Monday, September 1, 2014

Fiction is Fictional.

I'm always amused when a fiction writer is chastised by critics and other readers that his or her book is inaccurate. Can we, the readers, know as much as the writer about his or her fiction book?  Is there a communal consciousness where we all go and experience the same thing or event, then judge whether the writer properly tapped into it? Is there a continuum by which we can somehow experience "fiction" as it unfolds, thereafter turning it into non-fiction, when it is written, for readers to dissect and digest as a part of their reality? Certainly, this has been pondered before, but my experiences have made me question the zeitgeist of fiction writing and whether the concept of fiction really exists.

The background of my novel is loosely based upon lots of Internet research about contemporary Louisiana, and three visits to the state.  My first visit was to Baton Rouge, in 2002, at about the same time that the Beltway snipers were terrorizing America, playing target practice with innocent American travelers who would randomly fall victim to their sick game.  The killers were loose and on the run.  I was traveling to do research for my novel when someone had only recently been murdered in Baton Rouge, and there was a law enforcement belief that the killer was still roaming around there (there was no inkling that there were two killers working in tandem). By the time of my visit, I had decided upon which cities where my killer was going to be wreak havoc, namely, Washington, D.C., Baton Rouge, and New Hampshire. Considering my plot about a serial killer on the loose, and given the nation's terror, I was not immune to being spooked at the prospect that I could become a victim while traveling alone.

It was almost closing time when I visited the barbecue place that was to be an important location in the novel, at least at that iteration of my plot. I was ordering take-out, like my character was supposed to do, in my novel.  I sat next to a Black man, who, at the time, could have fit the description of the Baton Rouge murder suspect, who was deemed to be brown-skinned, medium frame, with short-cropped hair.  My suspect was by himself, too. I have to admit that, for the first time in my life, I was terrified of a black man: I was alone in a strange city, staying in a hotel, traveling by car--where cross-hairs could easily have been pointed at me.  Thankfully, once we started talking, I warmed up to him, and he to me.  Our orders arrived at about the same time. When I was walking out of the restaurant, he told me to be careful, warning me about the killer on the loose. I was scared when he said it.  Did I just get a pass, where he was allowing me to live, or was he as fearful as I was, too? It would turn out to be the latter.

Africa House, Melrose Plantation, Natchitoches,
After a friend suggested that my location be changed to Cane River country, in the northwestern part of the state, I finally did decide to focus my novel on a fictional town near Natchitoches, Louisiana (pronounced, "Nagadish,"), where historic plantations that once housed slave captives for manual labor still stood. While there, in 2005, I was analyzing the quaint historical parish, through the eyes of my protagonist, a black female forensic anthropologist, a transplant from California.  I arrived at the real plantation near closing time. When I told the U.S. Park Ranger my purpose in scouting a location where forensic anthropologists might work, the Ranger told me to wait around as there was someone to whom I could speak.  I was gobsmacked when she told me that there was a female forensic anthropologist that was in the field that day, doing research--doing exactly what my character was supposed to be doing.  And imagine my shock to see that she was Black. Considering the hour, as it was dusk and she was finishing for the day, she was very friendly and informative. She showed me the tools of her trade and took me to the site of her research.  She pointed out to me the grounds where she was conducting her studies: a grassy area where slaves were believed to have been unceremoniously buried, without headstones, in a field abutting the Cane River.  In fact, the forensic anthropologist had just made a real find:  coffins jutting out into the river bank where soil erosion and excessive moisture were causing the ground to literally fall into the river, exposing the coffins of the captives.  She also told me that she hailed from California.  Like my character, Lula. 

Uncle Jack, the good 'ol Darky
Lula's field work does not figure prominently in the novel. Her presence in Louisiana was a pretext for her to be in the state during its heralded Mardi Gras celebration, around which time the mystery unfolds.  I could have just as easily not  visited those places, Baton Rouge and Natchitoches, because I decided to create a fictional town called Nakadee, an amalgamation of some of the true places I had witnessed in my travels throughout the state. There is one true-life reference in my novel, to a hat-tipping "darky" statue, Uncle Jack, in the real parish of Natchitoches that still stands, an intransigent reminder and remainder of the good old days. 

Will I be chastised for misrepresenting facts about my fictitious parish? I know my topographical descriptions are hued from real study of the land I traversed, in criss-crossing the state, and looking exhaustively at aerial maps.  Other parts are mere imagination, added from another place to add context to my non-fiction origins.  I will be ready when people criticize me for not "getting" something right, or misrepresenting an area that has some basis in reality. I guess I should care, but I don't. The story is my fiction, born of my real imagination--that turned into part-premonition of real experience, that I re-fictionalized for the reader.  

So, Perhaps there really is no such thing as fiction, after all.  

Here's a historical perspective on the Uncle Jack controversy, which has only scant mention in my novel, but which speaks volumes about its time and place in our nation's history and present state of affairs.

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