Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Fact From Fiction—Is There a Difference?

by Eva Marie Everson @EvaMarieEverson

In the past few years I’ve found myself in a strange predicament.
For a fiction writer, I’ve been telling a lot of truths.
This realization began years ago when I heard the story of Joan Hunt Zimmerman. My friend, Sharon Decker, who happened to also be a friend of Mrs. Zimmerman told me about her. “What do you think,” she said, “of a woman who comes from England to American after World War II, moves in with four strangers, and ends up buying a wedding dress with them?”

I admit it. I was intrigued. So much so that I stayed quiet about it, telling only my agent.
And my mother.
She was intrigued too.
I wanted to interview Mrs. Zimmerman, but her schedule as founder of Southern Shows, along with the unexpected passing of a sister in England, caused us to have to put the initial interview on hold. In fact, for quite a while. Still, I remained moot on the fact that she’d granted me not only the interview but the coveted story. (I would learn when interviewing her husband that many writers had begged for it, but I was the only one to get it.)
Finally, I met with Joan at a Panera Bread restaurant in North Carolina near her home. There, she regaled me with her story while showing off old photos of her roommates, a young and dashing Robert Zimmerman and her during their dating years, and—of course—photos of her wedding day in which she wore “the dress.”
With enough information on the story, I created a plot synopsis, sent it to my agent, who then shopped it with editors. Within a short period of time, we had a bite. Then we had a contract. Then we signed a contract … and then the publishing house folded its fiction line.
Disappointed, I shared my woes with Jan Stob, fiction acquisitions editor at Tyndale Publishing. However, I didn’t lament with an editor. First and foremost, Jan is my friend and has been for many years. So technically, I cried over the proverbial spilled milk with my friend.
Within a half a breath Jan let me know she wanted to see the proposal. Shortly thereafter I signed a contract with Tyndale (my first), and then, as the ink dried, I began the task of learning even more about the real story I was about to fictionalize.
The biggest problem with this was that Joan—one of five roommates in the early 1950s—seemed to be the only survivor. Extensive research brought me to the unfortunate knowledge that the others had passed away, one only a few months earlier. Getting their stories would not be possible. “I’m giving you carte blanche,” Joan said after I’d informed her. “Tell my story but create theirs.”
And so I did.
But when you tell a true story as fiction, there’s more to be considered than the facts or the major dramatic question (Can five near-strangers buy one dress and share it on their wedding days?) There’s location. There’s era. There is fashion and language and history. I realized that if I were going to write this novel with any sense of reality, I had to dive into the time, the places, and the people.
And so I did.
Five Brides released and, in time, climbed to #1 on the CBA Bestselling list for historical fiction, and within the top 50 overall. I couldn’t have been more thrilled, even as I began working on a new novel, this one set in WWII.
Like Five Brides, my new work, The One True Love of Alice-Ann (which releases in 2017), is based on a true story I heard many years ago. The couple who shared with my husband and me their most amazing love story have passed away and so, once again, I found myself unable to get the details. But I knew enough in order to begin building the story.
Because the work is set in WWII, finding already published work of real-life stories wasn’t so difficult. I talked with a few survivors of the war and those who held down the fort at home. I watched videos (some I wished I had not heard about) and listened carefully to the tales of hardships brought about by the second war to rock the 20th century.
I also listened to my own heart and I realized we’re not so different, really—one generation to the next. Cut us and we bleed, to misquote William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. “Tickle us and we laugh.”
Something struck me as I typed “the end” on the last line of the last page. Really, there’s an awful lot of truth in every work of fiction, I decided. We novel writers are inspired by something we hear or see or read. Fragments of news wrapped in a blanket of truth that our minds—being wired as they are—take to vast places yet unknown. In Alice-Ann, I created a small town called Bynum, Georgia, but the truth is that Bynum is every small town in America, 1941 – 1944. As the writer, I had to stay true to her.

I thought back to my novel Chasing Sunsets (currently free on Kindle, etc.) which begins with the courtroom drama where a divorced couple fight over the father’s summer visitation of their sons. In what should have been a clear-cut case of a judge warning the father against newly-single shenanigans in front of the boys became a father receiving additional time with his impressionable young sons. I hadn’t made this up. I’d seen it with my own eyes in the life of a friend who’d fought pretty much that same battle.

