Writing for the Magazine, Lynne Truss has a confession: she has never been on the London Eye, yet chose to set a key scene there in one of her books. Does it matter?
It is time to make a confession. I once set the climactic scene of a dramatic monologue on the London Eye - without ever having travelled on it. Was that so very wrong of me?
If it was, I am in trouble, because I also once wrote a comic novel about a number of characters converging farcically on the town of Honiton, in Devon, without ever having been there; and, heavens, I once wrote a whole novel set in the 1860s without bothering to do any exploratory time-travelling.
And come to think of it, as a writer of drama and fiction I have created all sorts of characters who are not like me and who have not led the life I've led, some of whom are even of the opposite gender.
She made it all up, you know
Forgive the sarcastic tone, but I did find it bizarre that anyone should care whether the newly crowned Costa award winner Stef Penney had ever been to Canada when she wrote her excellent first novel, The Tenderness of Wolves.
It was quite a news story, apparently, although perhaps the main point of interest was that Penney had been suffering agoraphobia while working on the book (set in the 19th Century Canadian outback), so her illness would have prevented her from visiting Canada even if she'd wanted to.
Nevertheless, I wasted no time getting defensive. The thing is, we fiction writers are quite touchy when people fail to appreciate the supreme importance of imagination in our work. I love the idea of Penney constructing the landscape of her book from maps and records in the British Library. That was a true creative act. Any fool with a Visa card can buy a ticket and go to look at an expanse of snow.
At a time when memoirs are being attacked on grounds of literal truth, perhaps people are getting confused about what fiction is - and are therefore asking the wrong questions.
"Did you talk to any men?" someone asked me when I had a series of male monologues broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2005, and I am still so astonished by the stupidity of the question that I crack up laughing whenever I think of it.
It seems to me that "Did you talk to any men?" implies that
- men are quite rare, and you can go your whole life not encountering one
- in the natural course of things, I don't talk to anyone except in the cause of research
- men have unique, specialist insight into other men
- that chromosomes count for more in the creative process than imagination
I had invented six characters for my series, each with an individual biography, story, personality, outlook and voice. Yet, according to the "Did you talk to any men?" approach, it turns out that my milkman or the Prince of Wales was better equipped (purely by XY arrangement) to write my characters than I was.
I'm not saying that a writer is automatically disadvantaged by first-hand knowledge.
Lynne Truss, best known for Eats, Shoots and Leaves
When I wrote my novel Tennyson's Gift (about real people who lived at Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight in the 1860s), I not only steeped myself in biographies, photographs and poetry; I wrote the whole book from a holiday flat overlooking the bay, feverishly imagining it 130 years previously.
I therefore knew with certainty how long it took to get from one house to another; I knew the cliff walks and the tiny flowers, and I felt the full majesty of the wonderful view on a dazzling July afternoon. Such detail was important to the atmosphere and the plot of my novel, and I still love taking people to Freshwater and showing them where everything happens.
Yet, when it was necessary to change something for the sake of symbolism or plot, I did it. For example, I wanted Tennyson to have access to the spiral staircase from his study to the garden, even though it hadn't been installed in 1864. I wanted a rose garden to be positioned in a particular spot when there was no evidence for it.
After a few sleepless nights, I granted myself liberty to tweak reality a bit. So guilty did I feel, incidentally, that I expected reviewers to pounce on these tiny points of inaccuracy, and was shocked when they wrote more along the lines of: "I had no idea these people lived on the Isle of Wight. Has she made this all up?"
Lifting real life
Personally, I'm always disappointed to learn that the story of a novel is literally true, or a character based on a real person. I feel the thing is thereby diminished.
Fact or fiction? James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces is disputed
Years ago, I interviewed an American playwright who gladly confessed that all the best bits in his play were simply lifted from life. During the interview, I would mention a line and he would exclaim: "My daughter actually said that!" - as if that was just marvellous. "That really happened!" he said, thumping the table with glee. My spirits drooped ever lower during our interview, as it became horribly clear that he had just strung together a few personal anecdotes, not written a play at all.
No, making it up is the point, really. And I have concrete evidence that people can tell the difference between the authentically invented, and the inauthentically factual.
