The Line Between Fiction and Non-fiction

Have you ever read a novel and wondered what was fact and what was fiction? Greg Johnston, author of Sweet Bitter Cane brings that perspective to today’s blog post. Welcome, Greg.


I remember my primary school library, a large room in the middle of a railway carriage of cold classrooms.  The non-fiction was on the left-handside of the room and the fiction on the right.  The twain met on the reading mat in the middle of the room.  I think I’ve always kept this line in my head between fiction and non-fiction.

Real life is rarely a novel.  Despite all the puffed-up grandeur we ascribe to our own circumstance, it rarely follows precisely the neat structural dictates of a novel, with all its demands to satisfy the well-hewed expectations of a reader.  I liken it to making bread.  The stories are mixed, allowed to prove, punched down, re-kneaded, baked and finally eaten.

Recently, a pleased reader emailed me saying she wished she’d known Sweet Bitter Cane was based in fact.  Although she enjoyed it, this would have helped her connect more to the story.  While I was grateful for her praise, it was an odd experience, cast back to my primary school library and its division of fact and fiction.

I couldn’t have drummed up the events of Sweet Bitter Cane; a young, Italian woman fleeing physically and fiscally destroyed post-WWI Northern Italy, hoping to find a better life on the sugarcane fields in the Far North of Queensland in Australia.  But all that hope became mired in relentless racism, envy and resentment, resulting in her being accused of supporting fascism and imprisoned for a significant part of WWII.

These were the facts I’d gathered together over decades of interest, not one story but a repeated story of many Italian migrants to Australia.  But when a neighbor, Gloria, gave me a folder of archived documents about her mother, Gina, her arrest and imprisonment, the bones of the story started accruing flesh and blood.

The documents I had about the “real” woman were scant and fractured. In a way, she was unremarkable.  And, as a woman of that epoch, her accounts of life were rarely recorded.  But as a writer, I was in an incredibly privileged position – my neighborwas the “real” woman’s daughter.  How easy was it for me to pop next door and mine Gloria’s memories of the house, the farm, the town, the concentration camp and life after their release.  But even this had limits.  Gloria, so young when she was forced to go with her mother to the camp, only had one memory; of being put in a car and taken away from her mother. 

I commenced more research, found more details, corroborated other facts.  But I still didn’t have a story adhering to the genre expectations of my reader.  I began to knead what I possessed and often with surprising results.  I noticed amongst the documents, the “real” woman’s husband had written many letters. They were always in different handwriting, but the signature was the same.  I thought, he couldn’t read or write. And when I asked Gloria, she blushed and asked how I knew?  I realised she wasn’t telling me the whole “real” story and that there were private details she found either embarrassing or had forgotten.

At this point, I felt a justified sense of liberation. I had these bare bones I could perhaps bend but not break, but the story’s flesh was mine.  I had to fill the cracks between the documents with imagination.  The “un-real” woman had to have thoughts, imaginings, desires and disappointments.  These were never written, probably never spoken, perhaps embarrassing, never entirely clear to anyone but her.  And this is the stuff of a novel’s pages.

But this reader’s well-intentioned email left me in a bit of a quandary.  In the run-up to the publication of Sweet Bitter Cane, I’d considered bannering in fluorescent pink across the cover – BASED ON A TRUE STORY. And the novel is, at least in part, but then … it seemed a cheap lunge at credibility.

I swooned and still do to Byatt’s Possession, where the whole thing was made up, securely positing Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel La Motte amongst their canonical contemporaries.  But I still read Eco’s The Name of the Rose as fiction which inspired me to cross the reading mat and read some non-fiction about medieval monks.  Should we colour a novel’s text, like the original imprint of Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish, with a rainbow of colours to signify the real, the not-so-real, the un-real, and the lies? Footnotes – there’s a thought.  And a mess.  This all forces an historical fiction writer into a rather obtuse corner.

But rather than the lines between the two extremes being as demarcated as my primary school library, isn’t this reading mat between the two extremes the arena where the reader’s imagination comes into play?  Reading is far from a passive experience, and perhaps an historical novel should tweak a reader’s imagination to find more information, go to the left-hand side of the reading mat, if they so desire. 

An historical novel churns all this “real” and “un-real” to rich butter, much more than a cheap blended Rosé. But they are un-real novels and should be exalted as such.  It reminds me of a late twentieth-century popular song.

