“Based on True Events”

In Carol Brendler’s wonderful introductory post on Monday (welcome, Carol!), she talked about writing “a story that hangs upon a true event in history.” That line jogged my brain about something that I’ve actually been thinking about for a while: the often surprising role that truth plays in fiction.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Rabbit: The True Edward Hopper

For example, when they hear what my novel is about, many people assume that my heroine Gladys is just a thinly veiled version of me at 11. “You must have been cooking up a storm at that age!” they say. They’re always disappointed to learn that that aspect of the book is completely made up; that I never even boiled a pot of water until I was in my 20’s.

But the parts that are based on reality? No one would ever guess which ones those are.

A few months ago, my husband and I were walking around my hometown when we came upon the spot where the day camp used to be. It’s now a parking lot for a Super Stop & Shop (cue the violins), but back in the day it was owned by a local family. A family with a pretty daughter who was probably the most popular girl at my high school.

Funnily enough, the most popular girl at Gladys’s school also comes from the family that owns the day camp in their town.

“So, wait,” my husband interrupted as I was explaining the Stop & Shop lot’s storied past, “Camp Bentley in your book is based on a real place??” He had read at least three drafts, and had no idea.

Rebel with Paws: The Real Dennis Hopper

There are plenty of other examples, of course, on both sides. The quirkily-named rabbits, Edward and Dennis Hopper? 100% true (I owned both of those rabbits!). Gladys’s totally prosaic aversion to walnuts? 100% fiction.

Now that I’ve gone at it from the writer’s side, I find myself wondering which bits of my favorite novels have a basis in reality, and which are total flights of fancy from the authors’ imaginations. I’m sure that I’d be surprised to learn the answers. Unfortunately, I don’t have a time-travel machine to go grill Jane Austen, and I don’t like to bother my BFF J.K. Rowling with too much shop talk when we hang out…

So instead, my fellow writers, I turn to you! What’s a scene or aspect of your book no one would ever guess was based on reality? And what tidbit would your readers be surprised to learn is truly 100% fiction?

Share in the comments!

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25 Comments

Filed under Character Development, Writing, Writing and Life

25 responses to ““Based on True Events”

  1. lucewriter

    Hah, I took an online writing course from an instructor who had us write something factual and something fiction and she claimed she could always tell the difference. Not! Adorable rabbits!!

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    • Ha, indeed! That sounds like a great idea for an exercise, but I’d never presume to be able to tell the difference. Truth can be SO much stranger than fiction. Thanks for the comment!

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    • Katrin

      I remember my fiction teacher in 10th grade assigned us a short piece about a formative or life-changing experience from growing up; it could either be fiction or an actual incident from our own lives. My best friend wrote a trite heartstring-puller about accidentally catching “her” older cousin, who she idolized, coming home late one night, wasted-drunk and belligerent–with all the accompanying, after-school-special-style themes of confusion, sadness, recognition of the fallibility of adults/role models, and loss of childhood innocence. Completely, totally, 100% made-up. At our critique, the outpouring of class sympathy for my friend’s supposed trauma reached such a fever pitch that I said “um…you guys do realize that we’re all assuming this is real, when in fact it *could* be fiction, right?” Our teacher fixed me with a withering look and intoned “The writing is so full of pain and emotion, CLEARLY this is something that really happened and had a profound impact on Lauren!” It took all my friend had to keep a straight face. She and I still get a kick out of that memory.

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  2. My (unpublished pb) Slurp, is a cumulative picture book about crickets that were spilled on the floor and the mayhem that ensues.
    This second grade teacher once spilled crickets on the floor.
    Dang class pets. 🙂

    Great (and true) post! Thanks!

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    • Ack! With my deathly fear of all insects, I don’t think I would have liked living through that experience! But I can definitely see why it stuck with you for all these years–and how it could make for a terrific PB. Good luck with the book!

