Fall 2012 Nibs
True Events or Insurmountable Problems?
Considerations for novelists

By Kathryn Craft


All novelists write from life. Even if they invent characters and places and situations, their stories will be grounded in emotional realities sprung from real experiences. It’s not always easy to mix the imagined with the actual, however. Whether in historical fiction or the memoir/novel hybrid known as a “novel based on true events,” factual encounters can challenge the writer in predictable ways that raise warning flags for an editor. 

While the following list holds cautionary tidbits applicable to any novelist, if your novel makes use of true events, you’d be wise to consider how to sidestep these pitfalls from the start.

Warning flags

Failing to characterize a protagonist based on yourself. Especially when writing in first person, many writers simply forget to apply characterization techniques to a narrator, even if s/he is also the protagonist. Instead they adopt an approach to point of view as “the view through my eyes,” rather than using the technique to reveal your protagonist's character by what she says and does.

Depending upon vicarious interest rather than build an inevitable story based on character goals and their relevant complication. It is so tempting, when something major befalls us, to simply drag others through the muck and mire of our trauma. Story should have a higher goal. Literature beguiles because of its structure and meaning, not its chaos.

Populating the story with actual people rather than orchestrating a set of characters that can best evoke the conflicting perspectives that will bring the story to life. In fiction, characters aren’t really people—they are different ways of viewing a situation. Your refusal to accept the cast fate handed you is a step toward fiction, where it will require effort to come up with the right mix.

Creating a bard’s song rather than a symphony. Singing about "what happened," even with a lovely voice, is never as powerful as making use of all that literature can bring to bear on a tale—a full orchestration of layered imagery and craft that begs the reader’s involvement and brings her along for the ride. This interconnection between writer and reader is what raises story to an art form.

Plotting with the coincidental, the accidental, or a “near miss.” Life may work that way, but the reader knows story doesn’t. This is what’s so beautiful and healing about story: things happen for a reason, or else characters frame it out that way in retrospect, and in the end it all adds up. The reader gets frustrated with near misses because we know that people only change when extreme pressures come to bear on them—not when things almost happen. While we understandably avoid certain conflicts in real life, readers want them on the pages of our stories.

Limiting dialogue to what was said. Dialogue is a powerful tool that can further story, deepen characterization, and deliver subtext. Actual conversation may provide a record but lacks craft, so subtext is underdeveloped.

Refusing to align true events within an effective story arc. Even memoirists must artfully pick and choose the elements that will create a “natural” story progression. Only those true events that complicate the protagonist's goal, while also tying in to the book's premise, will feel relevant.

Constraining overall imagination. You’ll know this is a problem the first time an editor or advance reader suggests a story change and you are tempted to reply, “But that’s not how it happened!” If you choose to embrace fiction, none of it ever really happened. That doesn’t mean your story isn’t “true,” it just means that you are approaching the emotional truth through story instead of fact-mongering. 

If the suggestion that you change true events in order to improve your story raises your hackles, take heed. You may have to decide whether relating thinly veiled facts should be your primary concern. Re-entering the project as a fully imagined story may give it more power—and, ironically, the potential to convey more truth.



Learn from a Master:
First-person characterization 


After her memoir The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls tackled “a true-life novel,” Half-Broke Horses. The first person protagonist is her grandmother, a choice requiring her to fictionalize unknown elements. She did not, however, fail to characterize her narrator. After helping her nine-year-old brother and seven-year-old sister into a tree to save them from the opening flash flood, and while waiting overnight for the waters to recede, we learn what our ten-year-old protagonist stands to offer this tale:

…About halfway through the night, Helen’s voice started getting weak.

“I can’t hold on any longer,” she said.

“Yes you can,” I told her. “You can because you have to.” We were going to make it, I told them. I knew we would make it because I could see it in my mind. I could see us walking up the hill to the house tomorrow morning, and I could see Mom and Dad running out. It would happen—but it was up to us to make it happen.

To keep Helen and Buster from drifting off to sleep and falling out of the cottonwood, I grilled them on their multiplication tables. When we’d run through those, I went on to presidents and state capitals, then word definitions, word rhymes, and whatever else I could come up with, snapping at them if their voices faltered, and that was how I kept Helen and Buster awake through the night.



Hello old friends and welcome to the new! 

When last I sent out my newsletter I had just gotten an agent. Near the end of her first round of submissions to publishers, we got an offer! I'm thrilled to announce that my debut novel, under the new title The Art of Falling, will be published by Sourcebooks in January 2014. I'm working on the first round of edits now and this faithful story just keeps on giving. I can't wait to share it with you. 

I have a lot of new links this time around, as much has been happening. 

• While it's still on the stands, please check out the Nov/Dec issue of Writer's Digest. Right inside the front Inkwell section I have an article I co-wrote with Janice Gable Bashman, "The Seven Deadly Sins of Self-Editing." We share our take on how to save your writer's soul during the necessary evils of self-editing.

• Amazingly, I got the call about my book deal while surrounded by women at the fall writing retreat I host—women with cameras! Join in the fun by checking out my "picture post" at the Blood-Red Pencil.

• I'll be documenting my journey to publication over the course of the next year in a series of Blood-Red Pencil posts on the first Friday of each month, "Countdown to a Book." These links will take you to the first and second installments. The next, how I got my agent, goes live Dec. 7.

• In a post related to the topic of today's Nibs—choosing actual events that create a natural story arc—check out my article at examiner.com, "Memoir of a Book Deal," in which I share story structure elements as I construct the tale of my long-in-coming book deal.

• Finally, if you'd like updates about my road to publication that are more frequent than the 2-3 "Nibs" I manage to crank out per year, please come "like" my new Facebook Author Page.

While awaiting publication of my novel I'm staying tethered to the ground by writing a new novel and continuing to work as a developmental editor, enjoying the process of helping my clients bring their ideas to publication-worthy fruition. If you have a project in need of an editor, I'd love to hear from you.

Please keep in touch,


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Visit Kathryn on the web:
Website: Writing-Partner.com
My blog Healing Through Writing
Contributing Editor at The Blood-Red Pencil
Please visit Mason's Road to read the
published first chapter of my memoir,
Standoff at Ronnie's Place

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© 2012 Writing Partner
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