Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

I am inspired to write today because two teenage tennis players have just competed in the Final of the American Open. Neither of them should have been there. Neither of them had the experience nor the ranking to be anywhere near the Final. If I wrote a novel about an eighteen-year-old British girl who had just taken her A-level exams and still managed to qualify for the tournament, that alone would sound implausible. If I then wrote convincingly that this same qualifier would not drop a single set and would go on to win the tournament, that would no doubt attract considerable scorn. The fairytale ending, as we all know, is that Emma Raducanu won the Final. Is there a tennis fan anywhere in the world whose spirits have not been lifted by her incredible achievement!
This is Meg Ryan standing at the top of the Empire State Building in the closing scene of “Midnight in Seattle”. This is Richard Gere standing through the open roof of his car waving flowers at Julia Roberts in the closing scene of “Pretty Woman”. This is a single man in possession of a good fortune, realising he is in want of the wife Jane Austen intends for him! These are the utterly implausible fairytale moments we all remember. And we remember because these are the moments when our hearts soar, and all but the most unemotional amongst us finds we have a speck of grit in our eye.
I find this to be a fascinating subject on several levels. I get emotional watching a kiddies’ animation like “Frozen”, let alone a real-life tennis match. I don’t profess to understand it and I suspect I’m better off not understanding the psychology, but it has an enormous influence upon anyone who aspires to write a novel. It sets up an immediate conflict between those who can easily empathise with your characters and those who can’t. In order to empathise with a fictitious character, you have to suspend belief, but I suspect there is more to it. I’m guessing there is some kind of sliding scale between a little bit of suspended belief and a lot. “Alien” requires a total suspension of belief; “Pretty Woman” a lot less.
It seems that we can readily suspend belief if the content is way outside our experience, but we are less inclined to do so the closer to reality the story becomes. If your writing is sufficiently good that your characters step off the page, this can create its own problem. For some people, there seems to be no suspension of belief; the character is judged strictly by the reader’s own standards, and within their scope of belief. Therein lies a problem for the writer.
Where do you set the boundaries for your characters? Truth is so often stranger than fiction. Fortunately, history is full of inspirational people and events. There is a well of human experience from which writers can draw water. With “None Stood Taller” the real-life women who were at the heart of the British wartime establishment inspired my principal character. There were four of them, Joan Bright, Margaret Jackson, Elizabeth Layton, and Vera Atkins. Google them yourself, their stories mirror in many ways that of my character. All but one was recruited in a similar way. Some were younger, they were all rapidly propelled into positions of authority and responsibility. My character is a modest under-achiever in comparison.
Another woman worthy of a Google search is Rosa Ponselle. I wanted to see if truly great operatic singers could be born, and not just be the result of intensive training. Ponsell is the inspiration for my character’s singing ability. She came from a poor immigrant family and had absolutely no operatic training. Her life changed overnight when Enrico Caruso heard her sing in Vaudeville. Within the year, she sang opposite him at the Metropolitan Opera. Rosa Ponselle was considered one of the finest sopranos of the twentieth century.
I find people like Joan Bright and Rosa Ponselle truly inspirational. That man who started a business in a garage in Silicon Valley – look at him now! I don’t want to write about boring run-of-the-mill people; I want my characters to lift my spirits and make my heart soar. I want to write about Emma Raducanu, not the umpire. With “None Stood Taller – The Final Year” (soon to be published) my thoughts are turning towards the last in the trilogy. Dotty’s story has to be told, and in some ways, she represents the greatest challenge yet. She already lifts my spirits, but can I keep her anchored in reality? So, it’s back to the well of human experience. Could there possibly be a Dotty in there somewhere?

Peter Turnham 12.09.2021

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