Tag Archives: non-fiction

The One-Way Mirror, by Carole Howard

Violinists sometimes claim they play the most difficult instrument. After all, there are no keys to press that automatically produce “C#.” Nor are there frets, as on a guitar neck, for guidance. You need to just know where to put your finger. For every single note – and there are so many of them. (Have you guessed I’m a violinist?)

I have to admit, though, that pianists have it rough, too, with two different lines of music, one for the left hand and one for the right. As if that weren’t enough, the two lines are written in different clefs. (Non-musicians: let’s just say that black dot on one of the five lines of a musical staff can mean different things depending on which clef it’s in.)

Each group has a point. Or, as my friend’s mother used to say, “There are pros and cons on both sides, and they’re all bad.”

Having been a fiction writer who dove, somewhat naively, into memoir-writing, I see that there are pros and cons in both genres. In this case, of course, they’re not all bad. But they sure are different.

My first novel was character-driven. I could use incidents from my own life, but got to pick and choose, and had the freedom to make up whatever I wanted. Having come from the corporate-writing world, it seemed heavenly to give free rein to my imagination, my creativity. Readers didn’t know which parts were fact-based and which were fictional. When people asked if the protagonist was really me, the short answer was no.

And yet, there was that intimidating blank-canvas thing.

The second novel was a murder mystery. Only a little was drawn from my life, and the canvas wasn’t so blank because mysteries have to be constructed in a certain way so they wind up being….. mysterious. Red herrings, false clues, buried truth. So the “rules” were comforting. But they were difficult, very difficult, to follow.

Like I said, pros and cons.

My most recent book is a travel memoir about five volunteer trips, each two months long, to the developing world. It’s not a travelogue: no recommendations for hotels or restaurants. Yes, it recounts experiences I had while traveling – some funny, some inspiring, some surprising, some sad. There was the time I was twenty feet from a silverback mountain gorilla with nothing between us except trees. Or the time I coached sex workers on their presentations to colleagues about the correct use of condoms. We used wooden props – use your imagination!

But the point of telling about these moments in the memoir is not necessarily, “This is great – you should do it too.” There’s a lot more. Character. Reflections. Truth. Certainly, the tools for writing fiction were also crucial for memoir: setting the scene with physical description, creating tension, using punchy dialogue. But making it all into a story was quite a hill to climb.

The strangest thing about having written a memoir, though, is realizing there are a whole lot of people out there who know some pretty intimate stuff about me. Not only do I not know intimate details about them, I don’t even know who they are!

When I’m speaking at a book store or library, this asymmetry is particularly disorienting. And there’s irony, too: People in the audience, if they’ve read the book, know how uncomfortable I feel about public speaking, and yet here I am, speaking publicly. Through the looking glass, or should I say the one-way mirror?

I guess it’s like being naked when everyone else is clothed, aka EVERYONE’S WORST NIGHTMARE!!

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Carole Howard wrote Deadly Adagio, a mystery with a musical undertone set in West Africa, published by Indigo Sea Press.

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Arc of Truth

Jay DuretBy Jay Duret

 

I am a liar.

I write fiction, that’s the job description.

I am fine with the undeniable fact that I will go to my grave as a liar, but I have noticed that some of my colleagues squirm under the label. They don’t want to lie for a living; they get queasy when describing what they write as “fiction”, the very word a declaration of mendaciousness. They believe, as I do, that lying can be a way to truth, sometimes the only way. But they want that idea to be more than just a line in a graduate student’s paper or an aphorism attributed to Hemingway. (“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” “You have the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true.”)

Because we live in an age where each of us can create our own narrative, some writers have cast off from the fiction pier and are floating into waters closer to the shore that has been called, forever, by the bad name “non-fiction”. The problem is, despite its bad label, non-fiction is a real thing. There is an underlying school of craft – we call it journalism – that has rules and boundaries. A fiction writer can’t simply declare that he or she has landed on the shores of non-fiction and proceed to take up shop there; doing that would subject the writer to the rules and regulations governing the craft of non-fiction, a weighty commitment, particularly for those who love fiction precisely for the freedom it offers from overbearing regulation.