In one of my female monologues, a character says something pretty extraordinary: she explains that she stopped going to work because her hair wouldn't let her. She has very long hair, you see, which needs to dry naturally, and since this process takes at least four hours a day, there's basically no way she can hold down a full-time job.
Well, you've guessed. This four-hours-a-day thing was something that had been said to me - but that's the reason I should never have included it. It clunked. It stood out. It failed to convince. The producer, the actress and everybody else said: "This hair-drying thing doesn't ring true, Lynne."
But like a fool I kept it in, just because it was really, really interesting, and had really, really happened.
A Certain Age: 12 monologues from the radio series by Lynne Truss is published by Profile Books.
Below is a selection of your comments.
In order to be enjoyable, a fiction book must be believable. If the book contains a number of obvious inaccuracies, it detracts from my appreciation of the story line. If this can be achieved without nth degree research then who cares? I guess the acid test, therefore, is to give the story to someone who is familiar with Honiton / the Eye and see if they spot anything that impacts on the credibility of the storyline. This is true of films as well as books. For example 101 Dalmatians (recent live action version rather than Disney cartoon) includes racoons In the English countryside. The last time I checked, racoons are not indigenous to the UK.
How much does it matter that facts are embellished to make an entertaining book? If it not purported to be factual then why not - surely this is the essence of good story-telling or writing - to make it believable
While Lynne Truss makes some good points, particularly with regard to the impossibility of writing historical fiction from experience, I refuse to believe a writer and public figure as experienced as her has missed the obvious whiff of publicity hunting surrounding Penney's novel. Every product needs a USP, particularly in the crowded marketplace of fiction publishing, and making a big deal out of the novel's claims on authenticity, and less tastefully out of the author's personal problems, can only help generate interest from readers not necessarily attracted by the story but by a desire to see if it rings true, as well as good old fashioned seeing what all the fuss is about.
I find it refreshing to hear a novelist admit that they are writing fiction. It's really annoying when they claim to be revealing some deep psychological "truth", when they are actually just imagining what imaginary characters would do in imaginary situations.
D Sutherland, Aberdeen
I am SO glad to know I'm not alone in thinking all of the things Lynne has said here. I write fiction in my spare time, mostly for my own amusement, and have occasionally tried to get feedback from fellow-writers on its quality. Many seem utterly obsessed with the idea of being utterly authentic with settings, characters and so on. The whole point of fiction, as Lynne suggests, is that it is MADE UP! Readers only care whether the story is a good read; they mostly don't give a damn whether or not the author did any detailed research about how kidnappers work, or whatever.
David Hazel, Fareham, UK
Hmm, I'm not convinced by Lynne's argument - to live in London and write about the London Eye without bothering to visit it does seem a bit... well, lazy, to be honest! Good writers can evoke the atmosphere of all sorts of environments as well as getting into the heads of characters. However there's no doubt that a bit of first-hand experience, if it's feasible, can make a crucial difference. Despite coming from Scotland, when I went walking in the mountains of western Canada the atmosphere was quite different in a million subtle but important ways - wilderness isn't just wilderness. It's odd that Lynne should be such a stickler in relation to every apostrophe, but so cavalier in her attitude to realism in settings and landscapes.
Graeme Bell, Dinan, France
I don't have a problem with this at all. What REALLY annoys me, however, is newspaper columnists who clearly "invent" events or dialogue to make their columns / lives seem more "interesting". Typically, this will relate to domestic incidents involving their children or spouse, and will normally involve the columnist trying to show how chaotic their life is and how dreadful their children or husband / wife are. Whilst this may at first glance simply appear to be self-deprecating humour, there is something desperately "smug conceited middle class" about this practice which makes by blood boil. If they want to write fiction - fine, but please don't pretend that some of these incidents actually happened as described. At the very least, there is a lot of embellishment going on. (Although I hate to say it, female columnists appear to be more guilty than male ones in this respect.)
As ever Lynne speaks sense.
