Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Get the Facts

A fiction writer, by definition, makes things up. The stories we tell stem from our imagination. I know very few crime writers who are also detectives solving murder cases or romance writers that are seduced by a hunky, but unattainable, man on a daily basis. Our stories are fantasies, ideas, entertainment.

But even though our stories are fictional, even though we can get away with making up characters and weaving high-concept plots, so much of the book needs to be factual. Mysteries must stay true to police procedures, weapons and forensic science. Thrillers must give accurate accounts of the FBI and CIA, stay true to the laws of physics (can't have the hero flying through the air to save the day), and while the plot is made up, it must be feasible enough to feel like something that could actually happen. Fantasies create their own worlds and laws, but must stay true to the rules they create. While yes, we're making things up, I'd say 60% of the book is based on truth.

Think back to your favorite books. What was it that you enjoyed so much? Was it the characters and their authentic dialogue? The setting and how true it rang? The history or science within the pages and how much you learned from it?

A few of my favorites include: PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN, MYSTIC RIVER and anything by Chuck Palahniuk. Would PORTNOY have been as interesting if the dialogue wasn't so authentic? If it didn't hit the nail on the head in portraying a Jewish family of that time period? Would LAST EXIT have been as compelling if the place wasn't so wonderfully portrayed, if Selby didn't make you feel the grit and grime of Brooklyn's streets? Same goes for MYSTIC RIVER and Lehane's portrayal of south Boston. But what I found even more compelling about that book was Lehane's ability to stay so true to human emotion and motivation. Chuck Palaniuk bases most of his books on weird facts and tidbits he gathers in his daily life. While the story and characters are fascinating, it's those little facts, those things that you would never in a million years think of, that make his work memorable.

Conversely, inaccuracy or lack of authority, can easily break a book. So many books are written about Chicago and when they're wrong, I immediately put the book down. Same goes for inaccurate police procedurals or weapons information. The worst, however, is when the dialogue isn't believable, when the characters in the book are people that would never exist, when they act unlike any person you've ever met. Even a vampire or a werewolf should have believable personality traits and real motivations.

So how to you ensure accuracy in your writing? One word: research. Authenticity is not something that comes from simply surfing the web. It requires authors to get away from the computer. This could include:
  • Police ride-along (and then going out with them to the bar afterwards to nail their dialogue)
  • Walking or driving around the places in your story. Getting a sense for the people who live there, the businesses in the area, the terrain, the weather, etc.
  • Sitting in a cafe or restaurant and writing down overheard conversations. It's a great exercise to practice writing dialogue.
  • If your main character has an occupation that you've never had yourself, talk to someone in that industry. By, talking with a journalist or P.I. you not only learn the details of their job, but you also learn about the type of person they are: what clothes they wear, how they work, their personality, etc.
  • Going to a gun range or taking a martial arts class.

There's the common mantra of write what you know, but personally, what I know isn't all that interesting. I find it a lot more fun to write about bad guys. But those bad guys must be authentic, and achieving that requires a bit of research. So although we make stuff up, even though our stories come from our imaginations and our creativity, it's actually the facts that set the good books apart from the bad.

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