When I worked for the Sheriff's Department in Fresno, I created a saying and put it on a rolling banner as a screen saver: “A Writer Reinvents the Truth.”
This was never more accurate than when I wrote my first book, FOOLS RUSH IN. I took the first case I worked as a secretary for an undercover narcotics team and fictionalized it to include a kidnapping, two murders and a budding romance.
On August 13, I was invited to speak to a book club three hours away on the Pacific coast. Summer means 100+ degree weather for days on end in the Central Valley of California. Any excuse for a trip to the coast is a good one.
What was different about this event was that the detective I wrote about, “Wolfe” in my book, came with me. His mother was hosting the event at her house. She wanted her friends to meet her son just to prove he wasn't the cad I made him out to be in the novel.
Thirty-two women filled the living room, everyone anxious to meet “the author.” An 11” X 14” black and white photo of “Wolfe” greeted them at the front door. It was from his undercover days, and he bore a striking resemblance to Charlie Manson.
The detective surprised me by compiling a photo album of all the characters in my book. Everything I'd written about, from the members of the meth gang to the heroin hype kit that nearly killed my heroine, was there for show-and-tell.
The ladies had read the book and quoted from passages I barely remembered. They used the fictional names of the characters while asking the detective questions. It was a little confusing for him, but he'd read the book as well. It had jogged his memory of details of the 1991 case. I was amazed by how much of the story I had retained while writing the book and how close my descriptions were of the drug dealer's compound. Seeing the photos brought back those memories.
Fictionalizing true events requires a writer to pick details that will make the story “real” to the reader, but it also means leaving details out. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it can lose readers. The drug dealer I wrote about believed he was the reincarnation of the god Thor. There was no way that piece of trivia would show up in my novel!
The relationship between “Wolfe” and Christy was NOT the status of the detective and myself. My writing group insisted on a romantic relationship gone sour, so that's what I wrote. The storyline and tension became stronger. I'm not sure how the detective's wife felt about it, but we assured her it was fiction.
When life gives writers great material, it's important to deliver a novel that is entertaining but also opens up the reader's world. The characters have to come alive, the dialog has to ring true. But, unlike reality, it is the writer's job to elevate the story to more than just a re-telling of events. Fictionalization means bringing in the author's unique and subjective viewpoint, a landscape of words to help readers find truth in their own lives.