Susan Lowe, Huddersfield
You raise many of the issues currently being debated in fiction workshops, Ms Truss, but I fear you are growing rather narrow in your views. The question on the male monologues could well have been one of perfectly honest curiosity. The author who strung together anecdotes to form a story may not be as talented as those who conjure entirely from imagination, but it means little to the readers enthralled by the story. Frey's sin was to misrepresent himself; it did not change the quality of his writing, but people do not like to be insulted by deliberate deception. It seems to me, however, that you're exchanging one narrow prejudice for another. As a novice writer, one of the first things I've discovered is the absolute unreliability of memory. All that matters is how I incorporate my perceptions into my work. Excessive concern with the "veracity" of a piece of fiction is a fools errand and misses the point entirely. So while I applaud your ridicule of foolish critics, I would point out that you seem to have been goaded into advocating just another flavour of intolerance. Let the work speak for itself.
Steve Foster, New York
Lynne is perfectly right. The quality in fiction writing is the way the story is believable. However this need not be even an approximate representation of the truth. What has to be achieved however is to make the reader comfortable with the idea. A story is to entertain and so long as it does that; who cares?
Nigel Robert Wilson, Buckingham UK
Most interesting to me as I am currently writing a piece on realism, reality, and the ring of truth. I believe there are subtle differences between these three. For example, we all know that reality television programmes are no such thing. Even 'realism' cannot be quite accurate and 'true to life', otherwise it would be incredibly boring. JD Salinger's Catcher In The Rye is about as near as you can get to a realistic narrative voice. I agree with Lynne about making it up. It is more important to tell 'a truth' than 'the truth'.
David Roberts, Loughborough, UK
If I ever write a book, I hope I can get all the free publicity on the BBC that this lady is getting today.
John Bendix, Newcastle, UK
As an aspiring fiction writer I appreciate Lynn's words of encouragement and support for this much maligned genre. One small bone to pick - Canada is not a just "an expanse of snow." The variety of life, climates, cultures and scenery is amazing. Come see for yourself!
Mike, Calgary, Canada
Thank you, thank you Ms Truss! I'm a novice novelist---first novel just about to be published. Because it takes place against a backdrop of authentic 20th Century history I can't believe how many people have referred to it as 'faction'---it's not--the characters and their lives and reactions are fiction---I MADE THEM UP!!!
Sally Patricia Gardner, Brede, East Sussex, UK
You don't have to do any research at all to write fiction. However, if your characters are entirely unbelievable (because they've been created by someone that doesn't know what they're talking about) or your description of a real geographical location is entirely wrong (because you've never been there) then what you are writing is BAD fiction. Sorry.
Eddie Tomlinson, Glasgow, UK
People who require their fiction to be true have rather missed the point. As long as it is interesting and engaging, that's all that matters. I, for one, would be disappointed if Lynne hadn't written Acropolis Now - a series impossible to make accurate without a time machine, and probably a lot less fun with one.
Andrew Fish, Nottingham, UK
A good understanding of life, both on the outside and, even more the inside, is what is needed to be convincing. My own speciality is writing historical novels, and of course a knowledge of the period is essential. But what makes writing come alive is not the truth in terms of fact , but understanding characters and situations, and then creating my own.
Margaret Scott, Verviers - Belgium
Thank goodness someone is standing up for invention! The voice of the 'write from experience' brigade is far too loud, to the point where fiction now seems somehow diminished if it does not arise out of someone's rich and varied life rather than their infinitely richer and more varied imagination. One more point: it is illogical to argue that the person asking whether Ms Truss spoke to any men somehow implies that men are the only creatures who can write the truth about themselves. Try changing 'man' to 'parrot'. Cap'n Flint is surely not better equipped to write about parrots simply by virtue of being a parrot. I'm sure Lynne Truss can easily comprehend the birdy little brain of a parrot, so a man should be simple....
Robert Mullan, Wallingford, UK
There seems to be a growing state of denial that fiction can be, and should be exactly that - witness the rise in books, TV programmes and magazines dedicated to the prurience we choose to call 'reality'. How sad that top 10 lists of whatever book genre you choose are dominated by torrid revelation, biographies of people with nothing to say and no life to talk about, and the promotion of a minor or trivial talent/capability to expertise. I recently read some books of my daughters about some kid who is a wizard: I waited at King's Cross station for weeks but still can't see people running through a wall - I am so disappointed: someone have made it up! How can they get away with it? We'll have books about aliens invading the world and catching cold before you know it - should we be asking the government to investigate the possibility? We should be told.
