Blending facts into writing fiction

I’ve been invited to submit a 1000-1500 word post on the topic: “The importance of blending reality and fiction in thrillers” for an online magazine that focuses on crime, suspense, and thriller books. I have some ideas about this but they are not well formulated. I would be grateful to have you share some of your thoughts on this topic.

Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Thriller readers want compelling and believable fiction. If readers are presented with some information they know to be true, along with fictional information, they will tend to also believe the fictional elements. For instance, if I was writing a novel with a plot element that included discovery of one of Sir Isaac Newton’s hidden journals and I wrote the following: “Sir Isaac Newton, in addition to discovering scientific principles such as the law of gravity, was also an accomplished alchemist. Given his Christian background and interest in the occult, the Archbishop of Canterbury secretly organized an assassination plot. When the attempt failed, the Archbishop denied any involvement.” How much of this is fact and how much is fiction?

In this example, the scientific accomplishments, interest in alchemy and the occult, and Christian background are all true. The assassination plot by the Archbishop is fictional, but it is believable when embedded among other factual details. The credibility is further enhanced if a reader is aware of the factual elements but didn’t know about the Archbishop of Canterbury fictional detail. A reader would be inclined to believe this given the known truth of the other elements.

From reading Dan Brown, I’ve observed that he is very skilled at blending fact and fiction; he is able to craft excellent fictional stories by doing so. Any other authors come to mind?

Some research is difficult to ascertain as fact or fiction. Many “facts” uncovered when researching a book do not include the source documentation and are therefore difficult to verify. If I am writing a book that portrays a character who claims to have been abducted by aliens, I can include many “facts” about alien abductions, UFO sightings, government coverups, and the like. Yet, even as an author doing research into these details, how many represent actual facts. Often, these “gray” details are not black or white. The more spectacular the supposed facts are, the more believability gets called into question. Statistics sound very factual, but numbers can be manipulated. Scientific research sounds factual, but conclusions are frequently based upon various scientific biases and methodologic flaws. Do these become facts? partial truths? opinions? subject to interpretation?

As I consider what goes into writing a thriller, I can think of multiple ways to weave reality into plot, characters, and storytelling. At the end of the day, it is a work of fiction. Still, truth is often stranger than fiction.


15 thoughts on “Blending facts into writing fiction

  1. mimispeike says:

    “If readers are presented with some information they know to be true, along with fictional information, they will tend to also believe the fictional elements.”

    That’s what I’m hoping. I’m maybe pushing my luck more than a thriller does.

    I’ll comment on this later. I was up from two to five am, then from about eight to now, finishing my next piece for Showcase. Between five and eight I lay in bed running rhymes through my head: scram, pram, damn, slam. Just like my archbishop in Sly does.

    I’m going back to bed.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Interesting question. It may be that traditional genres have come to develop their own reality, one that has to be acknowledged by the fictional characters. Hard sci-fi characters do not violate known science. Crime novels require a main character capable of logical reasoning. Romance novels value love. It wouldn’t do to write a hard science fiction story based on magic, or to have a crime solved in a way that didn’t “make sense,” or to write a loveless romance novel. It may be that readers’ expectations define the genre. For example, if I’m reading a thriller, I expect the story to take me from a believable world to where in real life I would feel uneasy about going and there trap me in unavoidable situations that threaten me. I want the situation to seem hopeless, but I want the main character to triumph.
    In the immortal words of Buttercup and the Dread Pirate Roberts,
    “We’ll never survive!”
    “Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.”

    Liked by 3 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    The value of blending reality into your fiction is twofold: You create a more compelling story for the reader who, I believe, wants to live in your world for the duration of the story. Reality-based detail helps that happen.

    The value of blending reality into fiction for the author is: it sparks so many new (for me, almost invariably, better) ideas. I doubt any of us write with the story fully formed in our minds. It comes into focus as we move along.

    I blend fiction and reality for selfish reasons. I appear to be far more clever than I am.

    History has written swaths of my story for me. All I have to do is fold my research into my fictional contribution to the plot and I look good. And it sure does make my number one job – bringing my characters to life – a whole lot easier.

