Balderdash: A Writer’s Guide to Making Stuff Up

balderdash definition_opt

 “Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash and I’m delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever.”

 ~Baron Munchausen


This weekend I was reading some posts over at Catherine Caffeinated and found a particularly entertaining one on the subject of book reviews.

In it, she included this excerpt from an Amazon customer review of The Help by Kathryn Stockett:


“Where was the editor for this book? In the end notes the author confesses to playing with time. For instance, Shake ‘N Bake is mentioned but didn’t hit the shelves until 1965. A Bob Dylan song is referenced but wasn’t released until 1964. Okay, but why did they have to be included? They certainly weren’t plot points but is a writer allowed to just make stuff up?”



Well, it’s kind of in the job description.


fiction writing:

1.  any kind of writing that is not factual.


So um, what’s a writer to do?

I mean, how do you tame the pesky imaginations that long to smear the pages with historical inaccuracies?  How do you stop yourself from throwing your head back and laughing maniacally as you plot to twist facts and screw with the universe’s fancy logic and statistics?

Sounds daunting.  It’s enough work keeping a steady supply of coffee and ignoring the vacuum.

Besides, what about artistic license?

Check out what Picasso had to say on that subject:


We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

~Pablo Picasso


Okay, upon first skim that quote kind of reads like a riddle.  I think he meant something along the lines of this:


Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.

~Khaled Hosseini


So breathe deeply dear writers.  You are not merely a liar making stuff up, you are dealing in GREAT TRUTHS.

And this is a safe place, where nonsense knows no boundaries.  Your knowledge and creativity are revered.

In fact in the spirit of the board game Balderdash, let’s lie create.  Below are a few words.  Use one, two or all three to create a FAKE fact or statistic.

Chocolate       Elephant        Season     


 Let your imaginations frolic in the comments!


59 thoughts on “Balderdash: A Writer’s Guide to Making Stuff Up

  1. Ooh! I love balderdash and artistic license! And I LOVE games! Chocolate. Elephant. Season. Hmm…. Seems to me I read in a Very Scholarly Journal recently that elephants love to eat cocoa beans when they’re in season (the cocoa beans, not the elephants :)) and that eating said cocoa beans results in chocolate milk for the baby elephants. Yum! 🙂


  2. Did you know that the true origins of chocolate come from elephant’s vomit? That’s right. Back in the day, servants would scour the country side every winter season looking for elephant vomit. Once found, they would scrap it up and bring it home to mix it with a special kind of spice and would bake it. That in turn produced the very first, crude chocolate. Who knew?!


      1. Hehehe! You know I haven’t had sugar for three months. Hmm, although I suppose a glass of wine for the Jubilee does count. Feeling much better off the stuff!


  3. The details you mention in the review for the help are the kind of inaccuracies I do my best to avoid, because this is the stuff readers will email you about. OTOH, there’s no Harrison St. in Dayton, nor is there a 7th St. but they’re both in my books. 😀


    1. I know when I’m doing my own research sometimes I get too literal–just this week I was checking degree program names for a character and I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted in the school I was using and I felt bummed. Then I remembered–hey I’m writing fiction! 🙂 But you’re right, I imagine the fact police might latch on to that!


      1. Okay, we’re too spooky… just this week I was researching degree programs for a character! Stop. It.

        Also, I don’t want to use UCSD as a location in my book, so I made up a university. I’m sure I’m going to get emails asking where exactly the college is. Um, in my head?


  4. I think it important to keep the facts true to the time when writing historical fiction. Stocket included a lot of facts from the era and should have continued with the small stuff. I am sure that if this woman noticed it, thousands of others did too. I have found errors in other books and it takes away from the respect I have for the writer since all they have to do is google for 30 seconds to get the information. I have noticed a lot of mistakes in film too.

    I watched Madmen last night and loved that they included a clip of Jack LaLane’s program. My mom watched it while my dad worked in a advertising agency!

    That said, I think the sky is the limit on what you can make up with fiction! Truth is crazier than fiction so go for it!


    1. I liked the Weight Watchers meetings in Mad Men too!
      I think its probably a balance of finding what needs to remain true and what can be tweaked. When I read it’s all about the emotional journey–I am not usually the one finding the inaccuracies. However, if the emotion seems off–ie WHY is she doing that? I will definitely pick up on that.


