Braking News

Two days after Christmas, my husband and I will mark our fiftieth wedding anniversary.  Consider another happy bit of breaking news.  Washington voters just legalized gay marriage.  Fifty years from now, gay couples all over the state will be celebrating their fiftieth.  Happy anniversary.

This is my lead-footed way of introducing my unhappy subject–the question of using big news events in fiction.  Last week, a young man, dressed in black and wearing a hockey mask, shot up a mall across the river from where I live.  He shot two people dead, wounded one, and then killed himself.  A certain amount of sick humor circulated.  One wit suggested it was obviously time to ban malls.  A few days later, twenty-seven people, twenty of them little children, were killed in Newtown, Connecticut.  Not killed with swords or poison or blows from a blunt instrument.  Killed with guns.

I hesitate to moralize on this great tragedy.  It leads to very sad thoughts about this country.  In the circumstances, though, I think that the second amendment to the Constitution ought to be a legitimate topic for discussion.  Yet there is very little real discussion–more like a series of slogans shouted by well-defined groups with no movement from one group to another.  Fiction is a powerful way to “discuss” important issues.  Think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Oliver Twist.  Fiction can provide a forum that allows for compromise and shades of gray, highly desirable IMHO.  As of this morning, according to Yahoo News, the NRA Facebook page has vanished.  My first reaction was “good.”  More serious thought leads me to hope they will moderate their position and use the social media to educate their more intemperate followers, though I’m not optimistic that that will happen.

There’s one clear advantage of topicality in fiction.  If the news story is still hot when the book comes out, it could be a marketing advantage, and authors apparently need gimmicks to sell their books these days.  The roman a clef is a time-honored version of the novel.  In this case, I could not do it.  Too much like exploitation of tragedy.

Another clear advantage of using current news is that it gives fiction an automatic touch of verisimilitude–a touch that works well for unsophisticated readers.  I believe the truth of a fiction has nothing to do with whether or not the plot “really” happened and everything to do with empathy, depth of characterization, and clarity of style.

I have used real events myself, sometimes inadvertantly.  The weirdest case was the big mudslide in my second Latouche County mystery, An Old Chaos.  I live in mudslide territory, so I used facts from a number of different slides, finished the book, shipped it off, and was doing the final edit when a huge mudslide happened in the county seat of Skamania County.  It didn’t kill anyone, thank God, but the physical damage was worse than what I dreamed up–and so was the political fallout.  I have no desire to be considered a prophet, so I was relieved that I had changed all the place names, not to mention the names of county commissioners, when I chose the Gorge as the setting for my series.

With historical novels, most changes in the interpretation of events have already occurred.  Contemporary stories are more problematical.  My second published mystery, Skylark, deals with the Lockerbie disaster, and I wrote the book well before the guilty verdict came down.  I guessed right on that one, but I kept the disaster itself at the periphery of the story, and I was very, very cautious.  It pays to be.  In that same book, I had no idea the Soviet Union was going to collapse before I finished writing.  I was able to include that little change at the end of the book, but I utterly failed to predict the division of Czechoslovakia into two separate countries.

One consequence of using a current story could be a nasty lawsuit.  That’s pretty obvious.  The failure of trust is more insidious.  Readers trust us to write fiction, but when our fictions dabble in fact, we had better be accurate.  If the event is still reverberating, it’s still in the process of happening.  I find that a very scary thought.  I committed myself to this blog topic after the mall shooting and before the Connecticut massacre of innocents.  If I hadn’t said I’d do it, I would have slammed on the brakes.

Have a thoughtful solstice.

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2 Responses

  1. Sheila, this is an exceedingly thoughtful essay. And your statement that the truth of fiction has everything to do with empathy, depth of characterization, and clarity of style is a beautiful way to put it. I think of a post-911 panel I went to at a Bouchercon where writers spoke of how hard it was to even think of writing about that tragedy. Yet ultimately some did, years later–but again,in fiction.I hope you’ll republish this blog elsewhere.

  2. Thank you, Nancy. I believe that some distance in time is probably necessary, but even then an event that hurts so many people ought to be dealt with very carefully.

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