    Liked by 4 people

    • victoracquista says:

      All good points, GD. No doubt there are genre-specific aspects to blending facts into fiction. At the end of the day, I think readers want believable and realistic characters and situations that they can relate to.

      Liked by 4 people

    • victoracquista says:

      Thanks, Mimi! I hadn’t considered the author’s perspective as I was thinking more about the reader’s perspective. You are absolutely right about creating a more compelling story for readers, and opening new creative paths for the author. I have certainly found this to be the case when I am researching something. I learn something new and think to myself it’s something I want to use or incorporate into the story.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. I recently read Peter May’s The Night Gate, which cleverly blends reality and fiction, with a fake Mona Lisa being substituted for the true one during the war in order to keep it out of the hands of the Nazis.
    Where May makes the blend as seamless as he can, Robert Gottfried writes a fictional account of the Black Death, but one which draws so extensively on documents from the time that it comes across more as a work of history (the author, a historian, explains his reasoning in a fascinating introduction).

    Liked by 4 people

  5. victoracquista says:

    Excellent points and fine examples, Curtis. I might have to quote you in the article. I think when an author skillfully educates and entertains readers, it makes a story much more enjoyable. I cannot count the number of things I have learned about history and other factual details by reading fiction.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. When I read a work of fiction, I willingly suspend my disbelief as long as the story makes sense to me. Whether or not the “facts” are true or alternative doesn’t matter as much to me as the quality of the storytelling. I’m happy to accept them all as fictional until I’m finished reading. Then, if any of the “facts” have piqued my interest strongly enough, I’ll research them myself. Maybe I’ll enjoy an eye-opening thrill when I stumble into an “Oh my gosh — that was true?” moment.

    Liked by 3 people

    • victoracquista says:

      That’s interesting, Sue. I agree about suspending disbelief. I think factual information that is already known to the reader makes a story more believable. When a reader does not know whether or not some detail is fact or fabricated it helps if it is believable. It occurs to me the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” might be useful in presenting obscure facts that give readers like you some “Oh my gosh — that was true?” moments.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ripley’s Believe it or Not is a great example. I’ve developed confidence that my basic knowledge of history, science, and the embarrassing array of trivia I’ve picked up over my lifetime helps me sort through facts vs fiction when it matters, but I think much of the “making sense” part of fiction relies on common sense as much as on known facts.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Perry Palin says:

    When the facts are accepted by the reader, the fiction is on its way to being a credible story.

    I write short fiction. Some of my readers have told me that they “wish they’d known me when all those things happened” in my life. Well, those things never happened, but I guess the stories were credible.

    For a few years I have taken a winter class in Creative Non-Fiction, which is hard because the rules don’t let me stray from reality. I’ve written for the class a romantic tragedy, about my cancer experience, and about a year’s beekeeping, among other things. If I take the class again next winter I may write about Dances With Bears. We have black bears in our woods, and I’ve met them while camping or trout fishing or grouse hunting or while picking blueberries. Sometimes we have them in our front yard or in our back yard. I hope to amuse the other students with my dances, and it will all be the truth.

    When I was a child an immigrant bachelor gyppo/farm worker/carpenter/laborer lived in a one room shack just into the woods. He answered to the name Mountain Ash, a translation of his family name which no one could pronounce properly who hadn’t learned Finnish as their first language. Mountain Ash told me that he woke up one morning with the door to his shack ajar, and a black bear was sleeping with him in his narrow bed. This factual account won’t make it into next winter’s writing effort. While the story might be true, it might not be credible, and its inclusion may cast doubt on some of my other true dances with bears.

    Liked by 4 people

    • victoracquista says:

      Perry, I love this Mountain Ash story! It illustrates that truth is stranger than fiction. Your statement about facts being accepted by the reader supporting credibility is in the bullseye. I might steal it for the article.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Once when we were much younger my wife wrestled a bear.
      It was at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Southern CA, and it was a half-grown male.
      I’ve used that tale in the game where you share four things and others have to guess which one is untrue. A sure winner.
      I doubt that fair-goers get to wrestle bears any more.

      Liked by 1 person

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