How Reality Helps Build Better Fiction
by Scott A. Johnson
Scott's chapter on weaving elements of truth into fiction is an essential element for fiction writers to embrace, and all writers (whether seasoned or novice) should pay heed. If I had the opportunity to dovetail onto his chapter, I'd probably follow it up with a section called "Finding the Entrails: Taking the Journey to Build Anatomical Parts in Prose."
Okay, many of you may know my first novel uses a host of body parts as main characters in "Dr Stench", but it's the elements of reality and the laborious research that help to bring the story to life. As Scott pointed out using examples from The Silence of the Lambs and the Harry Potter series, the real components of research and/or a true experience lend a believable voice to the writer's story. I think it's the writer who eschews incorporating real experiences, or factual information into their writing that ultimately has their story fall flat. A fiction writer has so much to build on when s/he uses basic truths, or researches information to weave into a tale. In addition, there are a variety of readers who are 'fact finders' and will only enjoy fiction if it incorporates brain stimulating science, or myth or history. Take the DaVinci Code for instance, which used a myriad of these things to create a hit novel. Including intelligent information for this type of audience is going to ensure your novel appeals to a wider range of readers, guaranteed.
Scott aptly claims the importance of digging deep for information to enhance each section of a story and he describes the significance of developing 'setting' which includes actually investigating the story's backdrop. And I wholeheartedly agree with him. It may be difficult to go even further and negotiate a tour of the sewer/underground, or find a way to get into the exclusive strip club meant only for pretty people, or obtain that rare glimpse of the real Oval Office...but the 'trying is worth it and often pays off (take pictures when you go). In my Dr Stench novel (work in progress) I literally went to the head of Waste Management in DC and requested a tour of the Capital's sewers, and along the way I interviewed people (ask if recording is okay, and bring your Olympus). Each place where my story had an urban scene, I traveled there and laid eyes on the museum's crystal skull, walked the secret back halls of the Smithsonian, and adventured into every odd setting my story might take place. What happened when I took time to go on those journeys, was I discovered my story transformed into a richer piece. Of note, a pleasing side effect was that much of my novel wrote itself.
The danger of doing research presents when the writer is so intent on sharing the expanse of their new knowledge and experience, that s/he tries to cram every bit of information they've discovered onto the waiting page. The result of this is what I call "Wiki-Effect", because the writer ends up with an encyclopedia of information that s/he feels deserves to be there because they took the time to research it all. Many new writers will attempt to do this, but the truth is that only a smidount (small indefinable amount) of the research toil will end up inside the lines. What writers need to understand is that the believability of the story doesn't necessarily come from a multitude of facts, but instead exudes from the writer himself (or herself), because s/he now possess the knowledge and experience to write with power.
There are challenges in finding information too, or in obtaining an experience. Perhaps you'd like to write realistically about what it's like to be on the Space Shuttle while it's in space. Odds are you won't get the opportunity to be there. BUT, what if you could interview someone who has? A live interview with a person (what we call a 'key informant') is best, but perhaps you can find an interview online or in the archives of Library of Congress (been there, and got the library card to prove it). Scott uses the example of understanding experiences of real ghost hunters when writing a ghost story. Many people shy away from doing interviews or venturing out to find out the living person's experience, but the interview is something you can't get from a book or Wikipedia. Sometimes all you get when you research is hearsay and conjecture.
As an example, I have a scene in "Dr Stench" where I describe an autopsy of a dead child pornographer. The descriptions are vivid, and most readers tell me they are hooked into the lines because of the details. What throws them is that it's the autopsy 'technician' who performs the removal of the internal organs. Most folks will tell me, "I always thought it was the doctor, or the pathologist who did that," and they will vocalize those words because television and modern literature dramatize the medical examiner's role. Most people have never heard of an autopsy technician. How do I know about them? How can I write with such authority? Because I actually volunteered as an autopsy tech at the Richmond morgue. Yes, the same place Patricia Cornwell described her main character "Kay Scarpetta" (medical examiner) performing autopsies. But you never saw Patricia once mention the autopsy techs in her novel (a point that causes heartburn among the hardworking folks there).
I loved this chapter of Scott's because it validated what I instinctively knew was the right thing to do with my fiction...research the facts and blur the lines between reality and the insanity of the creative mind. I've come to realize a writer is much more than just a writer. He or she is an investigator, a researcher and a busybody. The collection of clues, experiences, setting descriptions and interviews will lead the writer on a journey that inextricably ends with a tantalizing story the reader just can't put down. And that, my friends, is what we're all about.