Irish Firebrands incorporates many facts I learned in my research about Irish life and thought, although none of the events that occur in the book happened to real persons in the ways they are portrayed; nevertheless, the novel is a true story.
This is because truths are principles and facts are propositions, which are not the same things. Well-written fiction is composed of a seamless combination of truth, untruth, and facts. As a very simple example:
Truth: people love.
Untruth: an account of the lives of fictional lovers.
Facts: the who, what, where, when, why and how, of the expression of love.
The very nature of fiction makes it a lie, but whether or not that’s a bad thing is only a matter of opinion. Moreover, all good fiction testifies to the truth about the human condition.
Even history can benefit from being fictionalized. The following images are of a letter from Rose Wilder Lane to her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House books.” Rose was Laura’s uncredited collaborator on the writing of the series, which seems to be generally regarded as the definitive work about the American pioneer experience. Here Rose presents her position on the role of truth in writing. (Click on the images to enlarge.)
Rose’s observation that there are an infinite number of facts in any situation brings to mind Fractal Geometry, a system of mathematical thought that can be plotted with an infinite number of connected iterations, yielding beautiful patterns. The most famous of these plots is called the Mandelbrot Set, after its discoverer, Benoit Mandelbrot (1924-2010). The illustration at the head of this blog post represents part of a Mandelbrot Set.
Fractal Geometry seems to be a rule of nature, because fractal shapes occur in the growth patterns of many plants. Fractal Geometry is why there is no end to the detail that can be added to a map. Fractals are used to create animated computer graphics that are particularly lifelike.
There also can be a fractal-like quality to writing, regarding such tasks as editing and revising, which can seem to go on forever, because there is always something that could be polished a little more. Writers should do the best they can to produce their best quality work, but eventually there needs to be an end to the design, and the writing has to make its debut.
Research is another aspect of writing that can become like a fractal. Using facts in fiction is important, because facts bring the value of truth to a story, the way the math of Fractal Geometry brings us the beauty of the Mandelbrot Set. But writers must ensure that they don’t become bogged down in research that goes on forever, nor end up trying to include every single detail they learn from their research.
Sensationalism and mud-slinging have no place in good writing, but writers need not avoid the unpleasant facts that turn up in their research: the ones that may take their work into unanticipated fractal-like twists and turns. A little bit of careful sanitizing can go a long way towards making peccadilloes palatable.
Rose was inclined to eliminate a difficult situation that Laura had written about in her memoir, because it didn’t fit with her personal feelings and beliefs. But whatever romanticized notions Rose might have preferred to harbor about the nonexistence of “degenerates” among railroad laborers, the facts remain that some girls have completely mature secondary sexual characteristics by age 12, and some girls are sexually active at that age. Apparently Rose was eventually persuaded to include in On the Shores of Silver Lake the episode about 12-year-old Laura and 14-year-old Lena finding out that a 13-year-old girl got married in Dakota Territory. At least in that case, there may have been more than just “patty-fingers” going on, and the reality may have been that it was a shotgun wedding. In that context, Pa Ingalls’s lecture about his daughters’ need to avoid the laborers made a lot of sense.
Laura was capable of writing bare-bones memoirs, as evidenced by the spare prose of The First Four Years. Rose had professional writing experience, and had learned a few things about fiction, editing, and marketing. The combination of Laura’s factual accounts with Rose’s experience and (tempered) romanticism did make a better product.
Sometimes fictionalizing facts, and using facts in fiction, can bring our writing closer to the truth than just sticking to one or the other.