verified–I took pictures and I realized that many of the things I fixated on were true, real and the reason I kept chasing after them even without knowing, even to the expense of myself, was because: habit is stronger than memory and in some ways you can subconsciously remember, but not consciously remember–and my brain was trying to put together the whole again.

    But I’m constantly told I’m wrong until I argue it was verified and I have witnesses and then they don’t know what to do with me.

    What I ultimately learned is how we think of memory is too linear. We think of memory as only sight, or one sense… or the whole picture, but there is more to it than that. Sometimes memory can be as small as a fixation on an object without knowing why and having no senses of touch, smell, taste, or sight associated with it.

    And people think that’s fiction. Also coincidences in real life… I think people tend to think of those as fiction too. For example, electronics tend to break when I’m stressed or upset… which I joke about a lot, but people have pointed out since I was young. I’m pretty sure people think that’s fiction. But it’s true… Over 10 electronics spontaneously died when my aunt died.

  4. Am I the only one who assumed that the phrase “hat trick” in Mistborn referred to some kind of magic show trick? (By “magic show” I mean a show that uses illusions instead of real magic – something that could easily exist in any world.) I know I certainly wasn’t thrown out of the book at all.

    Hearing that a “hat trick” was a sports term momentarily threw me out of the podcast though. *lol*

    (It’s okay, no one has to explain it to me. I DID look it up, but only because I was wondering if Brandon had said “sports” when he meant something else. :D)

  5. Hey Peggy – yeah, I assumed it was magic. Never even bothered me. Of course, I don’t follow sports that well anyway…

  6. There’s a story I read in 5th grade called “The Iceberg Hermit” about a boy on a whaling ship who was the sole survivor of a shipwreck. It was based on a tale told by a real boy who claimed he was shipwrecked in the 1750s. His story was assumed at the time to be an obvious fiction, in part due to facts that contradicted the common knowledge of the time (He avoided scurvy despite not having fruit, he encountered a polar bear in the winter, etc), but modern science had verified that the common knowledge of the time was flawed (fresh liver, which he eats, contains a lot of vitamin C, and polar bears don’t actually hibernate unless pregnant), so it seems very plausible that his story actually happened.

  7. @Rachel: I was never taught that you could not recover memories. I was just taught that memories could be invented just as easily and so trying to rely on recovered (or really any) memories alone had caused severe hardship for a number of people, including false accusations of child abuse.

    That said, I would avoid any story with recovered memories as the main plot line just like I’d avoid a story where retrograde amnesia is the main plot line. They would have to be used fresh and in interesting ways because both of those story elements have been way over done.

  8. There’s a lot of documented evidence that in the 16th century or so cannons were placed on the back of elephants, basically turning them into living tanks. Now try putting that to your novel. People will never take you seriously :P

  9. Well, there’s one reader of Mistborn who’s never been thrown off by the homicidal hat-trick. But then, I’m not that interested in sports, it’s specifically (and very explicitly) relabeled to the appropriate thing, and I’ve always suspected that a hat trick involved something other than putting squat rubber cylinders in nets despite the guy in the scary murderer mask not wanting them there. Perhaps something involving hats?

    Gabe: a lot of the old naval records read that way. Lord Cochrane, for instance, was a fully legitimate Captain of the British Royal Navy during his time, and going through his memoirs and logs (the latter of which which, while all written by him, had rather harsh penalties for falsification), some of the shit he pulled off is well within the “no bloody way” category. He inspired Crowe’s character in Master and Commander, though from what I’ve heard, that movie barely scratches the surface because, like writers, it had to stick to the stuff that’s plausible.

  10. Sorry– did he say Vin was Elantris? lol. :P Sorry, the accident threw me off is all. Anyway this is a very interesting topic. I never would have considered this consciously, but now I know to.

  11. I have a character in the novel I’m working on named Chuck Norris. Well, Charlotte, but her dad started calling her Chuck as a kid. And yes, I have other people make reference to it, and she is SO over it, having heard it all her life.

  12. Oh man, the unteaching problem. Thank you for bringing that up. I hate it so. much.

    I especially hate unteaching people about things I personally feel they should already know the truth about. I co-authored a YA set in France in 1939 and 1940. (The sequels are supposed to cover the rest of the war.) The characters start out with fairly little idea of how dangerous things are going to get for their Jewish friends in a couple years, which is of course something I can’t have them talk about. (“We don’t know anything, dear reader, about the Holocaust, which is not in fact going to begin until 1942.”) I tried to lampshade it as much as I could in a conversation here and there about Hitler, but people seem to know so little! I got one reviewer hating on my main character for caring more about his personal problems at the beginning of the book than about the Holocaust–in 1939. Really?

    The trouble was partly that I’m defying the conventions of the genre–heroically hiding Jews who are in clear mortal danger is what this sort of book is supposed to be *about*, and that particular reviewer made it totally clear that she loved this genre and was looking forward to exactly that.

    Now I’m up against unteaching my publisher’s marketing people, too. The sequel is about getting kids out of internment camps set up in France by the Vichy government in 1941. People were later deported from these internment camps to the death camps, but in the early days the Vichy authorities were willing to release some of the kids to aid organizations (which ended up saving their lives) and that’s what my characters are involved in. The book just came out, and there are several different versions of the summary copy on different booksellers’ sites, most of which they didn’t run by me before sending them out. All but one has my characters getting kids released from of *Nazi concentration camps*. In Germany. No one ever got kids released from Nazi concentration camps. I don’t even.

    I don’t know how to deal with this. People have such a strong image in their minds of what WWII was all about. And people want exciting soundbites, not long explanations about the Vichy government.

  13. Oh mercy! Hearing Mary’s Dan imitation, Dan must have snorted his Apfelstrudel right out his nose.

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