THE WINDING PATH TO YOUR TRUTHFUL STORY
by Scott Lax
This coming October I’ll have the privilege of being on faculty for the SCWW Conference. One of my workshops is called “Truthfulness vs. Truth in Fiction: How You Can Write Your Truest Stories Without Losing Your Family, Friends, or Mind.”
While I’d published many nonfiction magazine essays and features, in 1993, when I became a fiction writer, the place I wanted to write about was in a small town, Chestnut Falls, which was loosely based on the village I grew up in, Chagrin Falls, Ohio. I returned to Chagrin Falls in 1998, after being away for twenty years, as my book was being published and I began to produce the feature film based on the novel.
That first story, a Vietnam War coming-of-age story, THE YEAR THAT TREMBLED, takes place in 1970 and 1971. The second novel, VENGEANCE FOLLOWS, takes place in France for a brief time, and then again in Chestnut Falls, in 2007 and 2008.
As a consequence of writing about a place I knew, I needed to parse and recreate the true stories of people I knew – as well as my own true story – in order to create these fictional stories. I created composite characters, as well as characters that were close to the real people upon whom they were based, and completely fictional characters.
Some people from my village were convinced they knew who certain characters were based upon. After the first novel was published, a local newspaper reporter came to my office to interview me.
“I know who Hairball is,” she said, referring to a main character in the book, a kind of musty, gruff-but-good-hearted fellow, who, like the other young men in the novel, is eligible for the draft lottery of 1970. She gave me a name.
She was wrong. I simply replied, “No, Hairball isn’t him.” I hadn’t even considered basing any character on the person she’d guessed.
A few months later, a letter arrived at my office. It was from the sister of the man who had been the real inspiration for Hairball. In real life, he had died right before I started writing the book.
She told me that it was as if I had lived in their house with them, and that I had captured him so well that she felt as if he were there, in the book, alive once more. And she thanked me for honoring him in that way. I was, to say the least, relieved.
Yet, I don’t expect my second novel’s villain, Lee Clayborne – a “lethal sociopath,” as Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Ron Powers called him – to inspire such a letter. Still, that character, too, has led to some to tell me of their own experience with a narcissistic sociopath, or serial abuser. That’s been a different and sadder kind of affirmation, and I will never say who the men are that partially inspired that fictional character.
As a writer, I work hard for truthfulness – which can be deeper than simple truth in fiction – to be the abiding principal of my writing. Only with truthfulness can you shine a light in the darkest parts of human nature, be that war, abuse or murder, and begin to understand it.
What I hope to share with you during our time together in Myrtle Beach are some of the tricks of the trade I’ve used – or developed on my own. They are techniques that have allowed me to write about familiar places and use real people to create a sense of realism in my fiction, but do so without losing friends, or alienating family. (That I know of, anyway.) I hope to help you get to your own truthful fiction without feeling vulnerable to charges of staining someone’s reputation, or damaging a relationship. I’ll try to help you navigate those thorny, winding paths, as you go in search of your story.
Please note: I want to invite you to enter to win signed copies of both my novels. My publisher, Gray & Co., will award ten sets of the novels to randomly selected people among the first 200 to “Like” my Facebook Author’s Page, at this link: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Scott-Lax-Author-Page/636822009718247?ref=hl
Scott Lax is the author of two novels, The Year That Trembled (Gray & Co., Publishers, 2nd Edition, 2013), which was called “Powerful” and named one of 1998’s “Milestones in Fiction” by The Denver Post; and Vengeance Follows (Gray & Co., 2014), about which the Midwest Book Review wrote, “Scott Lax is a master wordsmith of the first order and once again demonstrates his talent and expertise with “Vengeance Follows.’ A minor masterpiece of suspense and human nature, ‘Vengeance Follows’ is a terrifically entertaining read from beginning to end. Very highly recommended.”
Scott, a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Scholar in Nonfiction and Sewanee Writers Conference Fellow in Fiction, has won numerous awards for his fiction, nonfiction and film producing. He has also written a produced full-length play, and is currently at work as the co-writer of the autobiography of famed Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys quarterback, Bernie Kosar, which is slated for publication in 2015.