But that doesn’t end the matter. For those floating in the waters between fiction and non-fiction, new possibilities are arising, and I do not mean Creative Non Fiction. CNF, according to Lee Gutkind editor of the magazine Creative Non-Fiction, is subject to the same rules of reporting that govern journalism. The “creative” in CNF does not mean creating facts; it means telling the story with some of the tools of fiction – pacing, suspense, flashbacks, etc. A good piece of CNF is no less required to be grounded in actuality than a piece of straight up reporting. As Gutkind puts it:

“Creative” doesn’t mean … that the writer has a license to lie. The cardinal rule is clear—and cannot be violated. This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader—the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonfiction: “You can’t make this stuff up!”

When writers ignore Gutkind’s maxim, disaster can follow. Truth in labeling is the way of American commerce, why should it be different in writing than in, say, soup packaging? I like this quote about the writer of A Million Little Pieces, an Oprah Book Club Selection that became a best seller before The Smoking Gun outed the book’s many fabrications:

James Frey wants us to believe that he is a tough but sensitive bad-boy writer with a drug problem. The truth is, he’s a sensitive but boyish bad writer with a truth problem[1].

No, calling fiction CNF will not solve the writer’s dilemma. Fortunately in this, as in so many things, writers can borrow from another art form: movies. With the bigger budgets and the legions of people involved in making a movie – they have producers, best boys, gaffers! They have lawyers on the creative team! – no wonder motion pictures have fished these waters better than solitary writers tapping their keyboards in lonely scows and leaky rowboats. The movie industry has created a finely gauged explanation of the territory between fiction and non-fiction and that can serve as an excellent guide for writers.

The foundation of movies – perhaps other than documentaries – is to have  extremely good looking actors and actresses pleasingly stand in for the sad sacks whose stories are being related (All the President’s Men – I mean, really, Robert Redford is a beat reporter?). Given that foundation, it is hard to say that any movie is actually “true” – but a movie will frequently self identify as A True Story. That’s a wonderful phrase and frankly might be just the perfect oxymoron to serve any writer in need of a forgiving description of their work. Yet if the body of CNF proves anything, it is that non-fiction can be told as a story and therefore A True Story may not be quite as oxymoronic as one might have supposed. No, further nuance is needed.

Based on a True Story – here is a category that gives a writer some freedom! Nothing in it says that lying is involved – the writer is telling truth! – it is just that the truth the writer is telling is devolved from an underlying truth;  it is an expression of that truth, just not exactly the literal truth that might be found in the Palace of Truth and Justice. True, but not true in the pedestrian sense a member of the public might have otherwise expected. Understood properly, BTS is a branch of metaphysics.

So much of fiction is BTS that the category – by itself – solves the problem for most writers. But for writers that paddle even further from the banks of non-fiction, the movie industry offers an even more flexible concept: Inspired by a True Story. This one is a winner. Short of flat out fantasy, what fiction doesn’t fall under the category of ITS? And how could any reader complain if that little bit of disclosure were to be appended to the description of a book marketed as fiction? How could the writer be called out? As far as I can see, the best approach for one bent on attacking the description would be to say that a dreary work was not inspired. That would seem easier to prove in a court of law or public opinion than the proposition that somewhere – anywhere – there wasn’t some true story that the writer’s tale sprang from. Yes, Inspired By A True Story does the job: it will lend almost any piece of fiction a fine patina of truthfulness.

As good as ITS is, it doesn’t quite work for me. I write many stories that are all or mostly dialogue. I have come to believe – for better or worse – that you can tell the reader all they need to know about the characters by what they say and they way they say it. Many of my stories have come to me by eavesdropping – one of those things, like lying, that are essential parts of a fiction writer’s trade. Often I will hear a conversation and later on, after I have played it through in my head a dozen times, I will put it down on paper and find that I have a story that – at least to my own taste – is of interest.

