Memories: A Creative Blend of Fact and Fiction

Many of the posts on this blog are about my memories. My theme, after all, is “one writer’s journey through life and time.” And what is our journey, if not a collection of memories?

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “The Value of a Flawed Memory,” by Sue Shellenberger. The thrust of the article was that even inaccurate memories help shape who we are.

Ms. Shellenberger writes:

“A growing number of researchers say memories are not just a storehouse for facts but also a creative blend of fact and fiction that helps people tell meaningful stories about their lives, set goals and envision the future in a realistic way.

“It is commonly believed that storing a memory is like making a video, but long-term memories are never literal replays. They’re mental constructions of facts, inferences and imagined details that people patch together after the fact.”

A creative blend of fact and fiction. A mental construct patched together of facts, inferences, and imagined details. It sounds so amorphous. Yet this is who we are—this weaving of what really happened, what we think happened, and perhaps even what we wish had happened.

As a lawyer, I saw many examples where two credible witnesses swore that opposite events had occurred—the light was red, no it was green. I have experienced this in my own memories as well, where one family member recalls something one way, and another recalls it completely in reverse.

T 17 mo & M 2 wks

Me at 17 months, and my newborn brother

I have memories that probably are not really memories. For example, my younger brother was born when I was just seventeen months old. It’s doubtful I have any real memory of when he was born. Yet I can feel myself sitting in the chair with him when he was just days old—the shiny chintz of the fabric cover, the soft flannel of his pale blue blanket. And I hear my grandmother telling me what a good big sister I am.

Could this be real? Or did I construct it later from the picture and from the constant retellings of the story by my parents and grandparents?

Does it matter? The Shellenberger article is quite clear—it doesn’t matter. Whether our memories are accurate or inaccurate, real or imagined, psychologists say they shape us. They form our self-identity. They help us set our goals in life. They create cohesion in our lives and help us make sense of the world around us.

So whether I remember my brother’s birth or not, the story became that I was a good big sister.

I write novels (fiction) and memoir (non-fiction). But I keep my novels historically accurate and I embellish my memories in this blog to tell a story. As I wrote in one early post, the French use the same word “histoire” for both fiction and history. Similarly, “mémoire” in French can mean memory or report.

The line between fact and fiction is blurry. Sometimes the blurring just happens. Sometimes we blur it on purpose.

When have your memories turned out to be false? Does it matter?

Storytelling Is Important in Many Professions, Whether Reciting the Facts or Making It Up

A lawyer telling his client's story to the jury

A lawyer telling his client’s story to the jury

Lawyers are supposed to tell a story when they are trying a case. Professors taught me that in law school classes, I read countless columns by James McElhaney in the American Bar Association Journal over the years giving the same advice, and I went to a National Institute of Trial Advocacy training program where we role-played telling our side of the story.

There are websites and law review articles devoted to the notion that lawyers should use fiction-writing techniques in their courtroom arguments and legal briefs. For example:

 “Of course it is all story telling–nothing more. It is the experience of the tribe around the fire, the primordial genes excited, listening–the old warrior, his voice alive, rising with the flames, now whispering away, hinting at the secret–the shivers racing up your back to the place where the scalp is made, and then the breathless climax, and the sadness and the tears with the dying of the embers, and the silence.

. . . [L] awyers must be storytellers. That is what the art of advocacy comes down to–the telling of the true story of one’s case.” [Gerry Spence, How to Make a Complex Case Come Alive for a Jury, 72 A.B.A. J. 62, 63, 64 (1986)]

“In every jury trial the attorneys construct rival stories from testimony and evidence whose meaning is unclear. A trial is a competition over the framing of this ambiguous material: how should the jury interpret the testimony and evidence? And it is also a competition over the authority of the lawyers: whose account of the meaning of this material deserves to be believed.” [Sam Schrager, The Trial Lawyer’s Art 11 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999)]

Not only did my training teach me storytelling, but my legal practice did also. I wrote hundreds of position statements in claims I defended. I drafted affidavits crafting each witness’s role into his or her story. Some were boring recitations of policy. Some were roll-your-eyes tales of stupid human behavior. Some were valiant attempts to improve an employee’s performance. All fed into the story I wanted the ruling body to believe, just as each character’s role in a movie contributes to the whole.

