Using Facts to Write Fiction

Note: This talk was given at the 2022 Logan Writers Festival

At last year’s Logan Writers Festival, I spoke about writing non-fiction and memoir. However, this year I wanted to expand on the research side of writing, and how to use facts to write fiction. Humans are natural storytellers, and there are so many things in our everyday life that can be used to influence our fiction. We just need the right toolkit and know-how to start. 

I want to give you an idea of what I mean by using fact to influence fiction. This is an excerpt from a story I’m working on. It’s called ‘The Skull on the Mantelpiece’, and it’s essentially a ‘screaming skull’ story. It is, however, set in a very real place – Whepstead Manor. Since the house is a character in itself within the story, I wanted to make sure I described it as best as I could. 

“Moorsdale Manor was a large three-storied chamferboard building that sat at the crest of a low hill. The manor had a corrugated iron hipped roof, projecting dormer windows with rounded gables, and a central floor surrounded by a cast-iron balustrade. Two terracotta chimney flues sat atop the roof. What Violet loved the most, however, was the house was encircled with a veranda.” 

The Skull On The Mantlepiece

This is all fact. What I did was look at several photographs of Whepstead Manor and made notes about what I saw. I researched websites, news articles, and fell down countless wikipedia rabbit holes. But with this research, the reader now has quite a vivid image of the setting. They may be able to look up what chamferboard buildings look like to assist with their imagination. They’ll discover chamferboard is a type of weatherboard used for houses built in the 1800’s. They’ll also see pictures of the lavish grounds, which, when used in a story, can set the tone. If it’s horror it might be overgrown and uncared for. If it’s fantasy, it might have topiary fairies or other mythological creatures. It’s all about setting the scene without giving too much away. 

A few months ago, I read a wonderful book called ‘The Museum of Forgotten Memories’ by Anstey Harris, which is about a woman named Cate who looses her husband to suicide, and ends up moving with her teenage son into his family home. When she arrives she discovers it’s actually a quirky natural history museum – the Hatters Museum of the Wide Wide World – however it’s in a terrible financial state, and is about to be closed. What I loved most is the author describes the museum in such intricate detail it’s so easy to imagine the place is real – and this is because it is. In an interview about the book, the author revealed the museum was inspired by the Powell-Cotton Museum, a real museum near where she lives in the UK. 

Several years ago, when Antsey returned to the town, she went to check if the museum was as cool and kooky as she remembered, and while she was there she met Percy Powell-Cotton’s great-granddaughter Susan, who had just arrived from Melbourne to live there. There hadn’t been any family living there since her great-uncle had died some years before, so she upped and left with her partner and two children, to move back to the ancestral home. Antsy got to know Susan and, through that, the behind the scenes life and story of the museum.  

I love stories featuring interesting buildings, like a spooky mansion, a crumbling manor, a run down estate – or in this case museum – in dire need of a revamp, restructure, or makeover. So while the book is mostly fiction, some of it blurs and overlaps with reality, which is such a clever way of blending fact with fiction. Buildings with history, character and a few good secrets suck me in every time. 

I’m going to read another passage from my story, this time focussing on the history of Moorsdale Manor, which is actually the history of Whepstead Manor. As I said, I like interesting buildings!

“Over its lifetime, Moorsdale Manor had been many things – most notable its iteration as a private convalescence hospital from 1943 to 1973. It had also been a restaurant, a seminary, a boarding school, and a hall used to hold extravagant dinner parties for foreign dignitaries, government officials, and military officers. During its many transformations, many distant Moore family members would update their records to preserve their family history. As such, three of them worked as tour guides when the house was opened to the public outside its usual occupation.”

The Skull On The Mantlepiece

So this is where I’ve used facts to breathe life into the fictional house. The factual information establishes it as a house rich with history, a place perfect for exploring and uncovering secrets. A place perfect for a mystery story. Now I’m going to give a little more information on how my main character ended up in the house. 

“Violet bought the house after a substantial lottery win and a large divorce settlement. She was the great-great-great-granddaughter of Gilbert Moore, a small proprietor who had commissioned the building of the house as a sugar plantation and sawmill in 1889. As it had been sold out of the family due to insolvency twenty years prior, she’d had to negotiate with the standing owner, who’d sold it to her on the condition their children could marry on the property free of charge. They’d been using the manor as a wedding venue and restaurant for several years. Violet had been more than happy to comply – at twenty-nine she was the proud owner of a heritage-listed estate, and, if she were industrious, would never want for money again.”