Yet this is where I run into trouble. An editor will read my piece and ask if I am submitting the story as Fiction or Non Fiction or CNF. (Indeed, Submittable usually requires a commitment to one of those categories right from the start.) I could cover myself with a judicious use of the key phrase Inspired By A True Story but that disclosure – broad as it may be – needs some adaptation to apply to my type of writing. For when you start with an eavesdropped conversation, you never know whether the event that is being discussed is actually true or not. You may have happened upon two bullshitters – whose conversation you may be reporting truthfully – but there is no true story beneath it. I needed a way to capture that nuance.

At first I tried to explain it – but many of my editors did not possess the forgiving span of attention that the nuance inherent in this thing requires. And then I had an inspiration. Why not handle it with a picture, a diagram, an illustration? That would save me explaining the details to editors too busy  to focus. And that is how I came to memorialize the Arc of Truth.

I am not much of an illustrator but I like the way the arrow on the dial moves between black and white with shades of grey in between. Not fifty of them, alas, but enough for these purposes:

Arc of Truth3

 

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Jay Duret is a San Francisco based writer who blogs at www.jayduret.com. His first novel, Nine Digits, will be published by Second Wind Publishing this year. Visit the website: www.ninedigits.com. Jay welcomes feedback at jayduret@yahoo.com. Read his prior posts on the Second Wind blog:

Nom De Plume

Nom De Plume

Bridalplasty

Bridalplasty

Queen For A Day

Queen For A Day

Last Man Standing

Last Man Standing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] http://listverse.com/2010/03/06/top-10-infamous-fake-memoirs (retrieved July 23, 2014).

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Dear Emily

For nearly a year, I have had the opportunity to spend a large amount of time working on “Dear Emily: A Memoir ~ My Life in the Fine Stores”.  At the age of 89, Louise Thomas is a spunky woman of the world, living on her own in her beautiful home and taking on new challenges every day. She was also a trend-setter, paving the way for women in the executive world. Not only was her executive world male-dominated, but it was also largely family operated and almost always enjoyable.

Starting out in the department stores of New York in the 1940s, Louise experienced decades of social and economic change, not only in the evolution and decline of the fabulous shopping world, but in the world as a whole as she traveled across continents as a buyer and eventually for enjoyment.

The following excerpt from her memoir gives a glimpse of the New York department stores at their peak:

One April morning, a well-dressed lady stopped by the handkerchief department to purchase an all-over embroidered linen handkerchief for one dollar, asked to have it gift-wrapped, cashed a check for $100 so that she would have lunch money, and requested to have her full-length black mink coat sent to her Park Avenue address. She would be meeting a friend for lunch at Club 21. The temperature had risen which made her long coat a bother. Every detail was met within minutes, accompanied by a smile and a “thank you”.

Sadly, service like that doesn’t exist anymore. 

Ivey's Department store, Downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, 1924

Another excerpt brings the reader into a world surviving under less security and less scrutiny.


Dear Emily,

I wish you could have been with me on Thursday, January 28, 1965. I did a full day’s work at the office in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and then caught an evening flight to Newark and a helicopter to Kennedy airport for an 8 a.m. flight to London. We were scheduled to begin our spring buying trip in Rome, but at the last minute, we were able to switch our destination from Rome to London to attend the funeral of Winston Churchill. 

To the strains of Handel’s “Dead March”, the cortège entered first Parliament Street and on to Whitehall. Here stood hundreds of veterans from the European resistance, French, Belgians, Dutch, Danes, and Norwegians. Their survivors dipped their flags to the man whose voice had brought them hope. Next, the procession passed a house with two outside lights burning, No. 10 Downing St, passed the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square, up Fleet Street headed toward Ludgate Hill where we were fortunate to have front row positions not far from the massive cathedral. Everywhere one looked, there were people and more people all with one purpose—to honor their fallen hero, their protector.

The cortège carried the flag-wrapped casket up the narrow street—no more than five or six feet from us. Behind followed the veil-draped Lady Churchill and her daughter, Sarah. They were riding in the Queen’s carriage on loan from the owners. The creeping carriage stopped immediately in front of us. We could easily have touched the carriage. It was that close. We were a block away from the cathedral.

Louise also gives us an idea of what happened to the glorious days of service:

Dear Emily,

Does it all make sense now? So what really happened to a fine institution, born in Europe, perfected in America, and all but extinct in little more than one century? There is no simple answer.

