Making Fiction Out of Fact

I will be doing a presentation this evening on using fact as the basis for fiction. What follows are my thoughts on the subject.

Reviewers of my books often note that my writing is fiction in name only. Everything I write is based on events I have participated in or observed. My four novels and seventeen short stories—and my two books coming out next year—are drawn from events that really happened. I don’t know how to write fiction any other way.

My writing process comes in three stages that sometimes overlap. The first two don’t feel like I’m making them happen. It is as though a spirit or muse is feeding me thoughts and commanding me to create a story. The third stage, revision and polishing, is more intellect driven.

The first stage occurs when an arresting scene comes upon me like a dream. I dwell on what happens in that scene, then let my imagination, or more often, my memory, suggest what led up to that scene and what the outcome was. Little by little the story comes to me.

The inspirational moments of that first stage always originate in something real in my own history. Lucky for me as a writer, I’ve lived a particularly vivid life. Between 1962 and 1975, I was in Vietnam at least four months every year. I had two complete tours there and so many shorter trips that I lost count. My job was signals intelligence, the intercept and exploitation of the radio communications of the invading North Vietnamese. I kept getting sent back to Vietnam because I knew North Vietnamese communications like the back of my hand—I’d been producing intelligence from them since 1960. Besides, I spoke the three languages of Vietnam: Vietnamese, Chinese, and French.

Maybe most important, I was under cover as an enlisted man with whatever unit I was supporting. I lived with the troops—slept beside them on the ground, sat in the dirt with them eating C-rations, used their latrines, and went into combat with them. I worked with army and Marine combat units all over South Vietnam. That meant I was often in the middle of the fight on the battlefield. One consequence is that I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). The unspeakable horrors that occurred during the fall of Saigon, when I escaped under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city, made it worse.

More tomorrow.

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