But as an attorney, I had to take the facts as given. I could leave some facts out, but I couldn’t create the stories out of whole cloth. And I had to remember that leaving facts out was risky—the attorney for the other side might well disclose the information at an inopportune moment. It was usually better to control the presentation of the evidence, whenever possible.

what ifNow, as a writer both of fiction and of creative nonfiction, I can include only what I want to. When writing fiction I can make stuff up. I am constrained only by my imagination and by the parameters of the make-believe world I am building. It might be a very realistic world. It might be historically accurate. It might be total fantasy.

Even when writing non-fiction, creative writers have much more leeway than attorneys do. In fact, writers of memoir are often advised to shape their life story to fit their theme. Leave out parts. Combine characters.

As one editor states in telling writers to develop a story arc in their memoirs:

“. . . You may think because your book is based on your real life experiences (memoir), historical events, scientific experimentation, or natural observations that you don’t need a story to write a book. Think again.

. . .

To write non-fiction and memoir is to inscribe, shape and mold facts into a coherent tale. . . .

Writers need to find their story first and then figure out how best to tell it. . . .”

Story is everything, whether we seek to persuade a judge or jury to decide in our favor, or whether we seek to create a satisfying world for our readers. But I do enjoy the freedom to make up the facts.

When have you used a story to persuade in your career?

What Is Story (Redux)? . . . And a Sense of Urgency

My first post on this blog went live in January 2012, but I didn’t start a regular posting schedule until March of that year, so I consider March my blog’s anniversary. This blog is now three years old.

I deliberately set the blog’s theme “Story and History” to be broad enough to let me write about almost anything I wanted. My first post was titled “What is Story?” and began:

This blog is about story and history — my story, the stories in my historical and contemporary writing, and the stories of the world as it was and is.

How am I doing on my plan to write about my story, the stories in my writing, and the stories of the world around me?

My posts deal much more with my family than I anticipated, and less about my writing and about the world as I see it (though I’ve covered a lot of Oregon Trail and Gold Rush history in my posts).

Perhaps I focus on family because of what I’ve had to deal with over the last three years—my mother’s decline due to Alzheimer’s, her death last summer, and my father’s sudden death in January. Perhaps I’ve focused on family because to tell my story necessitates that I write about the people who made me the way I am—which began with family. My story requires writing my own history.

Perhaps I don’t write about my writing, because the last few years have been a struggle to feel productive as a writer. I’ve been on too many boards and committees, and I’ve had too many family issues to spend the creative time writing that I want.

Nevertheless, I have accomplished certain goals in the last three years. When I began this blog, I had not yet published a novel. I accomplished that life goal in late 2013 (under a pseudonym).

Now my goal is to publish at least two more novels—the two on the Oregon Trail and California Gold Rush that I have drafted. I am confident I will meet this goal, though my timeline has been much slower than I had hoped.

MC900149882As I wrote on January 28 of this year, I am editing my first Oregon Trail novel again, hoping to whip it into publishable shape. I am proud to report that as of last week, I had edited about 60% of it for my critique group, and I’ve got it below 130,000 words. (I’d like to end up around 120,000 words, but I think it’s going to be 125,000 or so.)

My critique group has been through a little more than a third of the book. As soon as I finish my edit for them, I’ll go back to incorporate their comments into the novel. I still hope to have all that done by Labor Day.

The good news is that as I edit I still like the book. The bad news is I still have a lot of work to do.

I have a greater sense of urgency now than I did three years ago. As I said, my father died suddenly in January. My husband had a good friend who was in his early sixties who died later that month. Last week one of my critique group partners died after open-heart surgery.

We know not the hour.

And yet, we plan as if we have time. Life is a balance between striving for more and being ready.

In March 2012, I wrote about achieving our dreams by telling our stories. I haven’t achieved my dreams yet, but I will continue to tell my stories.

I wrote in another post in March 2012:

My challenge to you today is to ask yourself:

— What is your future story?

— What do you want your life to be in five or ten years?

I leave you with these same questions again today.

Sculpting My Novel and My Life

MC900290846My writing goal for the summer was to finish an edit of my second Oregon Trail book. I got it done just after Labor Day. Of course, that was not the end of the project. I know it needs another substantial edit. And probably another edit after that.

And I’m working still on the first book, which is closer to being finished, but could still benefit from some shaping.

Some writers seem to be able to dash off a first draft of their novel, go back through it once to catch typos, and declare it done. I can’t do that. Part of it may be my inexperience—I still consider myself to be a newbie novelist. Part of it may be my unwillingness to let go.

But a substantial part is that I know I can make it better with each draft. It isn’t time to let go of the book yet. Not until I am proud of it. It took me nine drafts (four of them major rewrites) to finish the novel I published under a pseudonym.

