Writing: Truth in Fiction

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I want to tell you guys a story. It’s about German-born pianist Hans Wegener.

In 1939, when he was only 24 years old, Wegener was recognized as one of the greatest concert pianists in the country. Leaping into the gap provided by the absence of many Jewish entertainers, he was able to rise quickly to prominence, playing in the grandiose style of the nationalist movement.

He was heavily favored for private parties, in fact, by many key members of the Nazi party, including Goebbels and Seyss-Inquart and, on occasion, Hitler himself. It was Goebbels, the great propagandist, who said of the man: ‘only at (Wegener’s) fingertips do the German people return to their old musical might.’

What none of them knew: Hans Wegener was also a British spy. He had been feeding the British intelligence through letters to his mother, a British national, since Hitler’s ascent in 1933.

There are many stories about Wegener, but the one I’m interested in telling here is the one that ended his career: the story of his concert at the reintegration of Danzig, after the Polish campaign that would later prove to be the beginning of WWII, into Germany.

Wegener played a legendary four hours that night. He played for the German military leaders of the campaign, including General Heinz Guderian, all of whom were flushed with success. He played classical songs of German composers long dead, nationalist tunes churned out by Gobbels’s famous propaganda machines, and, as the night wore on and the military leaders grew drunker, maybe just a little swing, just a little jazz.

What none of these peacock-proud generals realized: as Wegener played, Wegener’s luggage was making the rounds.
When Wegener and his twelve suitcases, previously full of outfits for every occasion on the front, left by train in the morning, he was not headed back to Germany. He made it, in fact, all the way back to London before anyone realized something was wrong.

Wegener, realizing the outbreak of war was now inevitable, had gotten himself to the safe harbor of England as soon as he could. With him, hidden in his suitcases, were twelve Polish children of Jewish descent. Over the course of the war, Wegener would apply for and be granted British citizenship, and adopt all twelve of the children. He never returned to Germany again, but made music on several occasions for British high command.

Why am I telling you this, you might wonder? Am I about to make some sort of moral point about the bewitching value of music, the blind eye even the most choking of dictatorships often turns on its artists and writers?

No. I told you this whole story, in fact, because it is a big fat lie. It’s bullshit. It’s fibbery, frippery, etc. And the theme of our Writing Day is, in fact:

WRITING: HOW TO LIE WELL

This might not seem important to you. It might not even seen moral. But trust me: if you want to write fantasy/sci-fi, you want to lie like Chikikiri, silver-tongued folk hero of the Himalayan Montep people. There is an art and a science to lying well. And it is the same art and science you should take to worldbuilding.
We’ll explore this in five parts:

1) Tone.
Let’s look at this story. A British spy in the German intelligentsia, a concert pianist, children smuggled from the Eastern front in suitcases. It’s not a real story–there was no such person as master pianist Hans Wegener–but the elements sound like a lot of WWII stories out there. Unlikely heroes, simple people doing their part, a great bolshy nationalist regime. We’ve all seen some of the movies this lie takes its tone from–The Pianist and Inglorious Basterds are two more recent ones that come to mind. (And there was, for your edification, a British man who smuggled a lot of Jewish children out of Eastern Europe in a similar fashion–check out his real story, which is much more inspiring than my fake one, here).

So we’ve managed this: creating a lie that feels the same as the truth, or at least what the general public sees as the truth. And, when you’re writing up your fictional world, this should be your first step: setting up a TONE. Is your world a heraldic one, icy and Vikingesque and brave? Is it a Byzantine courtworld, full of trickery and subtle deception? Study up on the real life places your world resembles. Get the feel of them. Because, lemme tell you, you need to keep to tone. If you don’t do this, in fiction or in lies, your whole story falls apart. People like a story, even if it’s supposed to be true, and can sense when the facts fall out of kilter even if they weren’t facts at all. So learn tone. TONE. TONE.