Mark Turner, Oxford, UK
OK so what's wrong with incorporating anecdotes from life experience as well as making things up to go into a novel? It's the way life works.
I found your comments about "Did you talk to any men?" extremely interesting. I will deploy them next time my wife tells me I don't understand her because I am a man.
A sympathizer, Asia
I used to have very long hair, and four hours seems about right for it to dry naturally. Of course, I decided I'd rather have a social life than long hair so it had to go. Stick to your guns, Lynne - it's your work and your world.
I agree entirely. Fiction is about imagination, not simply reporting the truth. Does anyone ever complain that Shakespeare never went to Denmark?
Jeremy Sanders, Huddersfield
I COMPLETELY agree - my current novel is partly set in London and I find if I try to base it on the times I've been there or things from GoogleMaps or people telling me about it, it just doesn't work. If I just write it all out using my imagination and inventing things where I want to it works far better.
Jess, Nr Oxford, England
Well, they say truth is stranger than fiction - so I in fact disagree with Ms Truss to some extent. Why else are biographies so widely read? Oh, and incidentally, it was writing a play based on my friends which landed me a 2:1 for my Theatre Studies degree.
RB, Cheltenham, Glos
I commend anyone who writes a book firstly for the commitment it takes and secondly as I stick firmly to the old adage that there is a great book inside of every person. So what if Stef Penney never went to Canada. the fact i that she wrote and amazing book that inspired people and that they enjoyed. The act of experiencing what you write about is overrated. Possibly the lack of experience of the "real life experiences" ie her agoraphobia enabled her imagination to be more adventurous and clear. Who can tell, what is important is the words that were written down, and that they were inspired and enjoyed. fiction is the art of creating a place where people can experience things with their imagination. So I would like to say thank you to every writer who has ever written a book as i have spent countless hours reading and it is a different experience with every book.
The great French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere said it was the duty of every writer, every day to "murder his father, rape his mother, betray his country" By which he meant working-out the imagination was the most important exercise any writer could ever take. I agree with Lynne Truss and so much of our literary heritage comes directly from the imagination of our greatest writers.
David Joss Buckley, London, UK
You only have to read literary masterpieces by Bernard Cornwell to see the benefits of accurate story telling. However, the literary accuracy is not the foundation stone for good writing. While people may have an opinion about the benefits either way, each case has to be taken on it's merits.
Nathan Welch, Yeovil England
I read fiction because I like a good story. As long as the story is good I don't care if the author has researched certain aspects, or just made them up. Just tell me a good story.
Lynne, I would suggest you read John Fante's magical, semi-autobiographical Bandini quartet to better understand the relationship between real life experience and fiction. Apologies for the grammar in advance.
Totally with you, Lynne; its your right and privilege to make the world and it's characters what you want them to be in your writing. By the way, has Terry Pratchett ever BEEN to the Discworld, or Douglas Adams to Alpha Centauri.... Or did Agatha Christie or Reginald Hill commit or witness all those murders... It's what "fiction" means.
John Holley, Milton Keynes
From a readers perspective, what difference does it make whether the writer made the story up or ripped it from real life. I think, as a writer, you've become caught up in the mechanics of writing rather than the writing itself.
Jack Hughes, Otley, UK
I'm a writer, though not of fiction. I agree wholeheartedly that fiction needs to be believable, or at least allow us to suspend our disbelief, but it doesn't have to be literally correct. It doesn't matter if a few residents of Honiton see the gaping holes in a story, if thousands of other people find it entirely plausible. I have almost never read a news article of any kind that I actually knew the truth about without noticing significant errors in it, and that's supposed to be hard fact! So I think we can allow fiction writers considerable licence.
Will, Calstock, England
In the novel Footfall the authors describe a man who had a road accident but didn't seek medical help because it would lessen his chances of winning compensation. It's an irritating irrelevance, and I couldn't work out why it was included. Years later I found that 'it had actually happened' to somebody the authors knew. Ms Truss is right: these irruptions of truth just distract us from the reality that fiction is trying to invent.