For me, writing a novel is like sculpture. With each draft, I lay down more clay or scrape it away to reveal the story inside. On the first draft, I write the bones, the skeleton of what happens. On the next draft, I further develop the plot and fix the obvious glitches. On the next draft, I add more character back story and emotion and description.

On the next, I focus on the story arc—making sure the plot points are at about the right points, that there is not much denouement after the climax, etc. It is surprising that if you look for plot points, they are there. It’s a matter of building them up so that readers feel satisfied with the timing of the twists in the story.

Of course, writing isn’t really as scientific as this. By the third draft or so, I’m sharing the story with my critique group, and they tell me where I most need to work. So the story arc draft may come before the emotion-adding draft. Or I have to go back to the plot when I’m told something isn’t believable.

Maybe it is inexperience that I cannot concentrate on everything that a novel needs at once. It is definitely my fault that my time is over-committed and each draft takes so much time.

But writing is what I want to do. No one will manage my time except for me. It is up to me to sculpt my life the way I sculpt my novel. I try on new activities for size—a board or committee here, a new critique group there. The activities that fit, I add to if I’m able. The ones that don’t, I carve away when I can.

Piece by piece, and draft by draft, our life work builds. On the pages we write and in the friends we make.

What sculpting does your life need?

Writing Creative Nonfiction: Objective Facts v. Personal Truth

Slide1Readers who are not writers may wonder what “creative nonfiction” is. Many writers wonder also. How can nonfiction be creative?

I recently attended a program at The Writer’s Place in Kansas City on Creative Nonfiction. Our presenter was Kate Meadows, a freelance writer and editor.

The definition Kate used for “creative nonfiction” was “telling true stories in a meaningful way.” Under her definition, I hope this blog is creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction looks for the real story behind the facts. It is more than the “who, what, where, when, why, and how” of journalism. Those are the facts.

In creative nonfiction, the story matters more than the facts. Creative nonfiction moves beyond the ostensible objectivity of journalism (is any journalist really objective?) to find and articulate the author’s perspective.

Many of my posts tell stories about my life and the people and places and objects in it. Other posts tell stories about historical figures and events. I try to craft these posts to give my perspective on my family and on history.

After I’ve written some of the family stories on this blog, I’ve had relatives tell me, “That’s not the way it was.” And that may not have been how it was for them. I tell the stories as I remember them and the truth as I see it.

That’s all I can do.

One of the important issues in writing creative nonfiction is the difference between fact and truth. As someone who has worked in the legal and Human Resources fields for many years, I understand that difference.

The words of the legal oath—in which witnesses are sworn to tell “the whole truth”—are impossible to satisfy. No one person can tell “the whole truth.” We can only tell our own version of the truth, the portion of the facts that we saw or heard, and what it meant to us.

In a conversation at work about an employee’s performance, for example, the words that a manager says to the employee are fact. The meaning behind those words, however, is truth. There is only one set of objective facts, but there can be many truths. The employee may believe “My boss thinks I’m no good,” while the manager intends to be encouraging—“Here’s how you can do better.”

Perhaps my experience is what has led me to want to write personal essays and editorials, though I’ve never wanted to be a journalist. I want to tell the story as I see it. I do not want to stick to the facts. I want to shape the story.

Authors of creative nonfiction use fictional devices to tell their stories. They craft scenes into a satisfying story arc, with beginning, middle, and end. Like short story writers and novelists, they use plot, dialogue, voice, selective description, and figurative language to get at the meaning of the story.

Kate suggested that as we write creative nonfiction we answer the questions:

So what?
Who cares?
Why now?

cropped-mc9001498821.jpgIntentional use of my personal perspective on the story I tell gives me the “so what”. Tales of the emigrants to Oregon in the mid-19th century fascinate me because of our ancestors’ courage in seeking a new life. I want to convey my awe to readers as well, and I hope that we all learn courage by hearing these tales of earlier times.

Almost by definition, if I’m writing about something, at least I care about it. As I tell a story, I try to point out universal themes that we all experience in our lives, and I hope that my readers then care as well. (And that more people come across this blog and are moved to follow it.)

And the why now? I often have a reason for when I time my posts, but not always. Sometimes it’s because it’s near a relative’s birthday or a holiday. Sometimes I just need something to meet my Monday/Wednesday posting schedule.

And sometimes it’s because I just attended an interesting workshop and want to pass along the tips I heard.

Writers, what does creative nonfiction mean to you? How do you honor the truth, when you know you only have a part of it?

