False Documents: Adding Authenticity to your Thriller
False documents are great for drawing your reader into your story. Why’s that important? Because many people have trouble suspending their disbelief in stories. This is doubly true for speculative fiction authors, because it’s inherently difficult for people to believe in worlds outside their experience.
Anything we can do to make readers forget they’re reading fiction helps them engage with the story better, and that has to be good for the author.
But what are these ‘false documents’? What we are talking about is including convincing reports, maps, diaries and other ‘non-fiction’ elements in a novel.
Types of False Document
The Bookend Technique
The bookend technique (also known as a frame story) is a simple type of false document. It involves writing a normal novel but then adding a preface and afterword, from the ‘editor’ or ‘recipient’ of the story where they explain how the story came into their possession and the likely fate of the author.
In the preface, Jack Higgins’ The Eagle has Landed claims to be a true story. It also uses the bookend technique—the opening and closing chapters are an account of the author investigating the ‘mystery’ and interviewing some of the ‘witnesses’.
Similarly, Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male claims to be three exercise books sent to the publisher. A letter written by an anonymous Englishman who tried to assassinate Hitler (or possibly Stalin, the target is ambiguous) accompanies the exercise books. In it, the Englishman says he wants to present the facts and make sure he doesn’t implicate the British government. In the last chapter, Household has some fun by putting these words in the protagonist’s mouth:
I want these papers published. If necessary, have them brushed up by some competent hack.
More Advanced False Documents
In our quest to make our novel seem like a true story, the bookend/frame story technique is only the first step. By inventing and inserting genuine-looking documents, we can create a strong sense of authenticity.
Some types of false documents we can produce are:
- Official reports.
- Extracts from history books.
- Newspaper headlines and articles.
- Scientific references.
- Diaries and Letters.
Official reports and memos
‘Official reports’ are a good way of setting up the premise of a story.
For example, Firefox has a great high-concept idea. Craig Thomas set it up efficiently, using a series of memos between the head of MI6, Aubrey, and the other participants. This one, for example, explains to the reader what the story is about in a single page:
Similarly, Len Deighton’s alternate history spy thriller SS-GB uses a false document to set up the point of departure of the novel: Nazi Germany invaded Great Britain in 1940. In February 1941, the British surrendered and the surrender document opens the novel. This quickly makes the reader aware that they are reading an alternate history novel. Note as well how realistic the surrender document looks with its mixture of printed letterhead, typewritten contents and handwritten signatures and notes.
A staple of alternative history is the imaginary history book where a professor looks back at the history of the alternate world and discusses why things turned out the way they did.
An example is For Want of a Nail by Robert Sobel. It pretends to be an undergraduate-level history of North America from 1763 to 1971. However, in the story world, the British defeated the American rebels at the Battle of Saratoga, ending the American revolution.
Be careful with this technique though—it’s something of a cliché and doesn’t make for gripping storytelling. Instead, I suggest including some short extracts from history books, perhaps as chapter heading epigrams.
Newspaper headlines and articles
Newspaper headlines are an effective way of giving the reader important information in an efficient and believable way.
For example, in A Kill in the Morning I included this imaginary New York Times headline:
GERMAN BOMB KILLS PRIME MINISTER;
CARETAKER GOVERNMENT URGES CALM.
The danger of including newspaper articles in your novel is they can become a lazy way to dump exposition. As with the other techniques, don’t over-use it.
Some alternative history novels written in the ‘history book’ style include pretend references, such as footnotes and bibliography. For example, in For Want of a Nail, Sobel includes references, appendices, a preface thanking imaginary people and even a critical introduction by an imaginary historian.
Similarly, in The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton, each chapter ends with a set of scientific references. On investigation, it turns out that most of them are not genuine, but how many readers check the references? Most are just impressed by how well-researched the novel apparently is.
Diaries and letters
The novel composed of diary entries or letters between the characters is a common literary technique. So common there’s a word for it: the epistolary novel.
A good example is The Separation, a 2002 alternative history novel by Christopher Priest, which includes characters’ diaries, scraps of published texts and ‘declassified’ transcripts of conversations.
Epistolary novels have issues: the story can only have a few viewpoints, and is ‘told’ more than ‘shown’, so can lack immediacy. I’d suggest that including occasional extracts from diaries and letters is the best approach.
Novels often include maps in the endpapers. They usually show the area where part of the story takes place. Sometimes the author marks them with the route the characters took.
For example, inside the front and back cover of The Eagle Has Landed are maps of the area where the story takes place, Studley Constable, which in fact does not exist.
They say a photo is worth a thousand words. If you can produce a photograph that looks real and include it in your novel, it will add authenticity.
An example is the original hardback edition of SS-GB. It included a photograph of Hitler taking the salute as his troops march down Whitehall. Remember, they produced the fake picture in 1978, well before Photoshop made photo manipulation of this sort relatively simple.
How to make False Documents
So, how do we create these false documents for our own stories? The first thing to do is find authentic documents to model your false documents on.
Researching false documents
Museums are an excellent source, as are archives and libraries. You can try searching on the internet too. The more genuine documents you have, the easier it will be to make your false documents look convincing. It’s important to pay special attention to things like letterheads, fonts, stamps, signatures and logos.
For example, here are two documents—one real and one false:
Of course, the genuine document is the one on the right, congratulating the troops. I based the format of the false document on the original. The words are mostly from notes that General Eisenhower made in case the D-Day invasion failed.
Producing false documents
The three free image editing programs I recommend, and use myself, are: iPiccy, Pixlr, and GIMP.
iPiccy and Pixlr are both free and easy-to-use image editing programs.
GIMP is a free alternative to Photoshop.
GIMP is available here.
How realistic your false documents are will depend on your ability, of course. But with some solid research behind you and those tools you can produce believable false documents.
My novel, A Kill in the Morning contains several false documents, all of which I produced using the process and tools above.
- A map of Europe in 1955 under Nazi rule.
- A map of the SS headquarters at Wewellsberg.
- A 1941 peace treaty, between Germany and the British Empire.
- A glossary mixing real world definitions and definitions only valid in the story world.
- A dossier about the main character, as seen below.
Many reviewers complimented A Kill in the Morning for its meticulous research and air of authenticity. One reviewer said my characters ‘live in their world as surely as we live in ours.’ I think that’s partly because of the false documents.
You can read the opening of the novel and see the map of Europe in 1955 here: The first two chapters of A Kill in the Morning.
- Produce a dossier similar to the one above about your main character.
- Write a headline and short newspaper article about an event in your novel.
- Write a letter from your main character to one of your other characters.
False documents: Help?
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