The Skull on the Mantlepiece

So I’ve created this character who has found herself living in this house which had gone through so many transformations – this is where the mystery story could turn into a ghost story, because of all the different people who resided there. Besides, there are plenty of actual ghost stories surrounding Whepstead Manor, so by linking the real house with my fictitious house, I’ve established it’s a place where strange things are bound to happen. 

What I love about using fact in fiction is that you can explore events that actually took place, experienced by actual real people. As the writer, you are essentially handed the facts, and it’s your job to find the story within them and tell it as true as you can, without it actually being true at all. You’re also able to make ideas and information that already exists more interesting and often more accessible. Rejuvenate, revitalise, and turn factual places, people, or events into something more. All you need to do, as the writer, is ensure the reader can’t see the joints, that there is no textural change between reliable fabric and fabrication. In other words, the issue is not one of accuracy but aesthetics. 

One of the issues I believe people face when using fact within fiction is when you say ‘this is true’ or ‘this happened to me’, you enter into an invisible contract with the reader. The reader buys into the world differently when they are told: listen up, this is true. Some readers feel betrayed, even violated, by writers who use the word ‘true’ (or other words that connote truth-telling e.g. memoir) to mean ‘some of this is true, but other bits are made up’. So it’s up to you as the writer to ensure you don’t cross the line between too much fact and not enough fiction. There’s a finite balance between the two, and you need to ensure it doesn’t wobble too much either way. There needs to be an established equilibrium, which is something Anstey Harris did so well with ‘The Museum of Forgotten Memories’. 

Just like Anstey Harris did with her museum, Anne Rice did with her beloved 1239 First Street House. For those who haven’t read her novels, the Mayfair Witches series is set in the historic Brevard House, a real place Rice once owned and lived in. It is a colonial-style villa, a gorgeous Greek revival surrounded by a large garden with a pool and has ten bedrooms, several living rooms and bathrooms. In the books, the historic house is the ancestral home for the Mayfair family and their generations of male and female witches. While the factual construction was by James Calrow and Charles Pride in 1857, the fictional construction of the Mayfair mansion was commissioned by Katherine Mayfair. The Mayfair Witches books feel so real because of the fact Anne actually lived in the house. She knew it inside and out. 

Another issue I believe people face when using fact in fiction is deception. But I don’t think this is always intentional. For example, adding colour to a black-and-white photo—unless the technique is obvious or labelled—is a deception. Digitally removing an element in a photo, or adding one or shifting one or reproducing one—no matter how visually arresting—is a deception, completely different in kind from traditional photo cropping, although that, too, can be done irresponsibly. It’s the same with writing. Unless you’re writing straight non-fiction or memoir, you’re not trying to deceive the author. Your aim is to either base something fictional on fact and go from there. Obviously, a family of witches don’t live in the Mayfair house. And Antsy Harris herself never lived in the museum. However, by the fantastic, in-depth way both Rice and Harris described these places, it’s easy to let your imagination run wild and think maybe, in a way, these stories could be true? 

Before you go falling down rabbit holes, if you are interested in using fact within your fiction, I want to set you a challenge. Firstly, before I even begin to write my story, I list the real topic or place I want to set my story, and essentially make a mind map. While mindmaps make it easy to spot unfinished plot points or dangling threads in your story, it’s also a great way to jot down ideas about real places. Your challenge is to set your story here, at the Logan Artists Association. Firstly, you could find out facts about the building, and the land for your mindmap. 

When researching, I discovered the association was established in the 1980’s by a small group of local artists and potters called the Logan Creativity Group. In 2006, they transformed the disused Loganlea Progress Hall into the Logan Artists Association Art & Pottery Studios. However, I couldn’t find information about who built the place, who built the yarning circle, or why there’s a little seating area in the bush up those stairs. This is where your imagination comes in. Perhaps your story could be about a person who assisted with building the hall, and who died in a mysterious accident, and now haunts the yarning circle? Maybe there’s always paranormal activity going on in the seating area? Maybe the yarning circle is like the stones from ‘Outlander’? There are so many possibilities! All you have to do is the research.

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