Is it Real Life or is it Fiction?

Six years ago, I published a piece of flash fiction at The Story Shack called “Parking Lot Superhero.” I posted a link on this blog and yadda yaddaed about fiction giving me more freedom for structure. The story was one of the first flash pieces I wrote.

Here’s a confession. I don’t even know why I wrote that about freedom because the truth is that this story is completely true except for the names. So maybe the freedom actually came from changing the names. And by changing the names I was able to change the structure and how I ended up structuring it made all the difference. So, yes, I submitted nonfiction as fiction by changing the names.

colorful cars on parking lot
Photo by Erik Mclean on

Is this a character defect? Or is it just a genre, like a roman à clef (novel where real people occur, but their names are changed)?

Have you ever written nonfiction and disguised it as fiction?

If you have read this blog for a long time, you might remember the story, but here it is:

This story is not one of my most well-written (and at some point I might revise it), but it’s still one of my favorites because the hero of the story (not me) was such a larger-than-life character in real life.

Going back to my title–Is it Real Life or is it Fiction?–maybe fiction is often real life, just many different aspects of real life glued together in a different combination and order.

One more thing. Why did I want to come clean about this story being true? Although I published it as fiction to protect “Jack” and his family story, I have felt guilt at not giving him credit for being a hero. I still won’t publish his name, but I feel better letting you know that he is a real living hero.


Filed under #writerlife, #writerslife, #writingcommunity, Fiction, Flash Fiction, Publishing, Short Stories, Writing

48 responses to “Is it Real Life or is it Fiction?

  1. I think a lot of fiction has a kernel of truth to it. Something that sparks the mind.

    • That I definitely agree with. But I was thinking it’s usually more like just that spark or some sparks, not “whole cloth,” you know? Now I am going to be suspecting lots of realistic fiction hahahaha.

  2. Amy

    Well, as you know, I’ve written two “novels” that are based in large part on the real lives of my ancestors. I called them novels because aside from the skeletal facts I knew from research or from my parents, everything else was made up in my head—the dialogue, the details, how the “characters” felt, etc. I couldn’t call it non-fiction, but it’s also not entirely made up from my imagination. But how much fiction really is? Aren’t most novels in some way “inspired” by something or someone that really existed?

    For me, where it gets messy are shows like The Crown or movies like JFK where despite disclosures, most people walk away assuming most of what they’ve seen really happened.

    Now to read your story!

    • It really makes sense to call your books novels, but then to promote them as being about the lives of your ancestors. You are very up front about it all. I hear you on the TV shows, though. I am watching The Serpent Queen, and I think a lot of people think it’s absolutely what happened. It is . . . to a point. But there is a lot made up and rearranged and all that. I hear that happened way too much with the Dahmer show (which I did not want to watch).

      • Amy

        What is the Serpent Queen? I don’t know that one. These days whenever we see a tv show or movie that seems to be based on real events, I always google afterwards to see how accurately it told those events.

        So when you say that the story actually happened, did it really happen to you? Or was it something you heard on the news or from another person?

        • I do the same thing, Amy!

        • That’s what Marie is getting at in her comment–what she calls hearsay versus it happening to the writer herself.
          The Serpent Queen is about Catherine De Medici, and many aspects of it are true to history. However, it’s been updated–made more contemporary–like a lot of stuff today. The language, for instance. Much less formal than it would have been! And there are subplots and characters added that are fiction. But it does help to make it very interesting because it’s not a dry retellng of only what we know “for sure.”

  3. Thanks for sharing this story. I enjoyed reading it— the way it switches from a seemingly straightforward story to the complexity of the narrator’s view. I used to try to fictionalize true events, but now I’ve found my voice in memoir.

    • Thank you, Ellen. For the most part, my prose is memoir or creative nonfiction. But I started years ago writing fiction (and poetry) for my MFA. We didn’t have a nonfiction track (we did have drama though), and we never even thought of it as a genre in those days. My short stories were traditional in that they were mainly of my imagination using what I knew of the world and the human condition. Once I discovered nonfiction . . . .

  4. VJ

    I always draw from real life experiences – fictions just gives us permission to elaborate and fill in the gaps.

    • I like the way you put that–being given permission. The thing I’ve always liked about writing fiction is that the writer is free to make any choices she wants to, whereas in nonfiction that is not the case. But I think more contemporary ideas of writing in a more “experimental” style even changes or challenges that idea about genres.

  5. I think there are lots of stories and books that are based on real life–some more than others–and I think authors draw from their own lives all the time. I think as with the comment above, all historical fiction does that filling in the gaps.

    Only you know how fine the line is between fiction and creative nonfiction in your story. Even “Jack” wouldn’t really know because the experiences are viewed from your eyes.

  6. Fiction is a beautiful thing when all you have to do is change the names and a few details, and all the rest is already in your head because it’s true.

  7. I could have written exactly what Amy said 🙂

    I think one of the problems with fictionalising a full-length book when in fact it should have been memoir is that it breaks a pact with the reader, but many find it difficult to write in the first person, or to expose themselves in that way.

    When you tinker with your short story you could try writing it as non-fiction, but to me, it already reads close to that anyway. If you hadn’t said differently, I would have assumed it was a memoir piece.

