You’ve seen the movie posters that say Based on a True Story. The smallest amount of research often reveals that the movie is only very loosely based on the vague outline of an actual event that occurred. It’s the way of things. Fiction illuminates the human experience in a way that documentary cannot always do, and so even the best fictionalization of a true story has to take certain liberties to craft a meaningful narrative.
Take the tragic story of Steven Stayner. They made a TV movie about his amazing survival and escape from 7 years of abuse at the hands of the pedophile who abducted him. It was a mostly true adaptation with Steven serving as an advisor. The narrative arc is Steven’s bravery and heroism in finally fleeing his captor in order to save another child from the same fate. Nine years later he died in a random traffic accident, and a decade after his death, his older brother was revealed to be a serial killer. That’s how real life refuses to follow good storytelling practices.
On the other hand, books and media are often touted as Based on a True Story, when at most, they’ve brushed shoulders with a true story on a crowded bus. When fiction is so often necessary to craft a satisfactory arc, what is the attraction of claiming a story is true when it’s at most inspired by actual events? That’s where marketing comes into play. Just as reality TV has become an unholy hot property, so has the “true story” imprimatur become a sales tactic for publishers.
No surprise then that writers respond to readers’ lust for true stories by producing books that they claim are memoirs but are in fact mostly fiction. James Frey was famously outed and publicly shamed for selling his novel as a memoir. People sued and had their money refunded, such was the depth of their sense of betrayal on learning that Frey’s book wasn’t absolute truth. Or even partial truth. I wish I knew someone who’d applied to have their book purchase refunded, because I’d love to hear why.
I consider this now as I continue to try to find a publishing home for a novel that borrows a great deal of inspiration from my own life. Several people have suggested that I might be more likely to sell the book if I played up the autobiographical aspects of it. The thinking seems to be that publishers and readers might be too uncomfortable to read fictional accounts of drug-dealing fathers and romantic relationships between little girls and dangerous men. However, under the broad cloak of Based on a True Story, people would be okay with such uneasy subjects.
For example, informal polling suggests that people who might cringe at reading those old incest classics of V.C. Andrews would feel comfortable reading a “true story” of incest. As a result, readers will snap up books that are touted as based on real events instead of being “merely” fiction. If it’s a true story, you’re reading for edification. If it’s fiction, you’re reading for titillation. Do you agree with that? Are you more likely to read a non-fiction book that has the same basic premise as a novel? Why is that?
I’ve recently discovered that readers are even eager to suss out a novel’s minor details that are drawn from a writer’s life. When people learn that I used to work as a church secretary, they want to know if Olivia, a character in Lie Lay Lain, is me. The answer is no, but certainly a number of the details about Olivia’s experience as a church secretary were inspired by things that happened to me. Conversely, many of my true church stories had to be left out, because they were simply too outrageous for a novel.
It’s the same case with the book I’m still trying to sell. Was my father a drug dealer? Yes. Did he look like Bo Duke and end up murdered? No, he’s alive and mostly reformed in Texas. Was I in a romantic relationship with a much older man when I was just a child? Yes. Did we end up married? No. You see, how stories are woven out of true facts and fiction?
So how true is Based on a True Story? It depends, I suppose on what sort of truth you’re looking for. My guess is that nearly every novel contains a certain amount of true story. All of my novels hold snapshots of my life. Images of things I’ve seen. Snippets of conversation. Parts of people I’ve known. Parts of myself even. That is true.
Also, the offer still stands. If you purchase an advance copy of Lie Lay Lain direct from Stairway Press in December, I will personally send you a guaranteed homemade (but not necessarily guaranteed pretty) holiday card and a signed book plate.