Thursday, April 7, 2011

Ghosts & Writing Fiction

By E.J. Copperman
E.J. Copperman is the author of the Haunted Guesthouse Mystery series, which began last year with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEED, and continues now with AN UNINVITED GHOST. The paranormal/comedy/mystery follows Alison Kerby, a divorced single mom who buys a Jersey Shore Victorian to turn into a guesthouse and finds it haunted by two very opinionated ghosts. In AN UNINVITED GHOST, Alison investigates the murder of an octogenarian in her house and has to deal with a reality TV crew who invades her home to film its new season.
I have a friend who is a very famous journalist and has been for a good number of years. (I’m not dropping names here because I’m not a name dropper, but the fact is, it’s all over my new book An Uninvited Ghost, published last Tuesday.) And when she decided to dip her toes in the concept of fiction, she called up one day to ask a question, not because I’m the next Kurt Vonnegut, but because I have, in fact, written fiction before.
She said she was setting her story in a region that had conflicting legends about it, and the origin of those legends would play a part in her intricate plot. But given all the research she’d done on the area, and the great number of possibilities the local folklore had to offer, my friend was stumped—how to proceed when you don’t know what’s true?

“It’s fiction,” I reminded her. “Use the one that works best for your plot.”
This was a revelation to my friend. She didn’t have to go with every fact she found; she could make stuff up! Professional (and terrific writer) that she is, she has not looked back and is still typing away, as far as I know. I’m waiting to see which legend she chose.
The point is to indulge the cliché—never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Yes, research adds authenticity, and you don’t actually want to make errors that will take a reader out of the story and ruin all your good work. But there’s a reason our stuff is shelved in the Fiction section, and we should embrace that concept and lie like rugs whenever possible.

“This is the West, Senator,” says a newspaperman in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. “When the legend becomes truth, print the legend.”
I’m not a huge fan of research, although I do what I need to do in order to keep my story at least seem realistic. But I’m writing about a woman who lives in a house with two ghosts who can change their clothes at will (and no, I don’t know why they might want to), float through solid objects, manipulate other solid objects and in general do whatever I’ve decided they should be able to do—or not—depending on what suits my story.
Forgive me if this intrudes on your sensibility, but I’m not going to talk to everyone who has ever claimed to feel the presence of an undead spirit just to find out what their experience might have been. My character Alison Kerby is going to have her experiences with ghosts. I don’t want them based in fact.
So if you’re writing a story and you can’t decide which legend to use, remember: It’s fiction. Use the one that fits your story best.
And if someone complains after the book has been published, remember this: It’s been published. That’s got to stand for something.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reminding us we can fudge a little on details. Makes things so much easier.

Tiffany0227 said...

Thanks for posting this. It really clears up some things for me. I have never written a book but I am starting on my first book and I have my character traveling and I didn't know whether I could make stuff up about the places she stops at or if I should research the places.

E.J. Copperman said...

Just to be clear: I'm not saying, "Go ahead and get stuff wrong; it doesn't matter." I'm saying, "If there's a choice and you don't know what's 100% accurate, serve your story first." But remember, it was H.H. Munro, who wrote under the name Saki, who said, "Sometimes a little inaccuracy saves a ton of explanation."

Leann Sweeney said...

I like the research involved in writing fiction, but I must say, often the pages and pages I read end up as just a broad brush stroke in the book. Yes, never let the facts get in the way. Thanks for reminding me! And thanks for stopping by, E.J! We love having your blogs.

Sheila Connolly said...

I hear you. Since I use a "real" town as the basis for my Orchard series, I have trouble changing things, although I'll admit to moving a major state highway a couple of miles.

Go with what works for the story--as you say, it's fiction. There will be two people in the world who read the book and point out your mistakes, and the rest will never know.

I believe in spirits, too.

Heather Webber said...

Making up stuff is one of the best parts of the job. I relied on this A LOT for my new witch series, but also did a ton of research. Balancing is the key.

NoraA said...

E.J. I loved Deed's and am chalishing over the time it's taking to get my copy of Uninvited from Bookdepository. To be quite honest, I'm also hoping that one day your BFF does well enough that he can pick up a contract for his double features book. I miss the characters.

Deb said...

I really needed this reminder. Sometimes I really do let facts get in the way.

Prairiedog said...

For me, it's fiction, it's entertainment, it's thought provoking, it's fun to read! Thanks for all the writing you do, ladies. Karen

Mary Jane Maffini said...

Good advice, E.J. I like to change the names to protect the guilty (often that's me) because in the communities I write about, they all seem to have their lawyers on speed dial. Just sayin'

So glad to see your new book hit the stands! Can't wait to read it. That's the truth.

E. said...

I was just having this conversation the other day with my boyfriend. He can't believe that I like to make up my own versions of legends when I write. I told him, sweetie, that's the whole point of fiction. Thank you so much for understanding!

E.J. said...

I remember reading a spy thriller novel, a good number of years ago, and at one point, the hero is going to the Kremlin. And the author stops to tell us how many steps there are up to the main entrance of the Kremlin. I remember the number of steps (21), but I don't remember anything else about the book. That tells me something. It took me out of the story and was, for me, an example of an author showing off how much research he'd done.

P.S. Nora: Jeff tells me he misses the Double Feature gang, too. Maybe someday...

Aurian said...

Keep writing your fiction ladies, and I will read it, and won't ever know what is true and what is not. As long as I enjoy my books, everything is fine with the world :)

Shushan said...

hehe Love that sentiment, Aurian.

For myself, I prefer the background 'facts' even in fiction to be right when possible, but I do know that fiction means that EJ is right, and the story must come first.

Since the stories I have shared thus far have been very fantasy-ish, I haven't had to worry about this issue, but I appreciate hearing your take on it, as I have been working on a mystery or two. Good thoughts!

Dru said...

As long as it's entertaining, I'll keep reading. Just opened the cover on your book and will begin to read on my subway ride home.

Ellery Adams said...

I'm with Aurian. I don't want to know. Let me get lost in fiction. Real life is challenging enough, no?

Thanks for guesting today, EJ. LOVE your books!

Skye said...

Love your posting and a great reminder to all of us, if it's fiction, its fiction...We should just get on the train and enjoy the ride...I'm reading your first book now and thoroughly enjoying it..Skye

Anonymous said...

E.J., I just picked up your latest and realized that I hadn't read your first one so picked that one up also.

Will you be at Malice this year? It's in 3 weeks and I can hardly wait!!!

Shirley in Baltimore

Maggie Sefton said...

Hey, Jeff---It's good to hear from you. Your new series sounds great. That's a great cover---and I love that cat. --eg--

Griperang/Angela said...

I just picked up Night of the Living Deed at the bookstore last week. I can't wait to get to reading it.

E.J. Copperman said...

Hi, Shirley. Yes, I'll be at Malice. I'm on a panel at 8:45 Saturday morning (yikes!) on ghosts in mysteries, or something like that. Drop by!