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Reimagining True Stories



March 23, 2023



By Lee Martin, faculty, fiction and creative nonfiction



Whenever I asked for something as a child, my father often rejected my request by saying, “If “if’s” and “but’s” were candies and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.” I had no way of knowing his denial was teaching me something about the power of the imagination. How else was I to get what I wanted but by dreaming it?


I recently had the pleasure of offering a workshop, via the wonderful Larksong Writers Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, for those who might be interested in reimagining a true story. This has been my approach for six of my novels, including my most recent, The Glassmaker’s Wife. I start with a factual story, and then I let my imagination go to work.


People often approach me with a story they think I simply must tell. I can sense immediately if they’re correct. If there’s something about the true story that allows me to imagine characters with conflicted hearts, I take heed. If the only thing that stands out is the plot, I generally decline the invitation. Characters and their contradictions make compelling fiction, so I’m always looking for how I can see a true story from the interior of a character and what I imagine to be the oppositions they hold. For instance, in The Glassmaker’s Wife, the fifteen-year-old hired girl, Eveline Deal, considers her mistress, Betsey Reed, from a position of conflicting feelings:


Sometimes Miss Betsey would snap at her because she scorched a shift she was ironing or she left the bread to bake too long, and Eveline would let herself hate her just a little, all along wishing Miss Betsey would throw her arms around her neck and press her close and say she was sorry, oh, my precious girl forgive me.


Eveline’s simultaneous adoration and distaste was my entry into this true story of Betsey Reed, who was accused of murdering her husband in 1844 by poisoning him. The story of the murder and the trial that followed is interesting on its own, but I never would have told it without first imagining this story of Eveline, whose relationship with Betsey was complicated by all she desired and all that threatened those desires. I imagined Eveline to be a character made up of contradictions, and those contradictions allowed me to enter the story of Betsey Reed.


Here, then, are some prompts for helping you reimagine the facts of a true story. These should work quite well for fiction, but perhaps they can also work for creative nonfiction, particularly if you’re working with a true story for which you can’t find all the facts.


1. Write at least three “what-if” questions. These would be questions that would vary from the facts and be located within the characters. In the case of The Glassmaker’s Wife, one of my questions would have read something like this: “What if Eveline Deal was a flighty girl obsessed with romance and sensitive to the slights of others?” Such a question ended up guiding much of the novel’s plot from the character’s interior.


2. Consider the two characters who will stand at the heart of what you’re writing. Which one will feel more deeply? You might even use this as a prompt to get inside that character: “There was a part of her who believed/feared/wanted/ or whatever verb you choose_____ (you fill in the blank), but there was another part of her that ______ (again, you fill in the blank). Such work can help you identify the central conflict within that character. You can then use that to create plot. Our characters act from the oppositions within them, and when they act, they move the plot further ahead.


3. Take stock of the documented objects from the true story. In my case, there was a pinch of white powder and a scorched piece of paper. You can then create an object from your imagination. I chose Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular women’s magazine of the time, and I chose to let Eveline read its letters from the lovelorn to Betsey in the evenings. Imagined objects demand the characters’ use and become another way of creating plot.


Keep in mind that your objective is not to replicate the facts of a true story but instead to allow your imagination to intersect with the facts to create a different story, perhaps more memorable, because it gives readers what the news reports often neglect—the glorious, complicated inner lives of characters. That’s what we come to the page to explore whether we’re making things up or not. Our business is to attend to what William Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed.” The solid ground of a true story can sometimes demand a divergence from its facts. Reimagining can bring a true story to life, can resurrect it from the grave in which time and distance has placed it. That resurrection can dramatize the human aspects of the story, those desires and fears and joys and miseries common to all of us. A reimagined true story, rescued from the paralysis of reportage and legend, can become eternally poignant for what it has to tell us about ourselves.


 

Lee Martin is the author of seven novels, including The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. His most recent novel is The Glassmaker’s Wife. He has also published four memoirs and two short story collections, most recently The Mutual UFO Network, in addition to the craft book Telling Stories. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council.


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