Real Events in Fiction

Photo is “Tornado,” taken by Vincent Parsons. Tornado was on Highway 210, heading toward Orrick, Missouri.

One of my earliest published stories, “Transplanted Roses,” was based loosely on when my maternal grandmother died. It was told in first person, describing a large family who was falling apart because their matriarch had been diagnosed with cancer. Most of the story was an exaggeration of some events that happened, and other events were completely made up. I was trying to capture was the flavor of what it was like to come from a Southern family whose roots were in the Arkansas Ozarks, yet some of them had settled in California’s San Joaquin Valley, far from where they had been raised. My mother was one of ten children, and even though she has spent most of her life in California, she retained strong ties with the place where she was raised. The influence of her upbringing has colored my own life, from my attitudes and values to the Ozark dialect that peppers my speech.

I love my large group of aunts and uncles, and I feel I treated any characteristics I might have borrowed from some of them with affection and respect. When my mother read the story she immediately recognized her sisters. But she was puzzled by some of the events described in the story. “I don’t remember — happening when Momma died,” she said to me. “That’s because it didn’t,” I said. Nearly all of the dialogue had been made up, and most of the events had been changed in some way or never happened– not because I was necessarily trying to protect myself, but because the story itself required the changes.

In the story there were only a few events that actually happened. My cousin did plant squash one year, and I did spend a miserable, memorable autumn packing squash for transport to market. I still remember how filthy and greasy I was at the end of the day, and how I scrubbed myself in the shower, feeling like I’d never get clean. I did spend an afternoon watching an old Audrey Hepburn movie, The Nun’s Story, with my grandmother. When I was visiting her in the nursing home, shortly before she died, she told me she loved me. I replied, “I love you too, Grandma.” She turned her head away. I realized she had thought I was someone else. I have been haunted ever since by the mystery of who she thought she had been talking to. The last experience was what compelled me to write “Transplanted Roses.” Those are the events in the story that actually did happen, but the rest of it was fiction.

The brutal truth is that reality does not translate well to fiction, which is why so many books that are written as a form of revenge against a former loved one often never get published. Life does not happen the way that things do in fiction. It is hard to convey anything more than a sense of what occurred when a writer sits down to put a real-life event onto paper. Real life is messy. Fiction needs to have all the frayed ends snipped off, all the ribbons tied in neat bows.

I wrote a short story called “Digging for Treasure.” The story tells of a man who is dismantling the house that his wife inherited. He’s convinced her grandfather hid a lot of money in the house, but he’s so obsessed that he doesn’t notice he’s losing his wife. The idea for the story came when my aunt’s father died. He had been a gambler. When her family was sorting things in the house they discovered that he had stashed money from his winnings in various places; a stack of tens stashed between blankets in the closet, a roll of fives in old coffee cans in the garage, and twenties held together by paperclips at the bottom of a drawer. There was nothing about the real event that translated into anything more than an odd tale a person might tell over dinner, but the idea percolated in the back of my mind. I didn’t have a story until I combined it with the idea of a young couple inheriting a house and exaggerated the extremes a person might go to if he thought there was hidden money in the area.

The real house the gambler owned is a small, white stucco home shaded by large mulberry trees, located in a quiet neighborhood in a farming community in California’s San Joaquin Valley. As far as I know, it is still standing. In the story, the house has been transformed into a white clapboard house located on forty acres of land outside Harrison, Arkansas, “that could only be reached by driving across a narrow wooden bridge spanning a swift, rocky creek.” The location was actually real, a piece of property that another uncle of mine – not the one who was married to the aunt whose father had died in California – had owned outside of Harrison. However, the real house on the property had been a lovely rock house, not an older, white clapboard home. The story was told from the viewpoint of the cousin of the man whose wife inherited the property. None of my cousins, to the best of my knowledge, have ever decided to dismantle a house searching for hidden treasure.

An event can inspire a story, but usually the story takes off on its own, develops until there is only a fragile resemblance to the original event. Novels that are based on historical events or historical figures have a stiff quality unless the writer lets go of the reins and gives the story its head, letting its characters speak words they might have never spoken, and detailing events that might have never happened. In historical fiction, the key is to write about relationships in such a way as would have been standard behavior during that time period, to add details that make a reader feel as if he has been transported back in time to that era.

Matt Bondurant utilized his own family’s history to create his fascinating novel The Wettest County in the World. Bondurant’s grandfather and great-uncles had been involved in making moonshine in Franklin County, Virginia, during the Depression. Bondurant was able to use transcripts from the trial of what became known as “The Great Moonshine Conspiracy.” Bondurant admits that even though he was writing a story based on his family’s history, many of the events in the book and much of the dialogue were pure fiction. He had to research what life had been like in that part of the country during the Depression. His book is filled with details of folk beliefs such as dropping a dish towel meant a visitor was coming that added a strong sense of realism to his novel. Bondurant’s novel was turned into the blockbuster move Lawless. The movie deviated in some ways from his book, but Bondurant is still pleased with how his novel was brought to life.

A real event can inspire you to write your story, but you have to be willing to follow where the idea leads, and not get too attached to the real facts or details. Despite of how significant an event might be, or how deeply it affected you, the story might be one that never unfolds. For years I tried to write the story of a vacation I had taken through the Mid-West. It was the last vacation I took with my ex-fiancée. He had been happier than I had ever seen him, laughing and joking during the nine days we were together. Most of the photos of us during most of the vacation show a couple who is smiling and comfortable together. There had been no arguments or harsh words, no accusations about the other woman I knew he was seeing behind my back. Since he had been so happy, I made the assumption that things were going to be alright between us.

But the night before we came home, I sensed something had changed. The photos taken when we stopped to tour a cave on that last day together tell the real story. He looks grim. I look grieved. Later, I made a short video of the photos from our last two days together and set it to One Republic’s song “Apologize.” I never published the video on my Youtube channel or Facebook, nor have I ever shown it to anyone. That video is the closest I’ve ever come to being able to tell the story of our last vacation together. No matter how many times I have tried, I have never been able to write about that event. There are some things that words can’t describe.