Author’s Blog Chain

I’ve been asked to participate in an Author’s Blog Chain this week, which gives me the opportunity to tell you more about my writing.

Juliet Kincaid, a Kansas author and member of the local Sisters in Crime chapter, tagged me on her blog, Juliet Kincaid, Writer. Juliet has recently written a series of cozy mysteries featuring Cinderella, P.I., as well as January Jinx, the first book in her new series of historical mysteries set in Kansas City around 1900. These are all available on

Please check out Juliet’s blog or follow her on Facebook to find out more about her writing.

This author’s blog chain asks me to answer four questions.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently editing my two novels on the Oregon Trail. I have edited the first novel pretty thoroughly, but it probably needs one more edit to slim it down a little. I am spending most of my time now on the second novel in this series, and I’m just part way through this re-write. I’m working hard with a critique group and I’m focusing on plot development.

There is a third novel in this series, but it is still in my head. I may also write a novella about two of the supporting characters in my Oregon Trail series.

Family Recipe front cover finalI also plan to publish another anthology of my short stories, essays, and poems this spring—a follow-up to my Family Recipe anthology published in 2012.

Meanwhile, last October, I published another novel under a pseudonym—a contemporary thriller. It is completely different from my Oregon Trail books.

How does your work differ from others in the same genre?

In my first Oregon Trail novel, which focuses on a wagon company traveling the trail in 1847, I tried to be historically accurate, down to where the emigrants camped each night. I relied on old diaries of real emigrants that year to determine how far they traveled, where they stopped, and what they did along the way. Some of them went on sight-seeing trips away from the wagons to avoid another boring day of walking the trail. Some of those day trips made their way into my novel.

cropped-mc9001498821.jpgI used terrain maps to find the gullies and hills mentioned in the old diaries, but I’ve had to allow for the development of the land over the last 160+ years. Still, it is amazing how much one can learn from Google Maps! Many of today’s urban routes are still named “Emigrant Road” or some other designation showing that the pioneers passed that way.

The second book in my series has a broader sweep—encompassing events from 1848 through 1850 in both Oregon and California. My challenge in this book has been to make sure my chronology depicts accurate times for letters to reach from one territory to the other. At the same time, I have to be careful not to bore today’s audience used to instant communication through emails and texts. What else can happen while I wait for one character to learn what the other has been doing?

My novels are suitable for any audience from high school through adult. They could be used as an adjunct to a high school level American history class, as well as (I hope) telling a good story.

Why do you write what you write?

I am in awe of the courage it took our ancestors to travel thousands of miles to unknown lands, hoping for a better life for themselves and their children. The challenges of the Oregon Trail have caught my imagination because I have lived at both ends of the trail—now in Missouri, but I grew up in Oregon and Washington. I have traveled the trail backwards!

whitman_missionGrowing up, my family took several day trips to the Whitman Mission over the years. The frightful massacre of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and others at their mission scared me as a child. As I have researched and written these books on the Oregon Trail, I have discovered how complicated history can be when seen from multiple perspectives.

How does your writing process work?

The main characters in my novels have been in my head for over twenty years. But I find as I write their stories that they are not always who I thought they were. They put their own voices in my head, and sometimes move in directions I do not anticipate.

Because these books are historical fiction, I am bound by history. One of my main goals is to be historically accurate. But I also want to tell a good tale, to make my readers care what happens to these fictional emigrants.

When I began writing the first novel, I knew where and when in 1847 they left Independence, I knew when they would arrive at the Whitman Mission (before the Whitmans died), and approximately when they would arrive in Oregon. I knew the general route they took, but I had to make some decisions about particular short-cuts available in 1847—which route would they take?

Beyond that, I let the characters develop their conflicts. Some characters took over at certain points, and I let them run with it. Any time you put a group of people together, there is plenty of conflict!

For the second book, kind of like Forrest Gump, I had certain places I wanted one of my characters to be at a certain time—like when gold was discovered in California in 1848. I am working the plot around those incidents, but it is still a work in process. Sometimes it’s easy to set the chronology, and other times I have to really work at it.

* * *

Thank you for taking the time to read about my forthcoming novels. I’ve been blogging about them for two years now. Someday they will be ready for prime time, and you will be the first to know.

I am tagging another author to continue this author blog chain—Beth Lyon Barnett, author of another historical novel, Jazz Town, who blogs at Beth’s Everything Blog. I know she is hard at work on her second novel, and I hope she will tell you about it soon. Hop over to her blog to find out more about her work.