    I’m currently writing historical fiction closely based on my great-grandmother’s life, adding other’s real life experiences. But since I didn’t know her, and nothing of her came down the generations, it’s a real challenge to get the reader close enough. Which might not have been the case if I just made her up in the first place!

    • I can’t even imagine trying to write a full-length memoir as fiction. For one thing it would have structural problems and I would feel like a big liar. It’s a very fine line with memoir, as you well know, to tell one true story out of a messy chaotic life.
      I’m so intrigued about your current project about your great-grandmother! Which one is it? Is it an Italian ancestor? I’m so curious!

  8. Or is it creative nonfiction?? I just read the story, and it reads like creative nonfiction to me–and very effective creative nonfiction. Many of my short stories are autobiographical, but by the time I finish the story and some time has gone by, I can’t tell where the real life inspiration ends and the imagination begins.

  9. First, I love your story! As Liz notes, it does read like creative nonfiction. I understand that you would call it fiction for the sake of privacy and yet … if changing names was all that you altered, I’d think you could have called it CNF and just noted that names were changed to protect people’s privacy. For me, my nonfiction often turns into fiction because I change things about the people I’m writing about (like names but also ages, hair color, etc.) and I want to get into their heads. I can’t write from my sister’s POV and call it nonfiction, or even CNF, because I’m making up her thoughts and feelings. Am I making sense?

    It’s tricky. In a writing workshop last year, one of the students was working on a memoir. I remember getting frustrated because, although her writing was really good, she wrote dialogue and scenes that she couldn’t have experienced first-hand. No matter how many times it came up, she didn’t seem able to bring herself to add a phrase or sentence like, “My mother told me all about her first date with my father.” If a writer can’t bring herself to acknowledge that what she is writing is hearsay, not based on direct experience, then just call it fiction.

    • To your first paragraph, (thanks!) so interesting about it reading like CNF! Wow. Yeah, I probably could have noted name changes, just like I did in that longer essay about the murder in my family. I think I wanted to give “Jack” more privacy by not acknowledging it was real, but the more time went on I started to feel guilty because he was such a good person.
      To your second paragraph, it’s soooooooooooo hard. I sort of agree with you and sort of disagree. In the memoir workshops i’ve been in it was beaten into my head that dialogue should be added and that it was understood by the reader that nobody would remember the exact dialogue, but then you wouldn’t use the exact dialogue anyway because that would be a cumbersome, boring book. But YOU are talking about the idea of adding hearsay. a whole nother can of worms. I’ve read books that do not acknowledge that. In fact, they create whole stories as Gwen is doing about ancestors, for instance. Notice she’s calling hers historical fiction. I’m talking about books like Still Life with Rice (billed as a memoir, but about the writer’s grandmother’s life) and Half-Broke Horses (called a real-life novel about the writer’s grandmother). In my memoir there are small flashes from my father’s perspective and even from my grandparents’ perspectives. I still call the book a memoir, but it’s very clear that these are imaginings of their lives. But I also call the book a HYBRID memoir. This is all kind of new territory, I guess! (Can you hear me screaming and pulling on my hair?)

      • And to add further confusion, I have another unpublished manuscript (Finding Florence & Lucy) which is such a hybrid memoir that one chapter is me, my voice, my search, my research, and the next is a novelised recreation of what I imagine happened at the time, and then back to memoir, on to historical novel, and so on, alternating all the way through the book.

  10. Interesting to see you post this today. This morning I wrote my first piece of flash “fiction” that I based on a real event. I changed some names and a few other made up things, but basically true. Writing it as a fictional story revealed things that I simply didn’t understand until today.

    I think it’s fair to call your story fiction or creative nonfiction.

    • Oh, that’s so interesting that writing your story as fiction revealed more to you. WOW! Now I am wondering how it worked . . . .

      • I think I gave my POV character the opportunity to describe some thoughts that probably occurred at other times, not during the incident that was the subject of the story.

        As for the fiction/nonfiction thing: it’s considered taboo to say something is nonfiction when it isn’t, but I don’t believe the reverse is true. All history is subjective (not that it makes it fiction) and any changes at all, such as what I describe above should certainly be grounds to call it fiction.

  11. Great story. Now all I wonder about is what happened to Jack?

    • Where is the comment I made? Oh, makes me so mad. Anyway, what I said is that I periodically google Jack, but i never can find anything about what happened to him. Maybe he changed his name before I changed his name!

  12. Coming clean is always a good thing

  13. What a lovely gesture, now I can hardly wait to read the story!

  14. I just read your touching and thrilling story…my heart goes out to Jack; I hope his future fared better than expected, he deserves it!

  15. All of my prehistoric fiction is based on real life–I even say that!. All I do is add characters, tie together a plot, and sketch out the setting.

    You’re good.

  16. I have gone all kinds of ways with fiction. I have found the fiction closest to reality easiest to write because I have had to manufacture less stuff. What do I mean by manufacturing stuff? Names, descriptions, conflicts, dialogue, etc. A lot of this stuff is just pulled out of the old rag bag in my brain. Reality provides bigger rags, maybe whole dresses.

  17. Lovely thought-provoking story, Luanne. And evocative too – I sank right into that era easily through your descriptions. I am also a practitioner of “true fiction.” Most of my stories are like that, as here:

  18. I am just catching up here, Luanne. The story is a good one. Perhaps Jack will someday show up in your life again someday.

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