The follow-up novel, Waiting for Sunrise, focused on elements of mental health, familial abuse and dysfunction, and the healing hand of God. These issues are some I’ve seen time and again in ministry and in the lives of those who have touched mine. The plot points and conflict-drivers couldn’t be made up, they had to be extensively researched. They had to be real.

In Things Left Unspoken, I looked into the civil rights issues of the mid-1960s South. Again, I read … I watched videos …  I reached into my own remembrances … I talked to the experts. So much so that I inadvertently included a real incident that had affected people I actually know!

The cream of the crop may be This Fine Life, which was written in 2009, released in 2010, but recently received some incredible reviews at Amazon after a PR blast. This Fine Life tells of a woman (Mariette) who marries the man of her dreams (Thayne) who, in turn, decides to become a preacher, which was not the life his young wife had signed up for. I interviewed dozens of pastors and their wives and, in creating the storyline from Thayne’s decision onward, told only true stories, collaboratively.

Truth is (ha-ha), fiction writers aren’t just made-up-storytellers. We hold a nugget of truth in our hands and, after a little while of tossing that nugget around, we weave a story around it, one that oftentimes holds elements of our own stories. But while that story may be fictitious, we are responsible to tell the truth about the era, the emotions, the events, etc. that shaped that period of time and the people who lived within it. We are responsible to be real about the end results of decisions made, about consequences to our actions, both good and bad. We are responsible to do our homework, which can oftentimes be more task-heavy than the actual writing of the work.

But that is what is required of us. To bring the truth to our readers so that God can work within their hearts, means we writers must know fact from fiction.


Eva Marie is a multiple award-winning author and speaker. She is one of the original five Orlando Word Weavers critique group members, an international and national group made up of critique chapters. She served as the original president from 2000 to 2007 and is now president of Word Weavers International, Inc. Eva Marie served as a mentor for Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild for several years and has taught at a number of writers conferences nationwide. During the 2010-2011 school year, Eva Marie served as an adjunct professor at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. She describes it as one of the best times she ever had while working. Eva Marie also serves as director of Florida Christian Writers Conference (along with Mark Hancock).

She is both a past and current student at Andersonville Theological Seminary where she plans to receive her Masters in Old Testament Theology sometime before her ninetieth birthday. Eva Marie and her husband make their home in Central Florida where they are owned by one very spoiled dog, a funky chicken, and two hearts-full of grandchildren.

*Carol Award Winner for The Potluck Club
**ICRS Gold Medallion Finalist
***Multiple awards, including 2012 Inspirational Readers Choice Award & Maggie Award (Chasing Sunsets), 2013 Maggie Award & 2013 Christy finalist for Waiting for Sunrise, 2014 AWSA Golden Scroll Award (Slow Moon Rising), 2015 AWSA Golden Scroll Award (The Road to Testament)
****CBA Bestseller List several months running and a finalist for Retailers Choice Awards, 2013


  1. I've always love Your books, from the first when I sat as an impressionable new writer in a class you taught at the BRMCWC. My biggest thrill was when you became my editor on my first book sold!

    But most of all, I love the benchmark you're setting in Christian fiction.

    1. One of my biggest thrills was being the editor of your first book! I love being part of the story. :)

  2. "The nugget of truth" always makes for the best stories. Thanks for your post, Eva Marie. Pinned & shared. :)

    1. Oh. I've been pinned. I thought I felt something ... :)

  3. Thank you for your words of wisdom, Eva Marie. You are not only a gifted writer, but you also have been given the gift of being a teacher. I am one who has reaped the rewards of learning from you. My cozy delves into the past. I will make sure to get it right. Thanks for this.

    1. Thanks Eva. Sometimes fiction, because of the emotions, can be stronger than nonfiction. Also Edie, congratulations. I see you have over two million views. Super cool.

    2. EDIE is super cool! :) And yes, we have to put a little of ourselves in, don't we?

  4. You amaze me, Eva. I love reading your stories and sitting in on classes you teach. Thank you for all the help you've given me down through the last few ... more than few years!