2) A Little Bit of Truth
Some things in this lie were absolutely factual. The Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, and the campaign was begun, through some lovely German lie-spreading, over the Germans wanting the Polish city of Danzig ‘back’. Goebbels was the prime-time man for German propaganda, and there WAS a great demand for German musicians after Hitler’s ascension in 1933 (due to the dearth of Jewish entertainers. Hmm, wonder why.). There WERE some German national spies for Britian in Germany at the time of the Reich, and musical interest in such ‘degenerate’ things as swing and jazz were discouraged heavily.

A WWII historian could probably take me apart like a mover trashing IKEA furniture, but the likelihood of the person I’d tell this to BEING one is relatively small. Therefore, in conversation: worth the risk. I once told Definitely Not Dave, a native Bostonian, that the town of Chapel Hill was founded by Mennonite dissenters Jebediah Chapel and Isiadore Hill in 1789. If he didn’t believe me, he could check out the Statue of the Founders on Estes Drive. To DND’s credit, he only believed me for about five minutes, but what made it work is the little bit of truth–being from Boston, he wouldn’t know the story of Chapel Hill from Adam, or the fact that there may not be a single Mennonite in the state–but there IS an Estes Drive, and he knew there was, and this is absolutely the sort of tiny snotty town that would have a Statue of the Founders somewhere.

There should be basic truths to your story, and you should deploy them with care and attention. In my novella The King’s Might, everybody swears by the Allking, a man named Telhir who came down from the Northern mountains some six thousand years ago. The swears are scrupulously footnoted and explained. The history of the swears, in fact, gives a history of the nation–and the built myth of the folk-hero Telhir explains a lot about the people.

3) But Not Too Much Truth
However, if you drown the reader in detail, your story will be JUST as unconvincing as it would if you included none. We don’t need to know Hans Wegener’s height, his hair color, his just-ended relationship with a rotund but fetching cafe waitress. We don’t need to know a TON about the German invasion of Poland, the history of British intelligence in Germany. I may’ve even been stretching it with what I DID add in there.

A good reference point: what do you think people will WANT to know? In the lie’s case, background information is added because the reader might not actually know some of it. (Polish invasion date, bit of background on Reich’s musical history, etc). Some is added for flavor and character (Herr Wegener’s suitcases, his age, the Germans possibly listening to forbidden jazz) and some is added for faux authenticity (my fake Goebbels quote). So there you go: EDUCATION, FLAVOR, and AUTHENTICITY. The three things your worldbuilding should provide for your readers.
And, last but not least, though we’ve touched on it a bit already:

4) Know Your Audience.
I’m trusting you’re probably not a WWII buff, when I tell you this lie–though I’ve provided enough care in my lying to cover myself if you’re a dabbler. I’m trusting you aren’t into British Intelligence. I’m praying, PRAYING, you aren’t a Nazi sympathizer.

In a low-profile writing blog, my chances are pretty good. When I told DND the story of Jebediah Chapel and Isiadore Hill, because he was from Boston and not an NC native, my chances were pretty good.

When you’re building your world, what do you THINK your audience would want to hear about? Do they need a lot of this world’s history to understand the plot? Or will they be more interested in the theory of magic? Customs of love, childbirth, and marriage? People pay more attention to things they want to hear.

And, lastly for really reals this time:

5) Know more than you use.
I actually learned quite a bit, to tell you this lie. I learned about the Eastern Front during WWII, the German occupation of Poland, got a good general Reich timeline going, learned some great stories about British heroes of WWII, and found out who the FUCK Heinz Guderian was. Did I use all of it? No. Because, again, Rule Three. Too much fact ruins a lie just the same as it ruins a story. But the facts guide you. They show you where the story SHOULD be going. And they’ll do the same for your fictional world–you might only need to MENTION the Brondisian War, but you should damn well know who fought it, what it was fought for, the rough shape of it, and who lost and gained what. Otherwise, you don’t know WHY it was mentioned. And this is the sort of lack of understanding, the sort of communication breakdown, that kills a story.

