I was recently asked to give a speech at the very first college I attended, known then as Middle Georgia College. I love homecomings of all kinds, but this one was especially poignant because I was returning to the place where I received some of my first, and best, encouragement as a fledgling writer. I knew I’d be speaking to students, young people like I’d been thirty years previously, hungry for inspiration and wise words.
I tried to think of what good advice I could offer. And this is what I came up with: Learn to lie like a pro. Because until you can tell a good lie, you’ll never be able to tell a good truth.
Now, I’m not going to make a moral argument for or against lying here. I leave that to the parents and priests and parole officers of the world. After all, I make my living telling lies, big complicated ones. I’m working on Book Six of my most popular lie right now, an amateur sleuth mystery series, and one of the themes I explore in these books is the human taste for deception.
My narrator is a woman who used to work as a tour guide in Savannah, Georgia. Now if you think that means she traffics in facts, you don’t understand the nature of the Savannah tour industry. They recently filed a lawsuit against the city, which wanted to create an ordinance requiring that tour guides who advertised that they were giving historical tours should stick to, you know, historical facts. The tour guide association declared this proposed ordinance a violation of their employees’ First Amendment rights, and the city backed down, thereby enshrining interesting history over actual history.
So this is my narrator’s background. Just for fun, I hooked her up with an ex-SWAT agent as her partner in crime solving, a man recovering from a very specific injury to a very specific part of the right front lobe that—and this is a fact here, not a lie; I learned about it in Scientific American—renders people significantly better than average at telling when others are lying. Better even than CIA-trained operatives.
So I have her, a skilled and unrepentant liar, and I have him, a rule-obsessed straight arrow with a brain that’s a virtual lie detector. And I put them in books where people steal, blackmail, assault, connive, murder, extort, threaten, and, of course, lie about it. A lot.
This part is very much a reflection of American culture. Some studies estimate that for every ten minutes of conversation, Americans tell four lies. Look how rife our language is with words for lying, and how pretty those words are: prevaricate, exaggerate, confabulate, deceive.
Our brains are lying machines, and that is no small thing. Lying is one of those things so complicated we shouldn’t be able to do it, like driving. After all, telling the truth is a straightforward proposition. Telling a lie, however, involves not only knowing the truth, but being able to hold that knowledge in one hand, and in the other, create an equally compelling, equally plausible, fiction. Then we must be able to share that fiction in a persuasive manner, often making it up on the spot as we go along, without losing our grasp on the first story, the factual one. It’s mental gymnastics of a relatively high order.
So don’t be afraid to give your lying brain free rein every now and then. Just be sure to use your powers for good, not evil, and don’t tell your mother I said any of this.
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Tina Whittle writes the Tai Randolph mysteries for Poisoned Pen Press. The fifth book in this Atlanta-based series—Reckoning and Ruin—was released in April. Tina is a proud member of Sisters in Crime and serves as both a chapter officer and national board member. Visit her website to follow her on social media, sign up for her newsletter, or read additional scenes and short stories: www.tinawhittle.com.