The Amber Heart and Made Up Truth

The Amber Heart, all 130,000 words of it, is now finished and with my agent. I have come to think of it as 'The Great Polish Novel'. Great is right in one sense, at least. I printed it out, last night, and it would make a pretty efficient doorstop. It is loosely based on my own family history, but - of course - very much fictionalised. I've been thinking about this project and researching it for years. In fact, I've made previous attempts to write it, but this is the first time I've achieved something I'm really happy with, and my agent seems to like it too. This is the first of two planned novels. The sequel, called The Winged Hussar, is already under way. The story is almost impossibly romantic (in the best sense of that word, I hope!) But as ever, when working with factual material, the trick is to give yourself permission to move away from those facts, and shape it into a work of fiction: what that fine writer Bernard MacLaverty calls 'made up truth.'
As a writer, when you are working with beginning writers, they will sometimes say 'but it really happened like that' - whenever you query some aspect of a piece of fiction that doesn't quite seem to be working.
It is, I think, one of the first and hardest lessons you have to learn. When you are writing fiction, you are aiming for 'made up truth.' It has to be believable in the sense of being self consistent, in the sense that your readers will say 'yes, life is like that' or 'yes, people are like that' or 'yes, I believe in this world you have created for me.'
But 'it really happened' is no guarantee that your readers will suspend their disbelief. You are wooing them and winning them and drawing them in. Therefore, if you are writing fiction, and not biography, you have to give yourself permission to do whatever it takes to achieve that!