  5. I think we have to take care to handle actual historic facts accurately. Where the writer has freedom is in making up fake institutions and products and names that mirror reality but aren’t real. In other words, if you want total control over setting, for example, invent it and give it a name of a place that doesn’t exist (googling helps!). In Lock and Key, for example, Sarah Dessen invented a kind of social media that is a riff on Myspace and Facebook but isn’t exactly either one. Thus she could play a little looser with details.

    I think it all comes down to the contract we have with readers to be clear where the line between fact and fiction lies in our work. They can trust our “lies” to tell deep truths when they have a sense of what’s based in the world as we know it and what’s artistic license.

    As for your challenge—

    Researchers now believe that the pheromones elephants produce during mating season are to blame for global spikes in chocolate sales in the months of December and January. Previously blamed on “the winter blahs” in the northern hemisphere, chocolate cravings can now be traced to extremely high levels of the pheromone pachyderotica carried on the jet stream.


    1. Thanks Laurel–I totally agree with you on it coming down to the contract we have with readers and about trusting our lies to tell the deeper truths. Well said!
      And yay, now I can blame elephants whenever I have to eat chocolate! 🙂


    2. Just thought I’d jump in. I agree we- as writers- need to be true to certain historical facts or timelines. That is why I usually make up the locations wherein my fiction takes place. And I try to keep all mention of dates rather general. Gives me a lot more freedom. Oh, and pachyderotica is real. I know. I read about it on the internet just last night. But the fact is that chocolate was never made from an elephant’s vomit. It was actually from their excrement. Stop playing with the facts!


  6. Truth is far crazier than fiction, so go for it, I say. I am not a detail oriented person, at all. I could easily make those mistakes. (that’s why I research the post on my blog – just in case) But then I always wonder at the people who pay attention to these details. My friend put a book down because the heroine was wearing a skirt on page 60 and on pg62, same scene, she was in trousers. I get so lost in the story that I pay no attention to those details. If I don’t get lost in the story, the details don’t matter.

    the obvious statement from your 3 words is female elephants, when in season, crave chocolate, just like the rest of us girls


  7. Making stuff up IS in the job description. Love this post, Coleen.

    A Belgian candy maker’s plan to sell chocolate elephants rather than bunnies during Easter season failed due to a breakage of 28 percent of molded trunks and 41 percent of floppy ears.


  8. I’ve been struggling with a location change because the school I want to use doesn’t have a particular program I want in the story. It’s working with those pesky facts. LOL.

    Hmmm… the challenge…A lesser known fact, but not uncommon, is the elephant’s annual trek to the hidden location of one magical chocolate pond dip. When immersing themselves during the right season it has been said to prolong their life and increase their physical health. Could this be the elephant fountain of youth? 😉


  9. A recent writer discussion focused on writing fiction vs. memoir. One key point a novelist made was that fiction could be used to share a greater truth. I agree with this point, but I’m also very partial to memoir. Hmm. Too much chocolate in any season will leave you with elephant ankles.


    1. II like reading memoirs. Maybe the greater truth in fiction is simply more universal than memoir? Then again the reason I like a good memoir is because it resonates with me.
      Elephant ankles! Brilliant–and so true 😉


  10. I totally love that the reviewer actually asked that in the review. Of course she makes stuff up! I do agree that we have a responsibility to at least try to get the facts straight. I do lots of research, even for my fantasies, because I like the book to read authentic. However, if I have to make something up, I totally will. Like the university I mentioned up there. I’m sure UCSD would be a perfectly fine place to make my setting, but I wanted to play around with the logistics. I kept the actual location (on top of some cliffs in Torrey Pines), but changed the name. We’ll see what happens with that.

    Let’s see,

    Corpiscoricum ~ the act of enticing elephants to become more active in their mating season by feeding them liberal amounts of chocolate.

    Is that real? Or is it Balderdash?! I love that game, by the way. 😉


  11. I’ll bet the elephants go hide out at the chocolate pond during hunting season. Sorry, that was bad to piggyback on somebody else’s entry, but you all took all the great ideas already.

    Obviously making stuff up is what we do. As to the details in our stories, unless they are also fictionalized (such as a fictional street, town or school–or program at a school) I think it is okay to stretch the truth about little things if they are important to the story, but if not, we probably shouldn’t go there. Someone at a writers’ conference last year said, “Tell the truth as much as possible so that when you have to lie, the reader will believe you.” Or words to that effect.

    But the question is, will the reader realize that you needed to tell that lie. Maybe the song or the Shake and Bake was necessary to the plot line. In one of my books, set in 2006, I have a character use a Google image search engine that Google actually hasn’t introduce yet, although they are working on it. I just couldn’t come up with another way to make that part of the plot work.

