Wednesday, March 15, 2017

WEDNESDAY WRITING WORKOUT: Never Let the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Story

Today's Wednesday Writing Workout  - intended to get you THINKING about Fiction vs. Fact - comes to you courtesy of my Chicago writer LisaMaggiore.  I knew pronto her “Ava” picture book manuscript was a Winner when I first read it. Sky Pony Press obviously agreed because they published AVA THE MONSTER SLAYER: A WARRIOR WHO WEARS GLASSES, illustrated by Ross Felten, in 2015.  

I’m happy to report: Lisa’s currently working on an AVA sequel as well as a YA novel. She lives with her husband and four children in the city.  For the past 20 years, she was a dedicated social worker – a profession she proudly admits helped her write about tragedy and love. 

Like her Heroine Ava, Lisa excels at both conquering Scary Moments – and – telling stories.  If you don’t believe me, click HERE to listen to and watch her perform her Live Lit LOUDER THAN A MOM performance last February in which she shares her TRUE story of giving both to her daughter at a Chicago gas station! 

Fortunately, when it comes to fiction, Lisa makes sure she never lets the Truth get in the way of a good story. 😊

Thank you, Lisa, for jump-starting our TeachingAuthors readers' brains, showing and sharing how they can do the same.  

And, Readers: don’t forget to click HERE to enter our TeachingAuthors Book Giveaway of Matt Bird’s THE SECRETS OF STORY (Writer’s Digest, 2016)!

Enjoy and learn!

Esther Hershenhorn

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“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
Some believe the words belong to Mark Twain; others believe the words appear in The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs.  Either way, its meaning can be confusing when writing
a story.  Should the truth be omitted or entwined in a story?  And how does being authentic come into play?

As a writer who has taken on a YA historical fiction project, writing in the realm of truth
and authenticity requires a fine balance.  My protagonist, Tin, is male an Amerasian, both of which I am not.  He has lived in an orphanage, survived war, and been a refugee in America - all of which I have never experienced.  Some literary critics have argued that if you’re not writing from your own direct experience, what’s being written cannot be true.  I can begin to question myself as a writer – how can I tell a story that I have never experienced in a truthful and authentic way?

I fell in love with my idea for my YA historical and as writers know, you must love your story, or why would anyone else?  To give myself permission to write this story, I decided to strip away ideas that I had about truth and authenticity and look up the definitions.
This is what I found in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary.

Truth: the body of real things, events and facts; a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true.
Authentic: true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.

These definitions really helped to guide my writing and here’s how.  When I teased away the truth, what I found is that my story’s mission is about drawing out a minority voice and combating oppression, two ideas in storytelling that I’m
deeply passionate about.  My protagonist, Tin, is a fictional character, based on
years of research and interviews with Vietnamese refugees.  But I’m mindful of
giving him an authentic voice because I have worked on being an empathic
interviewer and observer.  I did those things by taking careful notes while conducting interviews, attending Vietnamese events, and easting at Vietnamese
restaurants.  It also helped that my oldest daughter is half Vietnamese; her father and his family escaped Saigon as it was falling to the Communists in 1975.

When I discovered Tin’s authentic voice, I added “truth” but flavored it with
fiction.  Since this is a historical novel, I had real events, facts, and ideas that were accepted as true but how much of that truth I placed in the story was up to me to decide.  Truth is measurable, since it is based in a recorded fact, but truth
is also how someone felt emotionally.  That is not something that can be
measured since it’s linked to an emotion through a personal experience.  

And this is where I think writers can get the two mixed up.  Authentic voice is not
necessarily hinged on truth, rather on what your character would/do if you
were not looking. It involves being vulnerable and sharing emotions, exposing
fears, uncovering anxieties.  The authentic voice pulls the reader into a place of
understanding, if done right, on why your protagonist took a certain action, even
if the reader may not agree with the protagonist’s decision.  The truth does not
mean giving the reader what he wants to hear, but as Ernest Hemingway described as the authenticity found in novels, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards, it all belongs to you.”

As a writer working with truth and authenticity, you must enter the reader’s brain and heart.  Truth can do the brain work and engage the reader in the
journey in a curious and excited, even scary way.  Authenticity works the heart,
by helping the reader belive that the journey will be worthwhile and fulfilling.
And at the end of the day, I’m hoping that the reader is engaged in my mission: telling a truthful and authentic story that is bigger than any of us.

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Ann Malaspina said...

What a great post. I'm also tackling an historical novel and trying to find the authentic emotions of my main character. One problem I'm finding is trying to make decisions for her: What would she do in a difficult situation? It's hard not to let my 21st century mindset and values take over, instead of allowing her to be true to her life and times. I applaud you for taking the time to interview and research - that can make all the difference. Thanks again for your post.

MaDonna said...

Thanks for your post. I'm also working on a historical MG novel. I've been researching as much as I can and looking for journals/diaries of people from that time period. I think keeping truth and authenticity in mind will help me keep true to my mc.

Sandy Brehl said...

Historical fiction writer here, and your post captures so much of my own journey through the self-doubt, passionate commitment to getting it right, and producing a story that will offer TRUTH even is not MY truth. I really appreciate your thoughts and feelings and look forward to reading your book.

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thanks, Ann, Sandy and Madonna, for taking the time to post your appreciation.
I'm so glad Lisa's words spoke to you.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Anne, Madonna and Sandy for reading and commenting. I love to hear what other authors are working on, especially when it's historical!

Unknown said...

And, thank you Esther, for asking me to contribute to your blog! SO much fun!

Esther Hershenhorn said...

And thank YOU, Lisa, for sharing your Smarts!