Critics or book reviewers for newspapers, magazines, and some online review sites receive a lot of books to read for consideration for reviews. Reviewing books is usually a fun job and as a reviewer for Meridian Magazine, I get to read some really great books. Unfortunately I also get to read some boring, dull books, some mediocre books, some poorly written books, and some books that make me wonder where was the author's editor? Over the years I've noticed a problem I don't often see addressed by workshops or helpful writers' blogs. So bear with me while I make some observations on the thin line between fact and fiction in novel writing.
Some facts are essential of course. Historic events must occur in a novel at the exact time they occurred in history. Minor flirting with time to suit a novel's storyline is excusable; major historic events can't be altered. I read a book once where a coast to coast railroad played a major role in the story, but it was set in 1852. I didn't finish the book. Great care must be taken in fictionalizing a famous or scriptural character's life. LDS fiction writers must be scrupulously careful when they mix a doctrinal element into their books to ensure that the concept being used is doctrinally correct by Church standards and not "the Gospel according to Me" sort of thing. However, this isn't the fiction/fact line I'm most concerned about at the moment. What I'm really referring to are the books where the author is obsessed with something in his/her own life or a story that happened to someone else but the writer decides it would make a good novel.
If I mention in a review that a key point in a novel is implausible, I often hear an indignant, "but that's the way it really happened." If that's the way it happened, why is the author billing his/her work as fiction? Fiction means the writer gets to make up the story; it's okay, even preferable to make a good story better when writing fiction. "Stranger than fiction" isn't a meaningless cliché. In real life things happen that in a novel just aren't believable. It's okay to use a real life experience as a base for a chapter or even the entire book, but the writer must separate him/herself from the story and concentrate on telling a great story rather than relaying facts or sticking zealously to the way the event played out in real life.
The quasi autobiography/novel doesn't often fly well for several reasons; the author tries too hard to stick to the actual events, the author is too emotionally involved to see the story's flaws, the story isn't as powerful to the reader as the experience was to the writer, or the story is undertaken by an inexperienced writer who mistakenly believes writing about one's self is easy and doesn't require spending time on research. This type of story doesn't often turn out well.
Writers, including me, are often asked where we get our ideas. Here again, there needs to be a careful line between fact and fiction. I've mentioned before that most writers play the "what if" game. Many novels begin with a news story. Some event such as the huge oil spill in the Gulf sets the "what if" game in motion for dozens of writers and here's where the novelist is separated from the journalist. The journalist has a responsibility to unearth facts and tell the story as close to those facts as possible. The novelist has no such restrictions. One novelist might build his plot around an eco-terrorist group who set up the explosion to discredit the petroleum industry and cause the suspension of offshore oil drilling. They feel certain no one will suspect environmentalists of jeopardizing wildlife and pristine beaches. They justify their action by reasoning that the sacrifice of one environmental setting will offset the many other such areas that will be saved. Another writer might focus on the heroic actions of a man who loses his life while expediting the rescue of others from the crumbling platform. A romance writer could place a brilliant female engineer on the crew struggling to close off the massive leak and let her fall in love with an oil company executive with whom she must work closely. A Science fiction writer could devise a plot around a mysterious substance injected by aliens into the hoses that snake across the ocean floor to carry oil to the surface. At first the disaster appears to be of an environmental nature, but as the oil reaches shore, it is discovered it carries a deadly, highly contagious disease meant to spread through birds and sea life to wipe out human life. Even comedy writers might wonder "what if" an overzealous and ditzy hairdresser decided, through fair means or foul, to collect a ton of hair to donate to the cause of making huge ink blotters to absorb the oil floating toward the Louisiana coast.
All of these "what ifs" started from the same facts, but the various fiction writers are only constrained by the need for factual accuracy concerning how the oil disperses, the damage potential of the spill, and natural, biological, and scientific laws. Some may need to take a look at US and international law concerning oil production. The fiction writers can move the oil spill to another location, change the principal people and companies involved, make the spill larger or smaller, or do any number of things to the story until the reader forgets they all started with a real event. A life is a real event, but like most vacation photos, few people want to sit through a detailed, chronological, mustn't leave anything out, replay of someone else's amazing trip. A novel that feels suspiciously like watching someone else's two hundred vacation slides isn't good fiction.
Good fiction writers need to learn how to balance fact and fiction while leaving straight factual reporting to journalists and biographers. The best novelists place their emphasis on telling a good story, whether it happened that way or not.