Because people might not know how much you know, or what precisely it is. But trust me–when you don’t know these things, it comes though in your writing.

There y’go: how to lie. Sorry for the long post, guys.
EFR

PS–Just to be clear: I am not encouraging you to lie about anything that matters. That’s, frankly, despicable. But a few tall tales here and there, lying for the aesthetic art of lying? It’ll be good for you. Promise.

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9 thoughts on “Writing: Truth in Fiction

  1. You totally had me until you said it wasn’t true. 🙂 Great points. I’ve heard it said that these kinds of elements are what made Da Vinci Code so successful – it contained just enough truth for fundamentalists to get their panties in a wad, which made it controversial.

    1. And what made it controversial made it successful. 😛 I getcha.

      I mean, when you think about it, a lie’s just a story. The better liar–the more convincing liar–is usually the better storyteller, because that person is able to manipulate what their audience expects to hear and what they WANT to hear and mix it with what they know to be true. A good story does the same thing, only we call it, ironically, ‘making the story believable’.

      I just made storytelling sound downright sinister. Heh. Thanks for dropping by. Muahaha. *twirls moustache*

  2. This post was fantastic. I knew your bit was fiction before I read it, but it was so good, I actually didn’t care – it was a good tale. Also, thank you for sharing all of this insight, I enjoyed it immensely. It certainly helps me to think about how to revise what I’m working on now, and how to continue on into the next book.

    1. Oh, no. Don’t tell me you’re a WWII buff! And here I was thinking the odds were in my favor for a good ol’ WWLIE. 😛 Probably didn’t help that I titled the post ‘truth in fiction’ either, eh?

      I’ve always found it’s helpful to think of a story as a lie–sure helps you get it straight. glad to hear it’s helping you as well.

  3. Hey Frussel! Liked your comments on Dave’s blog, so I followed the bread crumbs over here and found this post! Outstanding.

    You had me fooled on that – I was thinking, “I’ve never heard of this guy, or the story, sounds like something some screenwriter would totally grab” and then, and then, and then I got to the end! It was all a dream. Or a convincing lie.

    There are some excellent points here about tone which leads to the whole show don’t tell debate, and it is a debate, and a windy one where I suspect the Showers have won over the Tellers. Otherwise we’d hear “Tell, don’t show” but we don’t so it’s not a valid point even though it might be. We obviously need to include enough material in to make the story valid. The $50 word was verisimilitude and willing suspension of disbelief. It’s like watching a movie with awesome acting but terrible costuming/sets. We can’t get by those flaws to look at the story itself and buy in. Other movies have fantastic sets and costumes, but the story itself is a steaming pile. What to do?!

    And that leads us back to Infodump. Doe, a deer, a female deer.

    Maybe an infosprinkle is more what we’re looking for. A few facts here, a few facts there, not too much, let the reader do the heavy lifting of figuring out what the characters are talking about — it’s good for them and builds character. In the reader, that is.

    1. Hey there, pontiuscominius! I’ve seen you around on Dave’s blog as well. Good to see you here too.

      Oh, Showing vs. Telling. I need to do a blog on that soon…don’t think I have yet, amazingly. My feelings on that are definitely tinted by the giggleworthy fact that, if you’re writing a story in the first place, you are, by strict definition, telling even when you ARE showing. Anyway, sorry, just had to crush that fourth wall for a second.

      I like the term ‘infosprinkle’. In addition to being rather evocative, it’s precisely what I meant: sow a few seeds, leave some room for the imagination. I think people actually read FOR those ‘heavy lifting’ moments you mention–or, more accurately, those moments are what keep them reading. After all, if you don’t have a few pieces to put together, what’s there to keep you interested? A reader, like the lied-to party in the case of Herr Wegener, needs a few solid points to relate to, to reassure them, to extrapolate on and conjecture off of. Beyond that, it’s sometimes best to let folks come to their own conclusions. If you do it well, their conclusions will resonate with yours.

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