The fuzzy line between fact and fiction Wednesday, Mar 12 2008 

It disturbs me that “fiction” is getting such a bad rap in the U.S. press, that publishers feel they can’t market a novel, but that a “true” story is okay, that readers hunger for “truth” and will pay for it.

Since when has memoir been held to documentary standards? Memoir is a story created from life. I write historical fiction, and in delving into the research, I’ve come to see quite clearly that historians write fiction, as well. The line between fact and fiction is fuzzy, always, and I don’t understand this urge to nail it down. Facts can be misleading, and fiction can be revealing.

Story is how we explain the past—our history—to ourselves. Story is a powerful tool, and it is story that sets us apart from the world of animals (at least insofar as we know!).

Yet I’m guilty myself, I know. I love that “wow” moment when reading historical texts, thinking: Imagine—this actually happened. I think the issue is not whether something is true or false, but the understanding, the contract that is created between the author and reader. The outrage is: “We have been misled.” Frey’s memoir was more fiction than fact, but was marketed as fact. Even so, I have trouble understanding the furor.

One of my first historical reveries was brought on by a diary I read of a Quaker young woman in 18th century England. I was swept away by this “true” account. On my next trip to London, I researched her life; it was there that I learned that the diary was fiction, a novel. I felt disillusioned, let down, but then thought: “What a good novel.” For it drew me into the world of the past in a very real way—and that’s what fiction can do that fact cannot.


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Ancient libraries on-line Tuesday, Dec 25 2007 

Renaissance Magazine has an interesting article in the December, 2007 (#58) issue on how ancient books are being digitized for on-line libraries. Normally books are scanned, but the photo-like images take up lots of file space. If converted to text, the files are smaller. An additional advantage, for the researcher, is that they can then be searched.

However, converting old books to text is challenging because of the irregularity of the printing. An interesting solution makes use of the garbled letters test given to an estimated 60 million internet users a day. By incorporating snippets of a scanned book into the tests—and feeding the “translations” back to the digital library—a digital text version of the book is created.