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Sunday, 21 August 2011

Working with the Truth

One of the challenges of being an author is working with real events.

Unless you are writing a blog or journalistic piece it is hard to find the balance between truth and fiction.

The riots, phone hacking, Norwegian mad man, twitterati are all prime material for writing. Writers have a real opportunity to challenge and use the themes presented by these events but cant just rehash old stories. Otherwise it's either not original, uninteresting or in the worst case, you end up misusing peoples names and find yourself in court. A tricky challenge, and politics is worse because many of the names are of the household variety

A good example of this is Robert Harris in The Ghost. How to write a book so clearly based on Tony Blair but not mention his name. This is the skill of an author who wants to reflect world events, as we can't pretend they don't exist but rework any ideas into a history that exists only within your book.

I am looking at writing my next book in the world of coalition and post labour government, but how to do that without mentioning the name Cameron or the current incumbents. Perhaps it is simply to change the names but replay some of the events. That feels a little weak. I am minded back to the West wing which wrote for 8 years in a fictional White House. It simply created it's own world without ever feeling that it wasn't a real one, bar knowing that it was just a TV program.

I pick a time period to go back where I can mention true facts and then bring them forward to the books timeline with an artificial history. Once you've gone down the road of fiction you can't then mention the real events. E.G. it would be wrong to mention phone hacking whilst talking of a government that isn't David Cameron. Because it so clearly is interlinked in media history changing one part of it would distort what happened and leave the author vulnerable to accusations. Better to just pretend it didn't exist but use the themes to recreate an alternative scenario with a fictional newspaper and government.

In fact I would avoid mention of any real name in recent history unless it is an accepted fact (e.g. Gordon Brown was prime-minster) or can't be avoided in a story line (you are writing a story around the last days of Labour). There are times when you might want to do it, but always think twice.

Another interesting challenge would be to write a story about a survivor of the Norway shootings. In this case you could mention the event and create a fictional survivor as so little is known about the survivors on a personal level at least in the day to day media world. It would be a great story to make up but one where you have to remain sympathetic to the relatives and true survivors of that terrible day. It would be dangerous to exploit their memory for your indulgence, but at the same time, they say so much about modern life and writers want to reflect that.

I think the author in the world of fiction can do what he likes, but to avoid being accused of copying real life or exploiting very raw tragedy, the best way is to re-imagine events in a completely fictional world.

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