What’s Creative, What’s Fiction?

I’ve rounded the bend on my next novel, “Neelie’s Truth,” with the publication date in sight on the horizon.

I’ve been thinking about how my early life inspired the story.

 Neelie James, of my book, lives in a town much like where I grew up.  Her story is not mine–it’s not anyone but hers. Neelie sprang fully formed from my imagination.

When my book is published this spring, there are those who will say “I didn’t know that happened to you.” It didn’t. In the past I’ve written about a woman who was an opera singer. Friends said “I didn’t know you sang opera.” I don’t. I did, however, do a heck of a lot of research about voice training.

While most writers are inspired by people or incidents in their lives, we create myth. Otherwise, we are just writing sort-of true, sort-of not, stories. Creative nonfiction doesn’t mean altering a true story; it can mean filling in the blanks. Think about the versions of the sinking of the Titanic. We will never know with full certainty what it was like for those who perished. There are survivor accounts and first person accounts. No one would suggest changing any of those. That which was lost to the cold dark depths of ocean has been resurrected twice on screen. Creative nonfiction.

If you read John Irving‘s novels, some may recognize both the New England town where he grew up and the private school he attended. I’m sure that his classmates and neighbors might contest some of his characterizations–but Irving is writing fiction. He gets to create his own world. It’s not quite like the great J.R.R. Tolkien or J.K.Rowling fabulous worlds, but the fictional landscape originates in the mind of the writer.

Sometimes writers will use the name of a real person, as a sort of homage. The master of hard-boiled detective stories, Micky Spillane, used the name of Arthur Rickerby, who was at the time a LIFE photographer. They met over a photo shoot and Micky admired Arthur. Years later, Arthur’s widow (and good friend of mine) still loved telling the story of Arthur in a Spillane novel. In my novel October Run, I borrowed the name of my dear friend, pediatrician Paul Gustafson, for the pediatrician who helps a wounded teenager. Paul was amused; I loved giving him a shout-out.  Pediatricians do the work of angels, with so little recognition.


Neelie’s Truth has no borrowed names–no real people. In fact, the characters came to me with names attached–always a good sign, I think. They stepped into my life with their own stories, living in a town very much like where I grew up. And not much like the small town where I now live, though I’ve borrowed this local scene as my own personal inspiration. For those who knew me when, I’m preparing to say: “it’s a novel; it’s fiction.”

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