In 2017, after more than 30 years of writing nonfiction, I decided to try my hand at fiction. It was most definitely a difficult transition.
As a former journalist, I was taught to deal in facts. Not just any facts, facts that had been verified, usually by at least two credible sources. I was also taught to be objective when covering a story, offering opposing views and contradictory facts. As a journalism student, it was drilled into me that it was not my job to offer an opinion, but to provide enough relevant facts to permit the reader to make informed decisions.
As a lawyer, the search for the facts became more determined. Lawyers not only collect facts, they also apply them to the law to determine where the legal issues lie. Then they identify the legal issues, apply all known facts, and determine what the likely outcome will be. Faulty facts could have devastating consequences. That’s why so much effort is put into discovering what the facts are, not what you hope they will be.
Throughout my career as a lawyer and journalist, facts were king. So when I was thrust into a world where fact no longer mattered, I had to fight my very strong impulse to fact check my assumptions and justify my protagonist’s actions, because truthfully, that no longer mattered. It seems that fiction encourages stretches of the imagination and flights of fancy, no matter how improbable or how impractical. It didn’t matter if the story was believable, all that mattered was that it is entertaining.
I cannot tell you how many hours I wrestled with this conundrum. I had to fight thoughts of “No one is ever going to believe that” or “If someone did that, they would wind up in jail” because that was no longer of consequence. The determination of how a protagonist acted and the consequences of those actions was solely up to me. I set the rules. Suddenly, I was judge and jury all wrapped up in a writer’s cloak, and that was somewhat frightening. I was no longer accountable for the decisions I made, or the moral standards I ignored. My job was simply to put words together in coherent sentences and tell a story.
However, a funny thing happened on my way to writing fiction. I discovered that because I had existed for so long in a fact-based environment, people assumed that my stories were true and my characters were based on real people. I was constantly asked whether this character was that person or whether that situation occurred at a certain law firm. It was baffling and concerning at the same time. I had assumed fiction gave me the freedom to write wherever my mind took me, but it seemed some were still trying to hold me accountable.
Certainly, when writing fiction, reality may intrude at some point. For example, a protagonist may not be based on any one person, but the sum total of their personality may be derived from numerous persons who have passed through my life. Similarly, the descriptions of locations or situations may be pulled from personal experience, as well as from the headlines. But in the end, my characters and my stories are not based on fact, they are fiction. They are figments of a very fertile imagination.
I have no wish to include people I know or situations I have actually experienced in my books, primarily I have no desire to be accountable for matters upon which others may disagree. If I want to describe someone as plain, or a sofa as tattered, I want to do it without offending someone.
If fiction is indeed meant to be freeing, then I should be able to enjoy writing it. So please don't ask me whether my stories are based on fact, tell me that you enjoyed reading them!