The Fine Line Between Fact and Fiction: How to cover our tracks while writing from what we know

Overcoming the intersections between fiction and fact

While the old adage ‘write what you know’, commonly attributed to American author Mark Twain, has become something of a cliché, it is also true that even when we write from our imagination we use our life experience to inform the imaginative worlds we invent. However, when we consciously incorporate the world we know into our fiction, we often come across difficult intersections between the fictional world we are creating and the factual world we are borrowing from. This is especially true when we are writing the painful experiences of others into our fictional world. There are many ways in which we can end up encountering contentious crossroads between real and imaginary worlds when writing fiction.

My understanding of the fine line between fact and fiction comes as a result of teaching creative writing for many years, plus writing historical fiction set in Australia as well as my recent fictional memoir set in 1980s Melbourne. I have also travelled to Thailand and Burma over the last twelve years to run writing workshops that help women refugees and activists write about their personal experiences. Over this time, I have developed ways to write an uncompromising story while ensuring the wellbeing of the people we might have based our characters on.

In this workshop we will discuss aspects of storytelling that can assist us as writers to cover our tracks. Through discussions of building character, point-of-view, sense of place and plot, we’ll look at ways to bridge the fine line between fact and fiction while continuing to write stories that touch the lives and hearts of our reading public.   

Outline of workshop

  1. Introductions
  2. Brief overview and discussion of:
  • Examples of fiction that uses fact as its basis.
  • How to build fictional characters based on people we know.
  • Point of view and how it influences the framing of out story.
  • Building plot around difficult material.
  • Importance of a sense of place.
  1. Activity: Write a paragraph about someone you know.
  2. Activity: Sharing your paragraph with others.