My new friend Heidi Thomas is on her blog book tour for her debut novel, Cowgirl Dreams, and she checks in today at Pop Syndicate with a post on the perils of using real people too faithfully in fiction.
It’s territory Heidi knows well. The main character in her book, Nettie, is based on her grandmother, who rode steers in rodeos in the 1920s.
Many of us spend countless hours writing and rewriting a scene “because it’s true.” Or including long paragraphs of statistics, because it’s historical fact and “it’s interesting.”
But is the truth always interesting? Does it serve the action, the forward movement of the story? Does it develop your character into a living, breathing, feeling person that your readers can identify with?
I found I had to give myself permission to “let go of the truth” to write a better story, a stronger character.
I had to laugh at Heidi’s recounting of being told, early on, that she wrote too much like a journalist. (She is one, as am I.) The discipline of short-form journalism can pose some problems when it comes to building characters and emotion, but the benefits are just as formidable: It teaches you to be economical with your words — something that’s useful at 800 words or 80,000 — and to get to the meat of a story quickly.
The best part of Heidi’s post, in my opinion, lies in her counsel to always examine why you’re providing detail or relating an anecdote. Anything that doesn’t propel the story forward should be tossed, no matter how well-written or how much you love it. This is known as killing your darlings, and while it might break your heart, it will fortify your story. Which would you prefer?