When Truth Doesn’t Belong in Fiction

We’ve all heard the saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Examples of how accurate that saying is are all over the media. They prompt me to do some quick fact-checking–could this really have happened or is someone messing around with the facts, provided there are any facts to sensationalize. But how many of us have heard the saying, “Just because it happened doesn’t mean it should go in a story”?

When I was writing my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Heart, I questioned friends and family members whose relatives had also been refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion of Latvia. Did any of them have anecdotes they could share, something that would add drama to my novel and express the desperation of Latvians to escape the Red Army? Our people knew from long experience the horrors that would follow when the Soviets took over.

One friend, whom I’ve known for decades told me of an incident that involved her aunt; let’s call her Velta.

Velta and her family were departing the Latvian port city, Liepāja by ship. Velta was standing at the rail, for a last glimpse of her homeland, as the ship started to pull away. Down on the dock, a desperate woman, who had not been able to get on board, threw her baby to Velta, who succeeded in catching the little girl. Velta and her family treated the baby as if she were their own. Later, the mother was able to track down her baby in the Displaced Persons camps in Germany. Mother and daughter were happily reunited.

Liepāja, Latvia. The city and the steeple of St. Joseph’s Cathedral was the last glimpse of home that many Latvian refugees had.

Wow! I thought. What a great true story. So illustrative of this terrible situation, how a mother would do anything to keep her precious child from having to grow up under the Soviet rule of terror. With my friend’s permission, I decided to give Velta’s story to my heroine, Līvija Galiņa.

My Latvian beta reader objected. “This scene is not believable,” he said. But it really happened, I replied. “That may be so, but it’s still not believable,” he insisted. “However, you’re the author, so it’s your decision.”

Writers have many tricky choices to make.

After thinking it over, I realized that he was right. The incident really happened. It was related to me by a trusted friend. But it didn’t belong in my story. Fiction though it is, I want my novel to be plausible. Including the story of Velta and the baby she saved would be an unnecessary distraction from my narrative. I don’t want readers thinking, “Nah, this can’t have happened.” Or, “This is preposterous.” Or, have the detail-oriented, over-thinkers like me, who read in my author’s note that I’d based this account on a true incident, wondering, “How far was the ship from the dock?” “How fast was the ship going?” “Was the mother a basketball player?”

Striving for believability, I took the story out. Other incidents in my novel that involve the Latvian refugees are based on true stories, but this one does not belong.

The link to my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Hart. Available on Kindle Vella. The first few chapters are free to read.

Some Honeymoon!

The Beginning of a Refugee Journey

Today would have been my parents’ wedding anniversary.

They got married during World War II. At the time Germans were occupying Latvia. Two months after their wedding they were having breakfast when a German soldier knocked on the door and warned that the Soviet Red Army was invading Latvia. If they didn’t want to live under Soviet rule, they must flee immediately. They did.

My mother was from Limbaži, a town in the Vidzeme region in northern Latvia, not far inland from the Gulf of Rīga.

This is probably a school photo of my mother.

My father was from Alūksne in the northeast of Latvia. Too close to the border with Russia.

I don’t know when this photo of my father was taken.

They met in Mālpils, a small town that’s also in Vidzeme, but a bit farther to the south, closer to the capital, Rīga. My mother was a pharmacy assistant and my father was the postmaster. He would go to the pharmacy for prescriptions and she’d go to the post office to buy stamps. Other than that, I know nothing of their courtship. They were married at my maternal grandparents’ home and then returned to Mālpils. During wartime in an occupied country there was probably no opportunity to take a wedding trip.

The pharmacy in Mālpils.

 My mother had no wedding photos among her belongings.ī

 Taking the warning seriously my parents fled on bicycles. Someone must have carried their possessions in a wagon or maybe a truck. Their household goods included linen sheets and pillowcases. Towels that my mother had embroidered for her hope chest. These items made it all the way to America. Decades later when I visited my mother’s childhood home, where her younger brother and his family still live I was surprised and delighted to see a handwoven coverlet on my uncle and aunt’s bed that was identical to the one I have at home.

