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The Truth in Fiction

Memory, Truth and Lies were the themes in my first book, the Art Forger’s Daughter.
Like many first novels, it dealt with my preoccupations at that time. The book began with my love of Art and History and my belief that art has the power to change the world. 

The concept is that a young woman has to untangle her parents past in order to save her mother and she comes to realise just how much the past ripples through the generations with unintended consequences. 

This was something I was thinking about a lot at the time.

So, I asked myself the question: ‘where is the truth and which are the lies in the fragments of her mother’s memories which survived the trauma of war?’

Memory, truth and lies has become an important theme again in my work, since I developed my workshop programme – Write Your Life.

I have been asked many times when am I going to write my own life story. Yes, there are challenging aspects to my childhood; and yes, I have had an interesting career path and done some exciting things in my life. But to me, the events matter less than the impact they have had on creating the person I have become. And that is always the starting point of my writing: the character. 

So, in fact, I do write my life, or pieces of it, in every novel I create. I write from my life – from under the skin of my experiences.

Sometimes the characters are people I have known, who emerge into a story, transformed; other times it is a place I have lived in, like Hollie’s Camden Town flat in Once Upon a Blue Moon; or the rolling hills of Andalucía in The Traveller and the Rose. It may be an incident I recall, like adopting a stray dog in Spain which I revisited in Divas Dogs and Dreamers, and in that same book, I pay homage to my former profession in the theatre.  

My novels are full of aspects of my own life, fictionalised for dramatic interest and re-told to entertain, inspire and add insight to the issues I deal with: whether it is the past coming back to haunt us, or the impact of choice at important crossroads in our lives. 

In Divas Dogs and Dreamers, I have taken a more direct approach and touched upon an issue which was significant in my life for many years; living with an alcoholic. It is an issue I will return to in another novel. By fictionalising the story I will be able to explore the issue more objectively and I can also use the integrity of my personal experience to add emotional truth.

Through fiction, I surround myself with characters who interest me so that I can explore the emotional landscape of my own life freely without family members correcting my fallible memory.

People remember things differently. Whenever we share stories from our life, whether personal anecdotes or shared history, someone will disagree with the detail. 

‘Oh no, it wasn’t like that,’ says sister, brother, friend, cousin Marge …

And it highlights the fact that:

  • Truth is subjective
  • Facts are objective
  • Reminiscences are subjective
  • And Memory is a fragile thing

Which brings me to the question I am sometimes asked when I work with children on creative writing projects. They ask: ‘Is this true, Miss, or is it made up?’ Some children need to know for certain – they need to separate out the fact from the fiction so that they can make sense of a complex world. 

To answer them, I talk about imagination and stories, because stories help children to understand the many layers of the world and their role in it. What I would say to the adults I work with is this:

If you know your character well, they can only respond to situations in a way which is plausible within their behavioural norms. And if you understand their issues, you really do have skin in the game and you can create more than truth – you can create new insight and inspire a reader to think differently about their own situation.

In which case, the truth of the story will resonate with the reader long after they have reached The End.

Published by Anita Belli

Author and Creative Writing Tutor. Novels: Divas, Dogs & Dreamers. Once Upon A Blue Moon. Ruby Sixpence Whistles Up A Storm. The Traveller & The Rose. The Art Forger's Daughter. Non-Fiction: How to be An Author in the Classroom. Write Your Life. Kickstart Your Writing. Unlock The Block. For Children: A Month of Writing Adventure

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