When Truth Doesn’t Belong in Fiction

We’ve all heard the saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Examples of how accurate that saying is are all over the media. They prompt me to do some quick fact-checking–could this really have happened or is someone messing around with the facts, provided there are any facts to sensationalize. But how many of us have heard the saying, “Just because it happened doesn’t mean it should go in a story”?

When I was writing my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Heart, I questioned friends and family members whose relatives had also been refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion of Latvia. Did any of them have anecdotes they could share, something that would add drama to my novel and express the desperation of Latvians to escape the Red Army? Our people knew from long experience the horrors that would follow when the Soviets took over.

One friend, whom I’ve known for decades told me of an incident that involved her aunt; let’s call her Velta.

Velta and her family were departing the Latvian port city, Liepāja by ship. Velta was standing at the rail, for a last glimpse of her homeland, as the ship started to pull away. Down on the dock, a desperate woman, who had not been able to get on board, threw her baby to Velta, who succeeded in catching the little girl. Velta and her family treated the baby as if she were their own. Later, the mother was able to track down her baby in the Displaced Persons camps in Germany. Mother and daughter were happily reunited.

Liepāja, Latvia. The city and the steeple of St. Joseph’s Cathedral was the last glimpse of home that many Latvian refugees had.

Wow! I thought. What a great true story. So illustrative of this terrible situation, how a mother would do anything to keep her precious child from having to grow up under the Soviet rule of terror. With my friend’s permission, I decided to give Velta’s story to my heroine, Līvija Galiņa.

My Latvian beta reader objected. “This scene is not believable,” he said. But it really happened, I replied. “That may be so, but it’s still not believable,” he insisted. “However, you’re the author, so it’s your decision.”

Writers have many tricky choices to make.

After thinking it over, I realized that he was right. The incident really happened. It was related to me by a trusted friend. But it didn’t belong in my story. Fiction though it is, I want my novel to be plausible. Including the story of Velta and the baby she saved would be an unnecessary distraction from my narrative. I don’t want readers thinking, “Nah, this can’t have happened.” Or, “This is preposterous.” Or, have the detail-oriented, over-thinkers like me, who read in my author’s note that I’d based this account on a true incident, wondering, “How far was the ship from the dock?” “How fast was the ship going?” “Was the mother a basketball player?”

Striving for believability, I took the story out. Other incidents in my novel that involve the Latvian refugees are based on true stories, but this one does not belong.

The link to my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Hart. Available on Kindle Vella. The first few chapters are free to read.

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