“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as much as you please.” – Mark Twain
That quote from one of America’s greatest humorists can apply equally to fiction and news writing in today’s age of distorted facts. It’s getting to the point where you can’t tell the real news from the stuff the reporters seem to make up based on sound bites, rumors and accusations. The new mantra seems to be “I can neither confirm nor deny that I was in any way a party to or had knowledge of this conspiracy which may or may not have happened.” Huh? Watching a press conference reminds me of an old joke—I can tell they’re lying because their lips are moving.
I recently got into a debate with a co-worker at the newspaper where I’m employed as the editor. The subject was how much editing and fact checking we should do on a writer’s assignment before we send it back and request rewrites. I was in favor of doing whatever was needed short of a total make-over, while he was less tolerant. Of course, the fact that I’m the one responsible for meeting a publication deadline never crossed his mind.
As fiction writers, we all take liberties with the facts. That’s why publishers put that nifty little disclaimer at the front of the book, the one about it being a work of fiction. Like many writers of contemporary romance, I tend to get plot ideas from current events or my own life experiences. I rely heavily on that warning, and even consulted an attorney about it once. He informed me that when describing a location, I could use the actual name of the establishment, as long as I didn’t say anything derogatory. For example, I could name the Marriott Key Largo Bay Resort as long as I didn’t say that it was a front for gambling or prostitution. It may very well be, but I can’t make the claim.
The same thing goes with characters. How many times has one of your friends or family members sworn that you based a character on them or someone you both know? It happens to me all the time. Likewise for the things I have my characters doing. Has anyone ever asked you how much of your story is fictional and how much of it is based on personal experiences? Been there and done that, too. I won’t deny that many of the plot twists I use were inspired by an actual life event, but I never give away the store when answering that question. And I flat out refuse to answer if the question pertains to the sex scenes.
Some years ago, I gave an interview to a newspaper in the Florida Keys, which is the setting for my Nick Seven spy thrillers. The reporter gave me a wonderful write-up to promote my latest book, and he sent me the print version when it hit the stands a week later. He also e-mailed the PDF version first so I could get a sneak preview. The original headline was “Former spy finds paradise in Ohio man’s novels.” I was thrilled. When the print copy arrived, they had trimmed the headline to make it fit the page. The new one was “Former spy finds paradise in Ohio,” right above my head shot. I laminated a copy to use at personal appearances, and the reaction I get from people is priceless. They read the headline, see my face, then look up and see me. Their eyes shift back and forth a few times, then someone will invariably ask me if I’m the former spy. I just smile and give a shrug. Sometimes I really have fun by saying “If I answer that question, I’ll have to kill you.”
As a wise old scholar once told me, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Sounds like good advice to me.
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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author of romantic mystery/thrillers and contemporary erotic romance. His website is www.timsmithauthor.com.