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  3. I had several things in my historical fiction that were based on truth, that I had to change because no one would believe it. One was the re-marriage of a widowed miner’s wife on the same day her husband was buried. This was something I read in an oral history–the Catholic priest only made it to the camp every few weeks, and the widow would be thrown out of town before he got back, since she didn’t have a family member working for the company, so she married his best friend while the priest was present to do the funeral. My editor felt that was too harsh, and no one would believe it, so we changed it to them marrying a week or two after the funeral.

    Also, I read an oral history in which a man claimed to make 50 dollars in one day by catching fish and selling them in the camp. I used this in my book, but had to change the dollar figure, as no one felt it was accurate for 1901. I have to admit, I’m not sure I believe it either. SOmetimes memory doesn’t tell the truth.

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    • Thanks for sharing, Jeannie! I know I’d heard that first one before, though I think the second story is new to me. I feel like it’s most often a tidbit I’ve pulled from real life, or a character action that’s based on real things a real person did, that my CPs or agent or editor tell me are unrealistic and ask me to change. 🙂

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  4. My middle grade WIP was inspired by the time I won a WABC Radio Draw-the-Beatles contest and got to see them in concert. Pretty thrilling for a 13 year old.

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  5. Dahlia

    I actually though it would be more obvious that it was grounded in reality, but people have definitely been surprised that the father-with-terminal-cancer storyline lurking in the back of my manuscript currently on submission comes from my life. Personally, it’s not something I would’ve tried writing if I hadn’t lived it!

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  6. Pingback: Two new blog posts | tara dairman

  7. Oh, boy! What a great conversation starter. Tara, I love your bunny names. Author Esther Hershenhorn once had a chick namrd Gregory Peck, but I don’t think she has used it in any of her fiction yet. As for true bits in my work, there are probably hundreds.

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  8. I love reading how everyone puts bits of reality into their books. I put so many little names and events into EDDIE’S WAR that after it was published I decided to make a private, footnoted version of it just for my family. I went through the book and wrote down everything real that inspired a character name, a scene in the book, etc. For instance, one of the less attractive characters (not saying which one) is named after a mean lady on our street when I was growing up. (I know–maybe I still need to grow up…)

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  9. Such a fun post, and, oh my goodness, those bunny pictures are flippin’ adorable!

    Let’s see, so much truth and fiction in my writing. One tidbit from NERVE is that like my mc, I did theater make-up as a teen, but unlike her, I also acted.

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    • That’s really funny, Jeanne. I did a bit of theater in high school, too, and we all had to do our own make-up, so when I read your book I thought that you must have made that job up to get Vee backstage. Once again, proof that readers (or at least this reader) are not so great at picking out the real details! 😉

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  10. Don’t like to bother BFF JK Rowling with too much shop talk? I can relate. Me and Johnny (Depp, of course) never discuss his acting roles 🙂 Okay, I love that you named your rabbits Edward and Dennis Hopper! I think my latest effort is the one where bits of my life slipped in the most. The protagonist’s backstory has some similarities to stuff within my family. Also, we share a love of bacon and spitting cherry pits.

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  11. Interesting, Tara. Thanks for stepping in with the thought-provoking post! Well, everyone can probably guess that the sibling rivalry in THE MONSTORE is based upon my brother and I, but maybe they don’t know what I was the older sibling and he was the younger one (it’s the other way around in the book–the MC Zack is older and Gracie is younger). They might guess that I like secrets that adults have no clue about, but they might not know that my enterprising brother and I set up many kid-businesses in our home, like an auction house and a casino. And yep, the parents never figured it out.

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  12. Great post, Tara! In Flying the Dragon, there’s a very short scene involving a school secretary who calls into the classroom over the intercom with a message for the main characters’ teacher. I’d completely forgotten I’d named her after the beloved school secretary in the school where I teach. When a 4th grade teacher read my book aloud to her class, they told the secretary that she was famous, because she’s in Mrs. Lorenzi’s book! We both got a kick out of that. 🙂

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  13. Pingback: How to Base Your Writing on Truth « One Writer’s Journey

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