Peter, Newbury, UK
Damn: I teach a course on non-fiction writing with "creative" in the title. Must be some mistake? I don't think so. Sure, any fool with a VISA card can go to Canada and look. But you don't then transcribe the landscape, surely. You abstract from reality, and put some of the elements in order to create meaning. And someone did have to go there for Stef Penny to do her research at all. Otherwise she'd be writing fantasy, I guess.
Jon Turney, London
I've heard this argument before from an author ridiculing the 'only write what you know' advice for budding authors. Of course you can do loads of research and be creative and pretend that you are getting under the skins of your characters. The problem lies, I think, in the slightly arrogant belief that the author's middle-class white outlook on life, love and morals is the universal human condition. No matter how much research you do, you can never be 100% sure that your values and desires translate to every other person of both genders. The only true test is whether a reader who does come from the same background as your character feels that your writing is insightful and sympathetic. I'll try reading some of Ms Truss's male monologues and see whether they get as close to how I feel as, say, Nick Hornby does.
It is important to distinguish between writing that purports to be factual and that which is clearly fictional with a basis in real events and/or people. The furore over The Da Vinci Code shows what happens when the READER blurs those lines. When I read a novel, a work of fiction, I ACCEPT that it is FICTION and I expect the writer to use imagination, dramatic licence and creative writing to produce the finished article. If I want a factual, deeply researched, account I would look in the history section. Having said that, I would not expect Harrier jump jets flying over Roman Britain or kangaroos in Ecuador. But it would not bother me that a writer hadn't been to Ecuador or walked in Roman Britain if the writing was good and the story engaging.
Lynne, Didn't Simon Hoggart write something about one of the book prize juries [Booker?] having an argument about whether a final scene in which the hero proposes to the heroine on the London Eye decide to take a trip on it to decide whether it was 'plausible' ?
Do you not think that any "truth" claims about fiction are specious? Is it fair to say that a novel can ever express truth when the whole concept of truth seems hard to pin down? Also, not all fiction is by definition, the complete work of the imagination. Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood' for instance is a "non-fiction" novel which still relies and draws heavily on Capote's imagination. It really does seem that literature is a highly complex philosophical problem.
John, York, UK
Really interesting article. I'm writing a novel about a neurotic, needy, drug-taking web designer whose cousin is an international, in-the-closet R&B superstar who loves in Manhattan. I don't need to be famous, gay, addicted or even have more than a passing knowledge of HTML to be able to bring my characters to life. Hell, I've never even been to NYC. Sure, I hear some witty one-liners in real life that might find a way in there and yes, observing and analysing real human behaviour will, I hope, give my work a ring of truth, as I want readers to see parts of themselves reflected in the characters and be able to relate to their experiences. So really, what I'm aiming for is authenticity rather than truth. I have artistic licence on my side, so why let truth get in the way of a good story?
China Blue, London, UK
I for one despise all these "semi-autobiographical" that people seem to write when they have a crack at writing a novel having become famous at something else. For example, Olympic athlete writing a "semi-autobiographical" tale about making it as an Olympic athlete "against the odds" living in a working-class community. Or a comedienne writing a "semi-autobiographical" novel about making it in comedy "against the odds". Have these people such scant imagination that they have to write about themselves? I'd rather go on a imaginary (albeit possibly not strictly accurate) journey with a novelist than read some thinly-obfuscated autobiography.
It is true that "men have unique, specialist insight into other men", as it is also true that women have a specialist insight into being women. We all see through the frame of who we are. We are even run internally by different chemicals that colour our thoughts. The "de-gendering" process our society is obsessed with which tries to make men and women the same, perpetuates this lie. We are different, equal but very different. Hemingway, as I, would disagree very strongly with you Lynne.
David , Salisbury
I don't think there's anything wrong with facts in a novel, so long as they're relevant and create an interest. After all, your facts are another's fiction and a piece of your fiction could be coincidental fact.
Mo, London, UK
I think there is a valid case for fiction to be truly fictionally at times and to sometimes have elements of fact. Lyne truss herself admits that she had to research one of her novels, its just that writers shouldn't get hung up on research. If there's a love scene for example one of the lovers shouldn't have an attack of wind at just the wrong moment.
Jason Clay, UK