Louise’s account of her life in the fine stores, speckled with tales of her adventurous travel and insights into business, history, and day-to-day life during the past eighty years is presented as letters and pictures to her lifelong friend Emily. I encourage readers to settle in for a trip into the past as they read Dear Emily: A Memoir ~ My Life in the Fine Stores. I’m glad I took the trip. I now have memories of Louise and the fine stores that I will never forget.

See also: Woman Writes of How She Did it Her Way in Heyday of Downtown Business

~Tracy Beltran is the Administrator for Second Wind Publishing. She also writes as Claire Collins and her books, Fate and Destiny,  and Images of Betrayal are available from http://www.secondwindpublishing.com, as well as a variety of e-book applications, Amazon, and Kindle.  Grab a copy of Louise’s Dear Emily while you’re there.

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Pulling from Life

There is a constant stream of real-life inspiration thrown into my face from all around. I can talk to anyone and draw a portion of their lives into my stories. I see situations in my daily interactions with others and these situations become the stages for some of my tales. While I’ll freely use a portion of another person’s life to build a character or a scene, I’m somewhat reluctant to openly use my own.

Most of my life experiences are cloaked in layers and disguised before they’re set down on paper. Some, however, are close to the bone. In one story, the character saw a news helicopter repeatedly circling the high-rise hotel as she watched sans robe from her 11th story room. Only later, as she walked back to the hotel from the convention she’d been attending, did she realize none of the hotel rooms had tinted privacy glass.

How strange and funny that even as I write this short confession of a real-life event, I feel my face flush in embarrassment and have to resist the urge to backspace and erase. I mean, seriously, how much of an invasion of my privacy is an event that happened thirteen, fourteen years ago? Is confessing this tiny thing going to adversely effect my relationship with my kids, my friends, my life?

Still, as I continue to write I feel the warmth of rising blood in my head. Several people who know me tell me I should write about my own life. While I don’t really see the “hook” needed to draw an audience in my own personal tale, some others do. To me, my life is somewhat mundane. Others see the adversities I’ve overcome throughout my life as a somewhat interesting tale. Well, that and the wacky events that seem to pop out of nowhere and land in my lap.

The question is: do I really want to share? How much do I want others, those I know and those I don’t, how much do I want them to know about me? The crazy answer to this question is a confession. A lot of me is already in my writing; I pull from the closest source.

Now, at this very moment, I’m in the midst of another life-changing event as I help my mother decide her future after a serious accident three weeks ago. This is the third major event in less than a year for me. Life changing, life altering, life enhancing – they all mean the same. The real question is, will I incorporate this event into my stories as fiction or fact?

I will probably do both. As my mother prepares for a change in her life situation, I also prepare for one in mine. It is neither better nor worse; it simply is.

How far do you openly incorporate your own life in your stories? First, second, third base or do you have no shame and hit the home run (and if you do, oh, how I envy you)? Or, are you like me and layer it so much that even those closest to you can’t separate fact from the fiction you’ve created?

When you’re reading the rendition of a true-life event wrapped as fiction, is this a plus or minus? How far do you feel a writer should go?

J J Dare is the author of two published books, several short stories and about thirty works-in-progress.

Current enthusiasm is co-authoring at Rubicon Ranch

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Down the Rabbit Hole

Venturing into unfamiliar territory can be scary. Imagine fate spinning you around and dumping you in a foreign land with no points of reference and no ability to speak the language. Would you curl into a ball or would you boldly face the unruly crowd gathering around?

Writing outside of your preferred genre is similar. A suspense / thriller writer dipping a toe into romance and soft love is akin to a fish crawling onto land and learning to survive. It happens and when it does, the author evolves into something else.

While not losing one’s core writing skin, steering one’s literary skills in another untested direction is daunting. Whether one commercially succeeds is irrelevant; the quest into new writing lands is the victory.

I have dabbled in many different genres, but I have been leery at writing non-fiction. Escapism has been a key factor in all I write; I build and control the worlds of words. Fiction allows me to be the creator and the destroyer.