    I try to remember to fess up to these little lies in my author’s notes at the end, so the reader knows I did my research but chose to be creative instead. I’m thinking, however, that I should add the reason why I stretched the truth as well. Maybe it’s not always as evident as I think it is.

    Thanks for a great post, Coleen! Fun but also thought-provoking.


  12. Choco-phant: the season in which chocolate lovers dine by moonlight at the zoo. Dang it, now I’m tempted to experience that, which makes my made up stuff (almost/potentially) true! Have to say, though… I’ve learned a lot thanks to fictitious stories and characters. 🙂 Another oddity. How come many fiction authors are horrible liars? Hmm… (Or did I make THAT up?!?) Ha ha… Fun post!


  13. I love our job. Making stuff up, whether or not it includes cursed elephants whose brains turn to chocolate in the winter season (not the summer, or else they’d melt) is so fun.


  14. Great post, Coleen! Don’t know how you manage such a steady supply of quotes, but I love how you use them 🙂 You have also caused me to wonder – is it enough to have a fictional bio, or do I need a Disclaimer on my blog to say the facts may at times be misconstrued? Hmmm. Anyway, my attempt at Balderdash…..Prehistoric elephants survived the winter season by eating chocolate. That is, until the ice age delivered a worldwide chocolate shortage! (Can anyone guess that I’m not enjoying winter??).


    1. That’s right! We are not only on different schedules Alarna, but different seasons too. 🙂
      Searching for quotes is the fun part of blogging for me–I keep a word doc open for when I stumble across ones that i like. Thanks Alarna!


  15. I think that a writer made up a story when he needs the interest or the attention of his audience. He wants to attract them, so; he changes some facts which people think they are always true. The writer let them think the other way. Suppose, when he writes a story about an elephant who eats chocolate instead of sugar cane which is their favorite meal in our Asian view. Then, what will people give them for food? How will they cope with this situation? Right? What will happen the elephant eat chocolate and what will people eat? Many things will be considered much, then.


  16. I’m a horrible BSer. Hmm, how about the best chocolate in the world comes from elephants eating cocoa beans and then pooping them out? The ground up cocoa is the healthiest and richest on earth.

    (I stole this idea from the expensive coffee beans that are eaten by a certain type of cat and then pooped out.) 🙂


  17. Balderdash is one of my favorite games. Our family has the best times playing this, and we laugh so hard, our cheeks hurt!

    So let’s see, here’s my shot at a little fun fiction: Elephants frolic and party hardy during peak seasons of the chocolate bean plants. Outsiders must tread carefully amidst the telling signs of gigantic bumdrops left behind once every precious bean has been picked by the elephants’ sensitive trunks. Those bumdrops prove to be the best fertilizer and guarantee the elephants another bountiful crop of chocolate beans.


  18. I don’t care if I’m writing fiction or not, I want my details to be accurate. If I totaled the hours I spent researching Enza, it would number in the hundreds. Probably the thousands (and many of those were spent researching outhouses!). Instead of Shake ‘n Bake, maybe the author could have used dried, seasoned bread crumbs?

    Balderdash, hmm? Never played it, but I can give it a try. 🙂

    Because they are such majestic animals, and their tusks so valuable, you will find vendors all over the country selling chocolate elephants during their winter holiday season.


    1. I like research and find myself getting very attached to facts (in college i was often the odd one out for liking paper research!) But I also love, love the freedom in fiction.
      Thanks for sharing Kristy!!


  19. I was going to say something about how introducing Shake & Bake a couple years early wouldn’t be a big enough issue to distract readers from the story (it’s not like the characters were posting nasty messages to each other’s Facebook walls), but after reading all the comments, now I just want chocolate.


  20. Coleen, what an interesting post that evoked so many wonderful comments. I loved the quotes you used and where do you find them? I think you are right about Picassso’s quote. I particularly liked “Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.” After all it is our own personal truth anyway — our imagination.

    Did you know that when elephants are in season, the females must eat a ton of chocolate to attract a mate?

    Please forgive me for not visiting your blog for a while. I was on vacation for two weeks and attended my niece’s wedding. I’m madly trying to catch up.


  21. I’m all for fiction and lies and greater truths…but it does bother me when people mess with time in historical fiction. Much like typos, errors tear me out of the story and make me listen to my own brain (“Hey! It’s supposed to be it, not it’s!” “Hey! I know that song! And it sooooo didn’t exist then.”) I don’t like having to listen to my own brain while I’m reading. It makes me grumpy.


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