‘The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie; deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth; persistent and unrealistic.’
John F Kennedy
I thought I would revisit the blurred line between fact and fiction — something I talked about at some length in my final MA dissertation. It fascinates me how the ‘masses’ are influenced by what they read in the media and how ‘truth’ is perhaps really only in the mind of the believer.
Indeed what is the truth?
What’s reported in the news? What we read in text books? Online? Well we all know reporters never truly lack bias, they add political spin for example. In fact when I wrote While No One Was Watching as a short story and an exercise in unreliable narration, the Reporter was indeed unreliable in his quest for a ‘good story.’ As was the Psychic and the Mother.
I have talked as well as about the expectations of the reader when you use real people in your fiction — to be ‘historically accurate’. We expect and are expected to at least get the facts right. It gives us more credibility — especially if we write fiction based on factual people. I know, for one, I try to check facts about anything, be it a place, an event, a news item for example — even if the story itself is fictitious. We can be pedantic about this and there will be someone somewhere claiming “Ah but there isn’t a post office there in that town” or “No there was never a newsagent on the High Street in Somewhere-on-sea in May 1985.”
Maybe so, and while I would hate to get something wrong, small details like this aren’t always possible to check. I have asked Google all sorts of strange questions and finding answers, with the internet, makes our life as a writer a lot easier. But you don’t always find the answers you need and somewhere you need to perhaps ‘stretch truth’ for the sake of story. While some people might well argue you have a fact wrong, if it’s something like there isn’t a post office there or you wouldn’t see the mountains if you stood where your character is, I would nod my head, say yes I was unable to find that fact at the time — but then I would say this … but technically this is fiction. You might want to say but what about the book? Did you like the story? Or is this what you do? Look for inaccuracies? Have you nothing better to do? But I would never be that rude. And this is why I try to be as accurate as I can. But I can’t always afford to go to the places in my novel ... yet?
While the ‘factual’ news report, article, historical book makes a statement that it is deemed factual, and therefore needs to be truthful — a novel is by definition ‘made up.’ It is fiction and therefore since factual books and reports can not be without spin or bias, even though they claim to report fact, the novel is the most truthful because it never professes to be anything else. Right?
That said, writing a novel that uses the back drop of a real event, in my case the assassination of John F Kennedy, I did need to seek truth.
But what is the truth?
It was in seeking it, that I discovered just how blurred that line is. We all love a good conspiracy theory, right? And the real story is full of them.
While I could never answer the question about what really happened that day, no matter how much research I did, I did form an opinion based on all the information I read. So yes, while this story is more than a story about Kennedy, I like to think that is more like something that happens off set, I could not have written this novel without a Kennedy spin.
What version of events do you believe?
What interested me in my research was this question about history. About what’s really real and how as the news of his assassination broke, and indeed how any news breaks, how ‘facts’ change as more information emerges. I guess it’s only as true as it is at any one time.
But when we live in a time after the events and don’t have personal memories of it, what version of events do we believe?
I have a personal experience of this when it comes to the moon landings. Now I was born the same year as the moon landings so have little in my memory about that! But as far as I am concerned it really happened. Fact. A few years ago I was watching some programme on TV about how it was all a hoax. I don’t believe that for a second but I have to say some of what they said was very convincing — especially to a new generation that didn’t live it as my own dad did — stayed up to see it. What showed me how easy it is to be swayed was when they talked on the programme, consulting a leading scientist no less (from where I ask?) who said the photos were faked and his evidence was the flag which he claimed would not have ‘blown’ on the moon where the atmosphere was so different and therefore it proved the whole thing was a hoax. I did wonder — they were convincing, even though I am sure they did land. When I talked to my dad about this he told me how it was public knowledge at the time that they knew this would happen and had taken a ‘stiff’ flag — or something like that, to the moon so it would appear in the photos as they wanted. So why did this show not have that — because it would have obliterated their argument? So there is a lot to be said for checking your facts!
I was very interested to read how many of today’s generation believe the version of events about the Kennedy assassination from what they saw in Oliver Stone’s movie JFK — great film! I bought into it but I also had access to a lot more information than the one source. Having come from a research scientist background, I am trained in how to research and just how many sources of validated information you need to be able to say ‘something might be true.’ So I certainly know that Wikipedia for example is a good starting place, but since it’s edited by the public, is not a verified source, just as a movie that is fictional (and ‘based on a true story’ is a loose term meaning it’s still made up) is also not a source for fact. But we buy into it anyway. And with over 90% of people in the US thinking the Kennedy assassination had to be more than a lone killer, that movie did a lot to cement that opinion. Polls showed how it changed after people saw that film!
And why wouldn’t it?
So can fiction writers rewrite history?
So it got me thinking whimsically about my novel. I wonder … I won’t add spoilers here but since I have blended fact and fiction and deliberately blurred that line further, if someone somewhere isn’t going to believe that one of my characters really did work with Jack Ruby? I can see people Googling his name when the book comes out. And I will smile at that.
Indeed perhaps it’s all the fault of the fiction writer as to why that line is so blurred!
What do you think?
Have a great weekend all 🙂