Non-fiction is guided by a different set of rules. While it is governed by an individual’s perspective, it is policed by fact. Elements of truth have to stand up straighter and taller in non-fiction than in fiction. In fiction, the truth can be murky and twisted to shape by the author. Fiction makes the square peg fit in the round hole.

The catalyst for writing non-fiction varies greatly. Some feel the need to share their knowledge in a specialized field. Others simply want to share their lives with the world. In my case, my non-fiction muse was born in the depths of an emotional upheaval.

The biggest hurtle is facing the facts of non-fiction head-on without clouding the truth. Lies and half-lies can often be verified and anything too far out of the ordinary will cast a shadow of doubt over the entire story. Writing non-fiction is like opening your private diary to public view.

Those who share my life and know me have said my own personal story would make a great book. Whether the rest of the world could relate to my history is up in the air. In my own small world, the people who count will be the greatest beneficiaries.

Opening yourself up is the greatest challenge. How many of us are brave enough to do this, to put ourselves on the line? In the (out of context, but appropriate) words of Jodie Foster, letting the public see us “through all the rotten and the bliss” is like walking a tightrope without a net.

J J Dare, author of Joe Daniel’s “False Positive” and “False World,” and numerous short stories

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Non-fiction vs. Fiction: Lucy Balch’s perspective

I’ve written several articles for local magazines here in Richmond and I’ve discovered that writing non-fiction uses an entirely different set of brain cells.

First of all, it’s much more social and requires me to be a reporter, call people I’ve never talked to before and get to know their products or services well enough to write about them.  Since I’m a bit of an introvert it pulls me out of my comfort zone.

Also, the research is squarely on the shoulders of the people being interviewed.  I have to do my part by asking the right questions, but they ultimately must provide me with enough eye-catching detail to draw people in.  I can make an article interesting only with good facts and details that come from outside myself, not from any wellspring within.  And creativity is not welcomed; facts must be correct, not embellished.

By the way, I’ve learned many things I otherwise might not have known in the process of writing these non-fiction articles. Did you know that kitchen cabinets are designed on computers these days? Not just the initial concept; the wood is actually cut with the click of an “enter” button—to the nearest one-hundreth of an inch.

Did you know that certain baby stroller stores have a multi-dimensional track, on which a mommy-to-be can test drive her future designer stroller?  And there’s even a dummy baby to make the weight realistic.

Did you know that Pitocin-induced births create a higher risk for emergency caesarean section?  Or that Virginia has a midwife-assisted birthrate of 4% while New Mexico (the highest in the country) has a midwife-assisted birthrate of 25%? It’s all really interesting stuff—and it’s much more “here and now” than the research I do for my regency romances.  With those, I’m looking into things like obsolete jails (gaols) and Sir Walter Scott’s publish dates (not very current stuff, but critical for the believability of my stories).

But getting back to the differences: writing a non-fiction article is all about organization. It takes a little creativity to come up with a nice lead-in hook, sure, but it’s mostly about piecing together the various bits and pieces of information you’ve written down while in reporter mode, so that they form a cohesive and easy-to-read article for anyone who happens to be interested in the topic. Writing skill comes into play, but it’s the type that is straight out of my old high school grammar textbook.

The biggest difference, to me, is that when I’m typing out stuff that’s strictly from my imagination I tend to lose time. When my husband took our kids camping to give me a writer’s weekend, I never dreamed that time could move so quickly. That never happens when I’m writing a non-fiction article.

One other thought: the first few articles I wrote were torture, because I quickly realized how differently I was using my brain to write them, and it felt as if I was writing essays for high school teachers again.  But I continued to write them so that this sentence on my query letters—”I’m also a freelance writer for a conglomerate of local magazines, writing on everything from yoga to boating”—could be kept in good conscience.

Over time, they quit being torture.  I guess that part of my brain stopped being rusty, and the success I had with them muted the bad memories of teacher critiques.  I’ll never like them as much as creative writing, because they don’t give me that time-stealing “high,” but they certainly aren’t torture anymore.

Has anyone had a different experience with writing non-fiction?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Lucy Balch
Author of Love Trumps Logic, a regency romance coming soon from Second Wind Publishing.

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