Writing About Race in Historical Fiction

As a writer of historical fiction, one of the issues I struggle with is how to portray interactions between characters of different races. I could ignore the topic by not having characters of different races in my novels, but I think part of the purpose of writing historical fiction is to show the time period of the novel in all its facets. Race has been an issue in American life since our earliest days.

The Bogle Family, African American emigrants to Oregon

The Bogle Family, African American emigrants to Oregon

I made one of the families in my novels about the Oregon Trail an African American family. They want only what the white families want—a better life for themselves and their children in a new land. How the white characters treat the Black family, both along the Oregon Trail and after they arrive in the West, is one of the issues dealt with in my books.

But as I wrote, I faced many decisions as a writer:

  • What do I call African Americans in the novel?

The term African American was not used in the 1840s. Black? Colored? Negro? Do I use racial epithets of the day? The challenge is to be accurate to the historical period, yet not offend modern readers. The texts and speeches of the 19th century about African Americans sound horribly condescending and prejudiced to today’s ear, even those by whites intending to “help” Blacks.

  • How much detail do I include about the laws of Oregon regarding non-whites?

As a novelist, I have to be careful to relate only what is relevant to my story. This is true with any research done for a historical novel—the author includes only a fraction of the history learned through research. I need to know what the law was at each point in my story, so that I can be accurate, but the reader doesn’t need to know every detail.

My first book takes place entirely in 1847, but my second spans 1848-1850. Here is a summary of what I learned in my research, though not all of this finds its way into the novels:

The early years in Oregon were full of confusion. The Provisional Government of Oregon (the first territorial government) enacted the Exclusion Law of 1844, which banned African Americans from settling in the territory. To its credit, the Provisional Government also banned slavery and required any slaveholders bringing slaves into the territory to free their slaves within three years of coming to Oregon or remove them from the territory. But the Exclusion Law required any free Blacks over the age of 18 to leave the territory—men within two years, and women within three years. Black children could stay until they turned 18.

The original 1844 Exclusion Law provided that any African Americans who remained in Oregon after being freed would be whipped and expelled. The “Lash Law” as it was called was repealed within months as being too harsh, and a new law passed that substituted forced labor for the whipping. The labor of Blacks who were in the territory illegally was to be sold at auction, with the purchaser of the person’s services required to remove the individual from the territory within six months after the involuntary servitude ended. This law in turn was repealed in 1845, even before it took effect.

But imagine the turmoil of African American emigrants during this time.

In 1849 another exclusion law was passed.  This one allowed Black residents already in Oregon to remain, but banned further African Americans from coming to live in the territory. African Americans who moved to Oregon would be arrested and ordered to leave. Only one Black resident of Oregon is known to have been exiled—Jacob Vanderpool, a boarding house and saloon owner, who in 1851 was convicted and told to leave the territory within 30 days.

Thus, despite very harsh laws on the books, it appears they were mostly ignored. Still, the threat of expulsion loomed over those African Americans who chose to emigrate to Oregon.

[NOTE: The rest of Oregon’s history of racial exclusion is not relevant to my novels, but here is a summary: In 1854, the Exclusion Law was repealed, although some think the repeal was accidental. In any event, the first Oregon Constitution passed in 1859 included a racial exclusion banning Blacks from emigrating to Oregon or owning land in the state. This remained state law until the post-Civil War Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution made such restrictions illegal. The Oregon Constitution was not formally amended to repeal these restrictions until 1926.]

  • How much do I show the prejudice of even sympathetic whites of the day? By showing racial prejudice, do I make my characters repellant to modern readers?
Mary Jane Holmes Shipley Drake, African American emigrant to Oregon

Mary Jane Holmes Shipley Drake, African American emigrant to Oregon

The abolition movement was strong by the late 1840s, but many—if not most—whites who abhorred slavery still did not approve of integration, and prejudice was strong in most white communities. Blacks tended to work in jobs requiring little education, such as service or manual labor. They tended to live separately, unless they were working for a white family.

Clearly, even non-slaveholding states have a checkered past when it comes to racial prejudice. The challenge for the writer of historical fiction is to present a faithful picture of the past, while letting the story come first.

I want my characters to be likeable to modern readers, but I also want them to be true to their times. One of my main characters comes from abolitionist New England, the other from a slaveholding family in the South.

For more on the racial exclusion laws of Oregon, see the following:

Have you noticed novels written about earlier eras that seem inaccurate about those time periods, and how do you react? Or do the characters’ beliefs that were common in the earlier era, but are unacceptable today, make you dislike the novel?