I write heritage fiction—historical novels about my ancestors. I include Author’s Notes at the back of the book and on my website, but I am still often asked how much of the book is true. Let’s think about truth a little differently. How much of your real life is fiction?
The most obvious example is social media. I know that my friends’ lives are not as completely sunny as the photos on their feeds. On social media, we tend to present the best and brightest part of our lives, creating a fiction that we are living our best lives at every minute of the day. A photo you see in a Facebook feed might show someone having a wonderful time in an exotic location. What it doesn’t show is how much their feet hurt from walking, how exhausting it was to actually get there, or how cold it got outside on the patio at the restaurant.
We present ourselves in person like that, too. I’m normally someone who wears jeans and T-shirts, but I dress up for certain situations. What I used to wear to work, what I’ve worn to weddings or while traveling, all present a fictional image. I look and act differently when I’m working in the garden or riding my husband’s motorcycle, or attending a PTA event. Yes, each of those is a partially true image of myself, but novels contain partial truths, too.
All of our dreams, fantasies, and hopes influence our lives, and they are fiction since they haven’t happened yet. We dream of a future career and enroll in college. The closest we can come to living a fantasy is at Halloween, where we dress up in a costume, which gives us permission to be someone fictional. We hope for a better tomorrow and do everything we can today to make that happen. Our own fiction impacts our decisions every day.
Scientists who study memory claim that every time we recall something from our past, we change the details. The story then has fictionalized emotions, reactions, and impressions. Maybe we forget someone who was there, or a detail of the event. If two people who experienced the same thing tell the story, their narratives are different. Each of them focused on a different aspect of the event, or compared it to a different set of expectations. One person enjoyed it while another hated it. Both have true memories, but both have fiction embedded in it.
So the next time you wonder how much is true in a historical novel, ask yourself how much is fiction in your real life. And remember that it takes both truth and fiction to make the best story.