Taking the Bull by the Horns

Novels are an author’s bread and butter. Yet, for most of this year, I’ve made little to no progress on a trilogy based loosely on certain events from my life. Other commitments have been part of the problem, but the bigger issue has been my inability to separate fact from fiction.

Writing pure fiction is a process of adding to a blank slate to define characters, set the scene, and advance the plot. Inspiration may come from many sources, but the events and characters are made up. Add more details, throw in plot twists, rearrange a few things, perhaps cut a bit here and there, and voila, a novel.

Basing a story on something that really happened, whether an historical event like the Stonewall Uprising or something from my life, means sticking to a particular set of facts. Writing stories true enough for government work is my claim to fame. A desire to get things right can sometimes be my undoing.

My knowledge of historical events, fortunately, is limited by my research. Sorting through sources to figure out how the Stonewall Riots went down produced a ton of notes for Happy Independence Day. On the plus side, every single detail I’d discovered filled about half the pages of a legal pad.

No such limit exists for stories based on something from my life. Everything that ever happened to me and all the people I’ve ever known, though part of my personal story, are largely irrelevant to any particular story I want to write. Rather than adding details, figuring out what to subtract for an interesting work of fiction with a reasonable cast of characters is a huge challenge.

In Until Thanksgiving, lots of details about Josh’s life — his apartment, the bars and restaurants he visits, even some of the people he encounters — mirror my experience in DC. There’s a fine line between writing what I know and showing off my memory. Rather than tossing in enough information to set the scene, I wanted to include every detail I could remember. Fortunately, my critique group reined me in when I’d gone too far from the story.

I realized what I’d been doing as I was writing After Christmas Eve — a work of pure fiction set too far from reality for much help from my memory. Instead of showing off what I knew with lots of details, I focused on the story, obscuring what I wasn’t sure about with vague and generic descriptions. The surprise was how often this worked. Turns out, readers don’t need every detail to be able to set the scene. Doh!

Diagnosing my problem with the trilogy was a huge step forward. The solution is learning to draw from my life without tripping all over the details and getting too autobiographical. Until I can harness my memories without being shackled by what really happened, tackling a trilogy based on my life is more than I can handle.

Separating fact from fiction is only part of the problem. Writing about my life is one thing. It’s mine. I’m allowed. Writing about the people in my life is a different matter. Delving into family relationships in a work of fiction based on my life is particularly challenging. Rather than basing fiction on my life, I need to draw on my experiences and relationships for inspiration.

I’m thinking maybe my next novel will be about a guy living in Lexington, Kentucky in 1979 who knows he’s gay, but hasn’t yet told anyone or done anything about it. That makes him not me. I had no idea I was gay until a friend dragged me to a gay bar. The main character attempts to live a double life. That’s not me, either. I was straight one day and gay the next — but did bounce back and forth a few times before committing to team gay.

Rather than being based on my life, the story will be inspired by a time in my life. I don’t have to worry about what really happened, because the goal is more to show how things were for gay people in one-bar towns and what coming out was like when we had few allies and supporters. It was the best of times, and the worst of times — which I suppose describes being twenty-something for just about everyone.

Anyway, I’m calling it Blades of Bluegrass. Although I haven’t lived in Lexington for nearly twenty years, I still have lots of friends and family there. Most will buy my book — just to see if they’re in it. They’ll hunt me down if I get something wrong, too. Trust me.

4 responses to “Taking the Bull by the Horns”

  1. Memories…interesting. I get fascinated with how we remember things. It can be tricky sometimes. I wonder if it could be said that memoirs, like history, are written by survivors? A lot of my art is based on memory. Good post, Michael, and looking forward to the book.