Fiction or non-fiction? This is a frequent dilemma for writers, like me, who write both. I will latch onto an idea for a book, always a crime-related story, something that really happened, something historical. I’ll let it ferment in my brain for a while to see if it still seems like a good idea after a day, a week, a few weeks. When I get one that won’t leave me alone, I’ll start to do some serious reading on the subject. If I’m still intrigued, I’ll do more reading. I’ll buy books and scour the Internet. Some ideas will fall by the wayside usually because there’s not enough available information or the information that’s out there is obviously unreliable. More often than not, what I had thought was a golden find isn’t as promising as I’d hoped.
But other ideas get better with time. The more I look into the subject, the more possibilities I see for creating a great read. I get excited. I can visualize my finished book, even the cover art. The source material turns out to be better than I expected. My vision for presenting it will make it spell-binding, a page-turner, a bestseller!
Then reality sets in. When the giddiness wears off, I start to see problems. (There are always problems.) The story in my mind is great, but the source material isn’t quite as complete as I need it to be. There are insufficient records of people and events to fill the narrative tapestry I want to create. Now I start to get nervous. I fear that, like Mr. Hyde, the novelist in me will take over. I’ll take too many liberties in telling the story. I then start to hear critics in my head roasting me over hot coals for making things up. It’s one thing to say John Wilkes Booth, for instance, drank his coffee with cream and sugar when there’s no record of how he took it or if he even drank coffee. In that case, no harm done. What difference does it make, really. It’s unlikely that his beverage preferences would have changed the course of history. But if the writer has Booth talking to contemporaries when there’s no record of such meetings, or thinking thoughts the man never wrote about or told anyone else about, the writer is skating on very thin ice.
This is when the BIG DECISION has to be made: do I write it as fiction or non-fiction? Now contrary to what many people believe, historical fiction does not by definition mean bullshit. Sometimes a good writer can reach deeper levels of truth using common sense and the probability of events to connect the dots he wishes he’d found in his research. If the writer can limit the what-ifs and concentrate on the things that probably did happen, he might produce a compelling and worthwhile read. BUT in all likelihood it won’t be taken as seriously as a work of non-fiction. In fact it might be passed off as fanciful fluff no matter how much research and honest effort went into it.
Even though Mario Puzo based many of the characters in The Godfather on real-life gangsters, no one reads that book as a treatise on the Mafia. It’s a great story, colorful and well told, but any glimpses of factual Mafia history are bonuses to those reader who recognize them, ingredients that not everyone tastes. Ideally I want my research to give me all the facts I need to to write non-fiction as tasty and satisfying as, say, Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City or Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
So that’s where I am right now and why I’m writing this blog entry to get it off my chest. I have a juicy idea, and I’m casting my research net every day, searching for more material to let me realize this idea as non-fiction. But I’m not coming up with a whole lot of new discoveries. Pretty soon it will be time to consider doing it as a historical novel. Or look for a new idea. Sigh…