Wednesday, November 4, 2009

It's All Material

John McFetridge

A lot of documentaries these days seem to take a position, a point of view and are very subjective in what ‘facts’ they present. One of the things people look for in fiction is that it be realisitc. So, we seem to want our non-fiction fictional and our fiction as much non-fiction as possible.

In my writing I often use the Christopher Brookmyre school of MSU – Make Shit Up – and I also use a lot of ‘true stories.’ Sometimes the true stories are things I’ve read about, things people have told me or things that have happened to me.

Once I decided I was serious about being a writer I (quite different from deciding to be a writer or trying to write) I realized that, like pretty much anything else, if you’re going to have any success you’ve got to go all out, no working with a net, go big or go home (insert your own cliche here). For writing, I think that means you can’t be afraid of upsetting people, you can’t censor yourself and you’ve got to use anything and everything that will make the story better.

Someone said recently that some people have families but writers only have sources.

There’s some truth to that.

But even with the ‘based on a true story,’ stuff the truth has to be sacrificed for story. Sometimes the truth has to be improved.

If I may, I’ll use an example from my own work. The novel Dirty Sweet is about a guy, Vince, in his forties running an online porn business in Toronto. He has a somewhat mysterious past and it is revealed that when he was 17 he left Montreal and went to Calgary. I was in my forties living in Toronto when I wrote the book and at 17 had gone from Montreal to Calgary. In the book when Vince was 18 and working as a night janitor in a department store the whole cleaning crew is arrested for theft. Again, that was me. In the book Vince was a scared teenager who showed one of the older, tattooed (rare for 1978) guys how to open a back door without setting off an alarm. Me again. Vince gets convicted and spends two years in jail and that’s where the truth had to be improved. I didn’t serve any time (after the first night) as the cops had bigger, tattooed fish to fry and offered me a pretty good deal.

And that’s really where the idea for the book came from. I wondered how different my life would have gone if I had actually done the time. How when I got out I would’ve had trouble getting a job, I may have made friends with some other guys in jail and started to hang out with them when I got out. Maybe I would’ve actually committed more crimes and done more jail time, maybe even ended up in Millhaven Prison in Ontario and then found my way to Toronto.

Now here’s where the story really takes off from the truth – I wondered what all that would have been like if I was a cool guy, composed and able to handle myself. Yeah, then I started to think there may be a story there. How different people react to the opportunities that are presented, how some people can make opportunities out of almost anything and some people wouldn’t recognize an opportunity if it arrested them.

Because when people say, “write what you know,” they’re not talking about facts that you can look up, they’re talking about emotions that you know, aspects of peoples’ personalities that you know, the little bits of human nature you’ve picked up over the years.

And writing is about making all that serve the story. We’ve been talking about Bob Dylan lately and he said it best, everything’s gotta serve some story (or something like that):


Steve Weddle said...

First -- Dylan. Hellz to the yeah.

Second -- I think most writers tend to take something and do the old "what should have happened" or "what could have happened" from a point.
Like when you don't think of the right/clever thing to say until the morning after the party. Most folks think of a good line and regret not saying it. The writer goes back to that point and rewrites it the way it should have gone.
Creating alternate universes, starting with what you know.

By the way, folks, you should read DIRTY SWEET as Vince is part of a cool story.

Dana King said...

I used to do a LOT of research. Now I just look for specifics I need for the story in question. (How does a small town cop get lab work done? What is the prognosis for someone with Parkinson's Disease? Where are the high crime areas of Pittsburgh?) Everything else, I trust the background I have from years of reading and other research and make things up. I find many books that are too thoroughly researched tend to display too much of the research and not enough of the story.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I don't know what I'd do without my husband's family to base stories on.