The first question people generally ask me about my novel, HER SISTER'S SHADOW, is, "Do you have sisters?" I don't. The story is not autobiographical. It is fictional. Some elements in the story, however, are not.
My mother had sisters and lived in a big house overlooking Sandy Cove on Boston's South Shore. This served as the inspiration for my novel. The rest of the story I culled from my imagination. Or so I believed. (Authors of fiction often hear from readers, "That exact thing happened to me." Or, "The new house in the empty lot? That's mine!" as one of my readers told me. Both the house and empty lot I thought I had made up.)
Much of what fiction writers imagine begins with observation and investigation. If I don't remember what a yacht club looks like inside, I go look at one. Then I change details to accommodate my story. Like most writers, I carry a notebook in which I jot down unusual outfits, novel settings, and off-beat ideas or exchanges. All are non-fiction, right? But, if I put that odd outfit on someone else; relocate the street, beach house, or meadow; attribute the comment to a fictional character, do they then become fiction?
"Lie like an eye-witness," I read somewhere and now pass along to the students in my memoir classes. I tell them that it is okay to make up certain details, even dialogue, so long as the author stays true to the "facts," i.e., the events as she remembers them. One of my students was writing about a childhood summer at her grandfather's farm. There was a calf on the farm. Emboldened by my message, she wrote, "I think her name was Buttercup." In fact, she did not remember the calf's name. Did that matter? Not to me. As long as her grandfather had a farm and on that farm there was a calf, giving the calf a name only increased my enjoyment and allowed me to form an even clearer mental image. Thus was born "The Buttercup Principle."
But I sometimes wonder how many Buttercup moments a book of non-fiction can have before it should be classified as fiction? And how much of one's fiction has to be "made up" to qualify as fiction?
Where do you think the line should fall between fiction and non-fiction? And why does it matter?
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