It’s hard to believe and embarrassing to realize how incurious I was about my parents’ marriage, their early years together, and how they got to Germany. My mother spoke very little about that time, my father not speak of it at all. How terrigly traumatic it must have been to leave behind everything they knew and loved, their families, their country, their professions, their entire way of life.

Two of my mother’s three brothers made it out of Lativa; her younger brother stayed behind with their parents. Only one of my father’s three brothers was able to escape. The other two brothers, his sister, and his parents never made it to freedom. Since they weren’t living in their hometowns when they left Latvia, they were unable to contact loved ones and  probably had no idea what became of them

I don’t know by what route my parents got to Germany. I never had to ask why they went to a war-torn country where all sorts of horrors were happening. What I do know is that most Latvians would have fled into the maw of hell in order to get away from the advancing Soviets army.

My parents in the Bavarian Alps.

My folks wound up in Berlin when it was being bombed. They found shelter in a five-tory brick schoolhouse. My mother said a bomb cut the building in two as if with a knife. I don’t know how my parents survived.

Eventually, they made it to the Hochfeld Displaced Persons Camp in Augsburg in the American-occupied zone, the German state of Bavaria. I’m not sure how long they were there, four or five years probably. Augsburg is where I was born.

My parents’ story and those of friends and relatives provided inspiration for my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Heart. Our first two refuges in the USA were Pennsylvania and then Delaware where my parents worked to pay back their sponsors for bringing us to America. Like my heroine, Līvija Galiņa, our ultimate desitnation was Western Washington. One of my mother’s cousins, her son, and her mother found a new home in Seattle on Capitol Hill where Līvija lives with her family. Where she meets her destiny.

The link to my novel on Kindle Vella.

Vella: 132K Words=$1

Yep. One buck.

To clarify, Vella does not buy anything. It’s a free platform for writers to self-publish their books in serial form. Amazon takes a cut of royalties.

This is a depressing piece to write.

Of course, my chapters have been “live” only since July 14. It takes time to build an audience. It also takes promoting, promoting, promoting. It takes readers who are willing to buy 200 tokens for $1.99 and up to $14.99 for 1700 tokens. 

Marketing is not much fun. I hate it.

I’ve published only twenty-two chapters of my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Heart. I have more chapters I could publish, but why should I bother if no one but one of my relatives is willing to spend a few bucks to read more chapters? He’s the one responsible for that one buck, for which I thank him.

 Amazon is offering 200 free tokens, which in the case of my novel takes readers through chapter nine. It might help if they went back to their original plan of offering three free episodes to entice readers. Because of those two hundred fee tokens, they’re not getting their cut and I’m not getting mine.

As far as I can tell, Amazon is doing little to promote Vella stories. The Vella banner does not automatically show up whenever someone visits their site. Readers have to know to click on the drop-down menu and scroll to Kindle Store; not everyone knows Vella books can be found in the Kindle store. If potential readers are not looking for a particular author or title, they need to just hit “enter” and thumbnail cover illustrations in their little circles will pops up. Some of the stories have star ratings, others do not. On the far right side, “see more” shows in a tiny font. You can get a list view or a grid view of titles Big deal. Writers have to educate their readers. One person on Facebook wanted to read my story; he couldn’t find it, so I sent him the link.

A screen shot of Vella instructions for readers. I couldn’t find it again. The site’s not exactly user friendly.

I have the Vella page bookmarked. It shows favorite stories and trending stories. I don’t remember how I got there. That’s why I bookmarked it; I knew I wouldn’t remember. 

Self-publishing on any platform requires the writer to promote like mad or to pay retail juggernaut Amazon to do it for them. That goes for KDP, too. I don’t know if Amzon expects payments in order to promote Vella books. I could also create a Facebook page for A Home for an Exile’s Heart. The page would be free, but people would only find it if they happened to stumble on it. Facebook would be glad to “boost” the page for me, but since Zuekcerberg must be broke, I’d have to pay to get my page “boosted.” I think it’s thirty dollars to boost a page, but don’t know if that’s monthly or for a year or what.

I’ve done only a little promoting. Writing about my novel here is one way to publicize it. My Word Press account is linked to Twitter, Tumblr, and LinkedIn. I can click on the “F” icon on my Word Press page to share my post on Facebook. I haven’t succeed in linking it.

