When Fact Is Stranger than Fiction


I recently read Jack Higgins’ The Valhalla Exchange, which made me think about how fiction can be inspired by stranger fact.

The Valhalla Exchange involves a fictitious an attempt by Martin Bormann, one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany, to use prominent Allied POWs as a bargaining chip in the waning days of WWII. It concludes with American and German soldiers joining forces in a last stand against a SS assault force led by Bormann.

American and German soldiers joining together to fight the SS? Hah!

In fact, Higgins’ book was inspired by two actual incidents from WWII—the mystery surrounding Bormann’s ultimate fate, and the Battle of Castle Itter. The latter is considered the strangest battle of the war, and involved a small force of GIs and Wehrmacht soldiers who actually did join together in the last days of the war to protect a group of POWs from the Nazi SS.

In a forward to the novel, Higgins discusses Bormann’s disappearance and his reported escape to South America after the war. He concludes the forward rather humorously with this: “As for the remainder of this story, only the more astonishing parts are true—the rest is fiction.”

This is the type of story I love to read. James Rollins, Bob Mayer, and Robert Masello are a few of the writers who blend history with fiction in their thrillers, and who always send me to the Internet to read more about their historic inspiration. They have a knack for taking a historic event—often an obscure event—and using it to inspire and propel a story forward.

Not surprisingly, therefore, much of my own work finds its inspiration in true life events.

My second Peter Brandt novel, The Last Refuge, was inspired by news reports that came out during Operation Desert Storm that American corporations were secretly negotiating with Saddam Hussein to rebuild his military even as our troops were still engaged in combat with Iraqi forces. In the novel, a battlefield murder intended to keep those negotiations secret leads to more murder on the home front.

The Butcher’s Bill, my latest novel, involves the true-life theft of nearly $9 billion in U.S. cash from Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The theft was the largest heist in history, but it was never investigated by our government. I use this event as the launching board for a fictitious story about one man’s effort to expose the secret of the real-world crime.

Another true yet bizarre event—the mysterious and still unexplained disappearances of four submarines from four different countries within an eight-week period in 1968—was the inspiration for my current WIP, a military sci-fi thriller called Polar Melt. In the novel, the fictional cause for those sub losses leads to a confrontation between U.S. and Russian interests over a mysterious energy anomaly in today’s nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean.

The art of applying factual events to your writing is to treat them like seasoning in cooking—a little is good, too much not so good. This is particularly true when the facts are stranger than the fiction.