• Tory McCagg
  • [SWP: Behind the Book] Did That Really Happen? The Nebulous Line Between Fact and Fiction.
[SWP: Behind the Book] Did That Really Happen? The Nebulous Line Between Fact and Fiction.
Written by
Tory McCagg
November 2013
Written by
Tory McCagg
November 2013

Recently I spent a few sleepless nights in five-alarm mode over the dedication of my novel, Bittersweet Manor, coming out on She Writes Press on May 6, 2014.

For months, it had been dedicated, quite satisfactorily, to my paternal grandparents and their children. But shortly before I was to sign off on that dedication, I woke up in the middle of the night with an electrical-surge-like horror. By so specifically naming them, wasn't I pointing a finger and saying: there! These are the people about whom I write! And would that cause offense to those still living? Was it a betrayal of those dead and gone? Because, though I might have used the outline of my family's life, it was not them.

Or was it?

Fact or fiction? The book takes place in Poquatuck, Connecticut, a place remarkably like the fishing village in which I, in part, grew up. (Though if one follows the directions in the book, one might end up in the harbor, rather than at the dock. Or risk being hit by a train.) And, as do my characters, Gussie and Winston Michaels, my grandparents had an . . . ambivalent relationship. But whereas my grandparents had four children, Gussie and Winston have three. One, Auggie, is a professor of history--as was my father--and one, Alyssa, is a lawyer--as is one of my aunts.

In short, in Bittersweet Manor's characters and the story of how their lives unfold, can be found aspects of my family's lives. Some fact, some lore . . . because isn't it true that daily, moment by moment, we change, and who is to say what our personal truth is but ourselves at any particular time?

That not being the issue I debated in my midnight hour, panicked mind. What I ruminated (obsessed) on is this: By telling stories based loosely on my family and its mythology, was I betraying a trust? Would my grandparents and their children (and their children) be horrified to think anyone might think they are these characters? Which they are not. Or maybe they are. I don't think so. But I don't know. I do not know what the real people thought or felt, or, at times, how they acted. I only know how my characters end up, what they have learned, or not. What I have learned.

I asked everyone I dared what they thought. By dedicating the book to my named grandparents and their named children, would I too obviously make it their story?

Tolstoy's War and Peace has been criticized because his historic figures, those people who actually existed, come off as flat, whereas his fictional characters are alive, with all their human complexity. That's the beauty of fiction. The characters have the freedom to become what they will. Whereas the actual people who existed have already used up their freedom. Their lives have been lived, and now the writer can only tell it with those facts, if with a degree of creativity . . .. 

Writer's Suggested Rule 1: Write about what you know.

I worked on Bittersweet Manor, on and off, for seven-ish years and finally began to send it out to agents in 2010. At some point after that, a cousin of mine asked if I would read the manuscript for her memoir. Most interesting for me while reading it? Family stories and themes in her book are also in mine, and a couple of things I thought I had made up, had, apparently, happened, only they had been filed away in my memory bank, the unconscious, until used in my book.

Thus, in my angst over the dedication, I debated this inscription: To families and their mythologies.

But that avoided the issue. It was my family, after all, who might read the book and disown me--an entirely plausible circumstance at three in the morning.

And so the onslaught of worries continued. Waves of panic. In hopes of calming me, someone pointed out that, really? Most people wouldn't even read the dedication or care.

But what if something I wrote hurts someone's--anyone's--feelings. And why didn't I think about that when I was writing it?

Writer's Suggested Rule 2: Pay No Attention to the Shrieking Judge on Your Shoulder.

If a writer is concerned with others' reactions, s/he will never write a word of Truth. The writer--this one, anyway--will be caught in an editorial, judgmental nightmare. No feeling will come out. The writing--O.M.G.--will be stilted.

Sleepless nights and many Is-it-okay-to-dedicate-it-to-X-Y-or-Z? queries later--none of which, I might note, would change the facts in the fiction--I asked my writing mentor the dedication question. She, as usual, centered me. "I'm not going to answer that because it won't make a difference. You have asked a score of people, and still you are asking. You could ask the world but, in the end, it is up to you to decide what to do."

Drat. There it was again: the responsibility of choice.

So was I going to pull the book, not publish it?


Bittersweet Manor is about home, loss, and family dysfunction, themes I believe exist in all families, in small and big ways. There is no one person existing or dead who IS one of the characters in the book. Whatever parts of real life I picked up and molded to fit the fictional characters, I hope and trust make them universal. I hope that readers empathize with the characters, maybe learn something from them. Thus I have gone from one extreme to this one: I hope that everyone sees themselves or a loved one in these characters because isn't that the purpose of fiction? The identification with and connection to our common human condition?

Bittersweet Manor has been an exploration for me, of who I am and why, and it was written from a place of love and longing. Both my writing mentor and publicist suggested I dedicate the book to whomever or whatever I can feel comfortable with, a.k.a. what won't wake me in the middle of the night. And so I have dedicated the book to the memory of my father. Whom I miss. I think he would like the book. Being a historian, he would appreciate the fine line between fact and fiction that I tread. And I guess, at heart, I like to think that--were he alive to read it--it would heal some of the emotional pain he might have endured in life, and maybe recognize the depths of love that, perhaps, he didn't dare feel.

But, of course, that's me thinking I might author his life, an act I can only do by writing.

Photos: Book Cover; Masks by Louise McCagg (www.louisemccagg.com) ; Dawn at Darwin's View, www.darwinsview.com where you can read about Global Climate Change and what we might do about it other than wait for doom's day; Life Off-Grid in a 21st century way; and Chickens.

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  • Wendi Nitschmann

    I can relate to the angst you went through, especially with regard to how people close to you would react to seeing themselves (or parts of themselves) in your characters. Books are like mirrors...people will see what they want, won't they? I'm glad you came to a comfortable resolution!

  • Kelly Kittel

    Good on ya, mate, as a writer of memoir and having recently written my own first Dedication and Acknowledgments, I am still waking up in the middle of the night with electrical-surge-like-horror.  Poor Cait.

  • Jessica Vealitzek

    Lovely, Tory. I had similar anxiety over the Acknowledgements page.