Stranger than Fiction

by Virginia Parker Staat

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction
is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

~Mark Twain, Following the Equator: a Journey Around the World

It was a vision to behold… nearly 100 men, each dressed in white, all dancing, twirling, running, and flapping their arms while the band raucously sang the old Gospel tune, I’ll Fly Away. A preposterous story? I should warn you that when I was a child my grandmother would chide me for my vivid imagination and the tales I would tell.

As I write this, Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) approach, with all their macabre implications. With chilling stories swirling between these two bewitching days, let’s examine three gruesome tales to see what truths they may hold:

  1. A dead whale being transported through town exploded, showering cars, shops, and residents with rotting entrails, blood, and blubber.
  2. A single lightning strike killed over 300 reindeer.
  3. Millions of wintering bats have been found dead, most exhibiting fuzzy, white noses.

So what do these sensational stories have to do with writing? I remember the day my favorite professor read two articles aloud in class. In the first, a crematorium had burned to the ground when a 500-pound body created excessive heat, melting the chimney and causing an inferno that could be seen from miles away. I don’t remember the second, fictitious story. His point was that sometimes the most bizarre stories we write are true.

Nonfiction writers build trust by writing truths. We have an ethical responsibility to tell the truth, check our facts, and report without exaggeration. Our credibility is especially on the line each time we write about the strange and sensational.

We build credibility when we write confidently, use an active rather than passive voice, back our data with credible sources, report fairly, stick to our topic, and deliver on promises. When relevant, we incorporate our personal experience, special knowledge, or unique perspective. When possible, we include photographs.

In contrast, our credibility instantly diminishes when we include a sentence similar to the one I used in my opening paragraph (i.e., I should warn you that when I was a child my grandmother would chide me for my vivid imagination and the tales I would tell.). We also diminish our credibility when we write vaguely like I did with the three gruesome stories. We lose our credibility when we manipulate the truth.

Each of my sensational stories is true. Let’s take a closer look at the exploding whale tale. After reading several reports about the whale, I found the most credible article packed with facts. It happened in Tainin, Taiwan. The 56-foot, 60-ton sperm whale beached itself and died on January 17, 2004. Researchers wanted to do an autopsy for educational purposes but had difficulty securing a location. On January 26, workers used three cranes to hoist the whale’s remains on a flatbed for transport to a nature preserve. The carcass exploded en route. The journalist’s report included eyewitness testimony to the explosion and the clean-up. He provided forensic reasons why the whale exploded. He did not title his article There She Blows (unfortunately, several other writers did).

In my other sensational stories, the simple addition of one or two credible facts would have made it much easier for readers to discern their authenticity, i.e., The Norwegian Nature Inspectorate reports a single lightning strike killed 323 reindeer when they apparently huddled together in fear during the storm. The U.S. Forest Service warns that whole populations of wintering bats are dying to White-Nose Syndrome, so named because of the telltale white, fuzzy fungus growing on the noses of many infected bats.

As writers, our credibility is fragile, especially when we write about the bizarre. We build credibility with each truthful sentence we write and can easily destroy it with just one exaggeration. When we write vaguely or sensationally, our readers become suspect and begin to scrutinize every detail. Lee Gutkind writes in his book You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, “honesty and credibility are the bone and sinew, the essential irrefutable anchoring elements of nonfiction.”

We live in an amazing world filled with extraordinary moments… some wonderfully beautiful and others extremely bizarre. We expand our reader’s knowledge and their horizons when we write these stories in a truthful and credible report.

And just to wrap this up… my vision of nearly 100 white-clad men dancing and flapping their arms to I’ll Fly Away? True. I witnessed these inmates dancing at my first Kairos prison ministry closing ceremony. Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction.