Monday, March 17, 2014

Demarcation, Risk, Renewal: Finding the Bridge Separating Fact and Fiction, an essay by Brian Walter Budzynski (plus giveaway)

Today's guest writer is Brian Walter Budzynski, who speaks about his experience in constructing his novella The Remark (Main Street Rag, 2013) and offers some wise words on the reasons why authors choose to write historical fiction.  There's a giveaway opportunity at the end, too.


Demarcation, Risk, Renewal: 
Finding the Bridge Separating Fact and Fiction
Brian Walter Budzynski

Readers are in the habit of seeking verifiable fact, which is often unfairly threaded to truth, in works of fiction. I, myself, was for a long time in the habit of doing this, desperate both for some semblance of authenticity and a subtle means of self-education—until I began to wonder why it was I felt it so important. Not the search for fact itself, but the search for it in products of imagination, in fiction.

In a recent interview, the novelist Howard Norman said that fact is useful to him in the construction of a narrative story with an historical setting until it begins to trespass upon the imagination, upon the truth sought through creation. These wise and useful words pretty well stand up for my working philosophy in writing my novella, The Remark. The story, set in the Stalinist Poland of the 1950s, does exist within the stricture of quantifiable history, while simultaneously acting on a wholly made-up premise, namely that five men are secreted away from the usual order of Soviet military justice and “imprisoned” in a rural area near the coast of the Baltic Sea, and there made to perform a work detail that is at once dehumanizing and unspeakable in nature.

I knew going into the writing of the story that I had no desire to rehash the myriad accounts of internment and forced labor I had read; to do so would have been cheap and unfair to the dignity of those records. It would have been, simply, obscene in a way that what those records described, though the stuff of horror, was not. I did, however, wish to capture the machinations of such records, the emotional tolls they spoke of, and hopefully, in my own way, illumine what seemed to me the triumph of human will and dignity in the face of an inhuman system of punishment.

I started by trying to forget the details of the research I had done, and at the same time to let the essence of it remain. Basically, I tried to keep a consistent mindset that would allow me to forge a workable outline for my story that was original, that was entirely mine, safe from the accidental forgery of someone else’s work.

Then I wrote. Knocking out the first draft as best I could. Sentence by tough, unsatisfying sentence.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, wrote, roughly, that the first draft is done with the door closed, and that all subsequent drafts are done with the door open. To wit: draft one serves the writer; drafts two through however many it takes to get it right serve the reader. I knew from the get-go that historical accuracy would be one measuring stick of how my book would be judged on merit. It would do no good to introduce blatant falsehoods into a narrative of an era on which there was already such a plethora of incredibly good stuff out there.

By draft three, I had found the line in the sand, the place where I would demarcate (in my own mind, as I worked) where fact would be allowed to wizen, turn gray, and eventually become superseded by the impulse of the story. And simply it was this: the characters, the intimacy of the settings of the story’s action, and the “tasks” these men were indentured to perform would be entirely flights of imagination, which would taste “factual truth” only in the tone in which they were written.

Once I had come to this decision, the next several drafts became much looser; I felt more at ease to focus on language and less on “Oh, but what if this never really happened.” My goal was now, as I suppose it was from the very beginning, to cause a rent in the heart of the reader. The arrow would be small (I knew pretty early on I was writing a novella and not an opus), but I would make it razor sharp.

There is a kind of play that exists in writing historical fiction. We choose a time period because it fascinates; we fictionalize it because we feel we have something to add to it, to amplify or sharpen our singular view of it. To contribute to the general literary conversation. This has always, I imagine, been one of the propellants of writers, no matter their subject, but it might have particular importance for writers of historical fiction. The point is not to rehash recorded fact, but to find the human truth in past experience, and to somehow make that valuable in the eyes of today’s reader. It’s an awfully grand task, but that’s part of the allure. And what’s more it is work of privilege: to be able to write, in the first place; and in the second, to forge a gossamer thread that binds one’s interests and ambitions to an untold sliver of a world not yet forgotten. A world, by the act of fiction, renewed.


Brian Walter Budzynski earned his MFA from Roosevelt University, where he received the university's thesis award. He has worked for Dalkey Archive Press, Fiction Collective 2, Other Voices, American Book Review, and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He is presently edits books for a small publishing firm in suburban Chicago, and is completing a novel set in WWII-era Nova Scotia.

Thanks to the generosity of the author, I have a giveaway opportunity.  Three copies of Brian Walter Budzynski's novella The Remark are up for grabs.  Please fill out the form below for a chance to win.  This contest is open internationally (void where prohibited).  Deadline March 31, 2014.


  1. Great guest post. I liked how you talked about your writing process. JA Conrath, one of my favorite authors, has a blog called A Newbie's Guide to Publishing. It is for writers. It not only talks about publishing but about writing. I think it will be a great resource to you and your writing career. Here is his link:

  2. Anonymous7:25 PM

    Ooh, lovely, Brian. And I agree with your take on letting fiction tell the story and "to cause a rent in the heart of the reader". Ultimately, that's what's important.

  3. Anonymous3:46 PM

    Dear Lauralee and Cynthia,

    Thank you for your kind replies to the piece. I very much appreciate it, and I hope you've registered for the contest to get a copy of the book. This is a really great thing Sarah is doing, having the Historical Fiction month, huh?

    I wish you both great good luck with your own writing.