Two points about Truth in Fiction

I’ve just been reading on of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City novels – the first I’ve read, and the last of the series. And there was a TV series too. I know, I’m well behind. But here a a couple of writerly things to note:

POINT ONE: The book I read was Book Eight (Mary Ann in Autumn). While I was aware – vaguely – of this series, I’d never read any of the novels. (I will now.) However, I had absolutely NO trouble following the story, keeping on top of the characters’ relationships with each other, or accepting their back stories, no matter how light the mention. This book stood alone. How did this happen?

I think it’s because the links are there. Maupin’s technique was to introduce a new (to me) character at the end of each chapter, and then pick up that character’s story in the next chapter. The continuity of scene and time/space (ie the realism of the San Francisco of the 2000s) connected every character’s story line to the others. As a writer of fantastical and historical stories, I appreciated Maupin’s mastery here. Complete consistency of time and space is necessary for the story to feel ‘true’. World building is essential, even when writing modern realist novels.


POINT TWO: Life wisdom can jump out of any story line. If a particular life truth happens to gel with the reader’s current or recent life experience, then that reader is hooked into the truth value of the story.

In my case, it was a line about dementia:

“Ray had Alzheimer’s these days … which rendered him foggy but jolly, a nicer person than his former ornery self.”

Now, I’ve read SO much about dementia since my mother was diagnosed with an invasive brain tumour, and nowhere else have I found an echo of the situation that now faces us. Our prickly, argumentative, one-up-woman-who-knows-everything has become sweet and gentle and positive and welcoming. Mum is a whole other story, but that sentence in Maupin’s book was the first time I had felt affirmed in my family experience of dementia.

Truth in fiction. It’s one of the reasons we read, one of the reasons we write.

I'd love to hear your ideas on this!

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