It takes courage to enjoy it

The hardcore and the gentle

Big time sensuality

Many thanks, Greg. I’ll be thinking of this dividing line and the reading mat when I read my next historical novel.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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15 Responses

  1. Hi, Mary.

    I love this post. I have had so many questions on this tour about reality and fiction and have noted a kind of curious confusion between the two. This may be the best discussion of that topic I have seen.

    Thank you. Hope you are well.


    Diane C. McPhail 395 North Cobb Road Highlands, NC 28741 Author of THE ABOLITIONIST’S DAUGHTER (Kensington Books)


    1. Hi Diane, I’m pleased you liked the post. With Sweet Bitter Cane I felt I had to ride this boundary quite finely, especially as there are still people in the novel who are alive. It is odd when you read a novel that is slanted more to a non-fiction tone. I guess the nervousness of the narrator in Keneally’s Schindler’s Arc is a good demonstration of this. Good luck with your writing. Greg

  2. Yes, a very pertinent reflection here. Having written a short history of the Kennedys of Mount Kennedy (Co Wicklow, Ireland), I am now mulling over the historical novel for this family (they tended to the dramatic, but then 17th cent. Ireland was a dramatic time). There are personal letters in the estate papers, which are gold. But I think I’ll add a section at the end of the book outlining actual historical material in it.


    1. Hi Therese, Sounds like an interesting novel. The letters are amazing to have. But try and read “above” them, for want of a better word. As I outlined here, the letters I had for Sweet Bitter Cane gave up a lot of meta information too. Let you imagination fly with that. Greg

    1. I’m sure Greg will be delighted to hear that, inktreks. Since he lives in Australia, he’s probably sleeping right now but he’ll no doubt replied soonish.

    2. Hi Inktreks, I glad you like the sound of Sweet Bitter Cane. I was very lucky to find the story and there’s a lesson to a writer here – the person who told me the story was living next door to me for years. Please let me know if you like the novel. Greg

  3. Excellent post, Greg. As someone who’s baked a lot of bread, I appreciate the analogy of the author kneading together fact and fiction and letting it rise into something the reader will enjoy ‘eating.’

    Anita Diamant’s excellent novel “The Red Tent” sent me back to the Bible to tease out fact and fiction. I am fascinated with Jim Fergus’s ability to take one small fact and built it into a story that informs, challenges, and entertains in “One Thousand White Women.”

    1. I loved The Red Tent, Carol, also Margaret George’s novel about Mary Magdalene. I think I have a fascination for biblical fiction.

      1. Me, too, Mary. Recently I came across the term “midrash” – described as “the imaginative explorations and expansions of scripture.” Rachel Held Evans uses the technique in her excellent non-fiction book “Inspired” to offer new perspectives on bible stories. You might enjoy checking out that book/technique. Who knows, you may find your next novel idea!

    2. Hi Carol, Well, I wish you could give me some lessons in bread making! I’m working on a new novel called, Bread – A Romance. It’s about a small community of Jews and Christians who lived in a small village together for 500 years. One of the things that united them was bread – in all it’s forms and festivals – and the gossip at the communal oven. I started trying to make bread to understand. I started a “starter” for sourdough which is amazing. It sits on the shelf for ages and when I want to use it it all comes back to life. No fridge needed. Sweet Bitter Cane was fun to knead. I enjoyed writing it a lot and hope people enjoy reading it.

      1. Your new book sounds interesting, Greg. Bread does unite us. My mother frequently had bread coming out of the oven as my sisters and I came home from school. A hot slice of fresh-baked bread was guaranteed to make us sit at the table to eat and talk about the day. Of course, ‘breaking bread together’ is a sign of hospitality and the basis of hymns. Making bread – kneading it, as I’m sure you’re discovering, is also meditative. So much in such a simple food.

        1. There is something very primal about bread, especially it’s smell which seems to create hunger so easily. It’s hardwired, like a basic survival mechanism – eat this. It will keep you alive. We seem so removed from the baking now. When I lived in Italy the apartment was above a bakery. Each morning I would put the coffee on and then go down to get the bread. I went back many years later and the baker woman remembered me. I love the idea of the sourdough starter being handed down over the years, grown, divided, given and used – alive. My novel’s a long way from completion. I’ve been working on something else which is nearly finished so it’s time to get back to it, and hopefully capture the aroma of baking bread between the pages.

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