 Because my heroine is a Latvian World War II refugee, I’ve also posted links in several Latvian Facebook groups. People have congratulated me and clicked on “like” but seemingly no one cares enough to read even free chapters. Those who’ve read my chapters haven’t given Exile a thumbs up. I may have to post the link again with the screenshot.

I’m not sure it would be worth the money to pay Facebook to boost a page dedicated to my novel.

Maybe Exile doesn’t belong on Vella in the first place. There are no categories for women’s fiction or mainstream fiction. None of my characters are billionaires, Highlanders, or werewolves. Exile’s not paranormal, a fantasy, or a mystery. The Latvian refugee and the dashing fighter pilot live in non-dystopian Seattle in 1952. It didn’t even have the Space Needle back then.

What next? I guess I’ll leave A Home for an Exile’s Heart on Vella for the time being, but I will not publish any more chapters. I have no reason to. And I’ll go back to querying agents.

BUT, depressing as it was to report this stuff about Vella, it was writing. Writing is what I do. I feel better for having written.

Quote: Albert Camus

(1913 – 1960)

French philosopher, author, and journalist. Author of The Stranger, The Plague, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Fall, and The Rebel.

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957

For years the only part of this quote that I knew and loved was the part about invincible summer. Recently, I was delighted to find the entire quote.

I have many snow scene photos, but I chose this image because it better shows how bleak winter can feel.
A perfect way to spend a summer day, reading in the Rose Garden at Point Defiance Park.
Glorious summer roses at Pt. Defiance.
Images to carry in your heart when it’s winter.
Soft and delicate, but resilient.
Brightness emerging from the dark.

How to Make a Creative Happy

The other day I succeeded in delighting a photographer. He’d posted a photo on a social media site of a road surrounded by towering trees as it curved around the rim of a deep gorge. Others besides me loved the photo; they called it beautiful, awesome, gorgeous, etc. One-word reactions such as this are the norm. I made similar remarks, but I also commented on the splash of golden sunlight shining through the leaves. The photographer’s response was effusive to the point of gushing. His response delighted me. It made me happy to make him happy.

Even art photographers sometimes risk their necks to get a good shot.

This isn’t the first time I’ve pleased a photographer by looking closely at his or her work of art and commenting on details that I find especially outstanding or evocative.

As a writer, I know what other creatives like, what tickles them to the point where their socks fly off, like Charlie Brown’s when he’s knocked off the pitcher’s mound by a fastball.

It’s wonderful to get responses such as beautiful, awesome, breathtaking, but they don’t tell the artist very much. The same goes for writing. I like hearing, “good story,” “nice,” “interesting.” These are all instantaneous responses that require little thought. Creatives want to know why you like their work. What makes it special?

To photographers, I say such things as, “I like your framing.” I like the contrast of colors and texture.” “The way your captured the light is magical.” “I love the composition.”

Writers also like to know what you like about their story.

“Writing is easy. Just sit down at a typewriter, open your veins and bleed” or variations of the same have been attributed to more than one writer.

One of the best responses I once got from a reader was, “I felt like I was there with your character. I felt what she was feeling.”

That’s what I want to know. Do my characters come alive? Have I made you feel what they feel? Are my settings so vivid that it seems as if you’re there? Are my images, metaphors, and similies memorable? Can you visualize what I’m describing? If my writing made you get misty or gave you a chuckle, I’d like to know that, too.

The kind of reactions I’ve described require a bit of thought, not just a knee-jerk reaction. Yes, it takes a bit of time, but the creative has put hours of time and much effort into their work. I think they deserve a thoughtful response.

I have to admit that I don’t always know what to say, either. Even though I took several art history classes in college, I feel I don’t know enough about art to make apt comments. It’s why I avoid going to opening receptions at art galleries, just so I don’t have to talk to the artist, I’m afraid that what I say will be banal, cliched. That’s more about my own ego, to not seem ignorant. But even if the artist has heard the same comment a hundred times it’s okay. Creatives like to know their work has been seen and appreciated, not matter how naive the comments..