Is There Room for Fact in Fiction? By Lissa Oliver

Writing.ie | Member Blog

Lissa Oliver with her novel Nero

Lissa Oliver

Is there room for fact in fiction?

We all know the, hopefully mythical, journalist adage “never let the truth get in the way of a good story!” But how far should we allow fact to interfere with good fiction? They are far from two separate things. I know from experience that excellent fiction can be based upon fact, and indeed entirely upon fact, but where should we draw the line? If at all?
I spent over ten years researching the factual biography of the Roman Emperor Nero and, because there were already at that time four excellent academic biographies (now five, to my knowledge) all saying the same thing, I opted to write it as a novel. I breathed life into Nero and his contemporaries using his, and their, own words. I was slavish to fact and allowed for no poetic licence. At times of conflicting evidence, I examined the sources, the context and past and future actions and quotes to decide upon the most likely reality. We are always reliant on the accuracy of our sources, but at least we can produce them to back up our own accuracy.

The result of my research was a factual novel, the usual gathering of characters and events, hopefully living out the drama as we read. It could as easily have been non-fiction, but I didn’t feel I could lift Nero off the page and engage readers with just another third-hand account of history. Thinking about it as I write this, it’s a very thin line. If I removed the minor padding of getting a character from A to B and the inclusion of dialogue and conversation, rather than standalone quotes, the book would be barely changed.

In that instance, I feel I got the balance right. When it came to a screen adaption, however, fact went out the window! I was reminded by my script editor that a book can be picked up and put down at any chosen time and read in comfort. A movie dictates where and when we watch it and not always in comfort, either. We go to a cinema to be entertained for 90 minutes, not to be educated. “If they want fact, let them read the book,” insisted my editor, “who’s going to know, anyway?” He’s right – it’s an entirely different audience; and if the reader strays in and leaves in disappointment, does it matter when they’re in the minority? Suddenly, fact had got in the way of a good story. When the elements of drama are boiled down to a precise template of time-honoured screenplays, characters could no longer die when they factually did, events had to be shuffled to form the traditional dramatic sequence an audience expects and enjoys. Because of, not despite, the fairly rigid template, the screenplay version was liberating.

My horseracing thrillers, I think, are pure fiction, of course. No characters or plot elements bear any resemblance to real people or events. And yet, I still stick rigidly to the racing calendar and existing Rule Book. Horses are trained and handled in textbook fashion, their behaviour typical of thoroughbreds. If you work in an office and set your novel in an office, there are elements you won’t even need to research or think about – they’re second nature. It raises a smile when we read reviews describing our work as “authentic”. What else could it be? It IS absolutely authentic! Would it be liberating to escape those constraints? For me, it would be confusing and unreal. So, only the people, circumstances and plot are fiction. Maybe fact and fiction are more tightly interwoven than we like to think.
I was inspired to consider this theme having just finished an excellent book by Micheál Cladáin, “Hammer”. It is meticulously well researched and authentic. How do I know that? I don’t, but it has that necessary authenticity and if I Google the events I know they will be true. Michaél says he used poetic licence where needed, but as a non-scholarly reader, I wouldn’t have known where without him alerting readers to the, uh-hum, fact. Similarly, on a recent British Museum lecture, author-historian Adrian Goldsworthy explained his fictional novel and which elements of fact he used in order to create an entertaining read. His day job is historian, but he knows exactly where to draw the line when switching to entertainment.

I revert back to good old Nero, a perfect example. Not least because most non-scholars would ask why, when he’s “known” to be far from perfect! As is our knowledge of history in general! If I told you he won an Olympic Gold Medal for singing, you might question it. Fact. If I told you he owned two Rottweilers, you might question at least the breed. Fact. I was actually asked to change them to War Dogs, which, bred as sheepdogs at that time, they were not. German sheepdogs then, was the suggestion. Well, anyone with a German Shepherd might dispute that, too. They were Rottweilers, under whatever their Latin name was, so Rottweilers they must remain. One reviewer took umbrage at my use of “apartments”, but how else do I describe a fifth-floor Roman abode? Would bedsit have rung any more true? If you’re not happy about ancient peoples living in five-storey housing complexes, it’s a bit late to take it up with the architect! And if I told you Nero didn’t throw Christians to the lions? It’s what Romans do, isn’t it? Well, they did about 150 years later, long after Nero’s reign. But what’s a hundred years to non-academics and does it really matter?

Our business is to entertain. Whether we let fact interfere with fiction is up to us. There are no rules to writing.

(c) Lissa Oliver

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get all of the latest from writing.ie delivered directly to your inbox.

Featured books