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Five Things: blending fact and fiction in your writing

Author Alan Gillespie shares tips learned when writing his debut novel, The Mash House

Language: English
Genre: Fiction
Age group: Adults
Audience: Writers

Last updated: 21 May 2021

Collage of Alan Gillespie headshot and front cover of his book, The Mash House

Some of Scotland’s best writing in recent years has come in the form of fictionalised memoirs. In The Young Team, Graeme Armstrong relives his adolescence growing up in the heart of Airdrie’s street gang culture. Similarly, Douglas Stuart’s poignant coming-of-age novel, Shuggie Bain, won the Booker Prize for the emotional richness which draws heavily on the writer’s upbringing in Glasgow. Both Armstrong and Stuart have certainly embellished their stories with creative license, but it is the truth of their lived experiences which make their respective characters so powerful.

Many first-time writers are drawn to the peaks and troughs of their own lives for inspiration. My debut novel, The Mash House, is indebted to the year I spent living and teaching in the remote West Highlands. There, I was enchanted by the incredible scenery and the kindness of the people. But there was a secretive, isolated atmosphere at times. That was the foundation for my book – but I never wanted to write a memoir. Here are some tips for blending fact and fiction in your own writing.

Use the emotional heft of your own life

We all operate with different emotional frequencies, and the rich stuff comes from the high and low ends of the spectrum. Think about the times when you felt invincible, and the times you felt like climbing out of your own skin. That is where the gold is buried. Readers engage more strongly with emotional power than they do with things happening. So try to avoid diarising days from your life, and concentrate on developing emotional impact. Readers will be able to empathise so much more with your story.

Real people are complex and weird

What’s the difference between a person and a character? If you’re basing a fictional character on a real person, obviously you have to be a little bit careful. Especially if the presentation is less than flattering! Protect yourself, and protect those who have inspired you, with new names, new physical descriptors, new quirks. Think of it as witness protection. And of course, nobody is one dimensional. We are all the goodie and the baddie in our own ways. If you have written a character in tribute to someone you know, don’t be scared to give them flaws. Equally, the antagonists in your story should have redeeming features – just like the real-life people they are based on.

Setting and location are not quite the same thing

When I was writing The Mash House, I was basing the setting of the story in a village I know well. I started off keen to get the geography right, and even asked a friend of mine to draw a true to life map of the area. But as the book developed, I became interested in more than simple infrastructure.

I wanted to capture the colours, temperatures and atmosphere of the place. So I focused more on the weather, the midges, the semi-tangible things. Historical writers talk about the challenge of not being able to include every minutiae of research in their books. I think the same is true here – it doesn’t matter if you get street names wrong, or if a left turn should be a right turn, or if that kind of tree couldn’t possibly grow in that climate. What really matters, for setting, is capturing the spirit of a place.

Real life vs. Make believe

Blending fact and fiction in a story can be a delicate balance. We know that often the most incredible drama occurs in real life – the moments you couldn’t make up, the stories you couldn’t write because nobody would believe you. So it is important to let these things that have happened breathe and stand on their own. Fiction writers want to use creative license and inject their own ideas into a story, but sometimes you have to let reality speak for itself.

Take the seeds of real life and pour water on them

I think when we fictionalise real-life events, we are often taking things that actually happened and asking ourselves: ah, but what if? What if the near-miss becomes a fatal road accident? What if the drunk man doesn’t make it home in one piece? What if the arguing couple don’t kiss and make up?

The job of a writer here is to embellish and add decorative touches to the foundations. One time I was on the Glasgow Subway and saw a blind man take out a huge pile of banknotes and count them in his hands. When he got up at his stop, two young guys nudged one another, stood, and followed him onto the platform. It was probably nothing! And he probably did get home safely. But if I was fictionalising that story, he wouldn’t. I’m afraid bad things would be on the way.

The Mash House(this link will open in a new window) is out now.