Monday, May 11, 2015
On Monday, May 11, 2015 by Adria J. Cimino in guest posts
Today, we welcome Kathryn Craft, author of new release "The Far End of Happy." There is something very exceptional about this novel: It's based on a true event. Read on to find out more about this fascinating book and the challenges of incorporating real life into fiction!
3 Challenges of Writing a Novel About True Events
by Kathryn Craft
When I was a little girl, dreaming of marrying and having a family, I never once thought about that marriage ending—let alone in a suicide standoff. Back in 1997, shortly after this came to pass, I saw that the way my family emerged from our ordeal would make a good story.
By the time I was ready to write —and Sourcebooks was eager to publish—I felt certain of two things: 1) I wanted to tell the story through more than one point of view, since I was well aware that I wasn’t the only one to suffer from the day’s events, and 2) I wanted to show the way the standoff had seared into my life by constraining the book to its twelve hours. That story would be even better.
These decisions pushed me out of memoir into the realm of fiction, where I met several distinct challenges.
1. Developing a character based on me.
This can be tricky! Renaming yourself feels so random, for one thing. What occupation would she have? Should she have two sons, aged eight and ten, as I did? The process was dizzying as I reconsidered every decision I had made in my life. And what kind of goal could this me-like protagonist have for this one day that could drive action throughout the book? I don’t know about you, but I’m often the last person to truly understand my own motivations. They can be extraordinarily complex.
I did a lot of journaling to simplify backstory motivations, identify deep needs and closely held beliefs, and conjure a story goal that would make my character pop. We authors are charged with digging until we uncover all of our character’s hidden vulnerabilities—but these were my vulnerabilities. And I had to find the courage to put them on the page.
2. Deciding what to fictionalize and why.
My first task was to decide which real life characters helped drive the conflict on the day of the standoff. The desperate man and the massive police presence were a given. My parents were also with me that day, but while shock made me hyper aware of every unfolding detail, it shut my parents down. At such a trying time I was happy for the comfort of their faces, but they might have been framed on the wall for all the story action they drove.
So out went my parents and in came fictional mothers for my protagonist and her desperate husband—and to complicate things further, I made them lifelong friends who had bonded over their own dysfunction. This created the potential for fireworks as shameful secrets boil over, and each tries to protect what’s important to her as the standoff drags on.
If I identified events important to my protagonist’s arc that appeared elsewhere within the chain of true events, I compressed the timeline so more could happen on that one day.
3. Creating seamless transitions.
I hung my partially invented story on the bones of true events. Much of the standoff and the police action is exactly as it unfolded that day. Yet because I also fiddled with simplifying backstory motivation as described above, small cracks would sometimes develop between the imagined and the real. When it came time for a character to deliver what I may have remembered as a particularly potent line of dialogue, for example, what made perfect sense in my memory-stoked mind may have left my readers scratching their heads. I had to deal with such issues in revisions, relying heavily upon editorial feedback.
Note that my list did not include the difficulty of resurrecting painful experiences. I believe that accessing our greatest joy and deepest pain and every shade of emotion in between is the novelist’s perpetual challenge. We are always tapping the vein of our emotional truth and our readers want nothing less.
The most important thing I had to remember is that in fiction, the veracity of the story trumps what “actually happened” every time. Only then can an author fictionalizing true events write her very best novel.
Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, "The Art of Falling" and "The Far End of Happy." Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads writing workshops and retreats, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. www.kathryncraft.com
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