Thursday, August 11, 2011

Writing Tip--Know Your Stuff

Only one more day to enter the contest to win the grand prize of a first chapter critique by Ms. Shreditor! See my Monday’s post for all the details!

If you are a contemporary fiction writer like I am, you might think that you don’t have to do any research because hey, it's fiction, right? But even fiction needs realism and depth and writers of any genre have to do research. Because savvy writers know that there isn't anything that will turn your readers off faster than if they find something in your work that doesn’t ring true to them.

You see, you are setting up a trust with your readers that your story is believable and that you know what you are talking about. There may be some instances where the reader will have to stretch their imaginations a bit, but overall, the author is expected to deliver a somewhat realistic story that readers can get lost in because they see themselves there. If you don’t, your reader will be taken out of the story and might not trust you to give them the sort of story experience they are looking for.

For example, I once read a story set in Provo, Utah, where the character stepped out of a building and immediately hailed a taxi. Now, if you’ve ever been to Provo, Utah, you know that there is no chance of immediately hailing a taxi. Taxis are not easily found in Provo. And as soon as I read that sentence I knew the author hadn’t done detailed research.

Of course, it doesn’t immediately turn your readers off to find something wrong, but it can be distracting to have details included that you know aren’t right. (There are different circumstances where an author could have tried to do research, but given wrong information. For example, I went to England and carefully researched the parish and surrounding settings for my novel Time Will Tell, but had an English reader tell me it was wrong. And I read a book set in Canada that had many law enforcement things completely wrong, but the author had been told by a Canadian that everything was okay. So, sometimes, an author can try to do research and be given wrong information.)

But I have to say I have learned so many great things while researching my books. It’s like a little mini-education being an author. For instance, I’ve learned a lot about laws in different states, pipelines and the countries who have them. I’ve learned about the intelligence agencies like the Canadian CSIS and French DGSE, I’ve learned about IEDs in Iraq, and more than I ever wanted to know about cargo ships and how shipping lanes run in our world. It’s been an exciting ride and I know my readers have appreciated the tiny details that can really make a story riveting and give that extra oomph to the setting. The attention to research and details and “getting it right” builds long-term trust that is essential to any writer who wants to have a career and not be a one-story wonder

So, be sure to do your research. Make sure you have settings that are realistic and events that ring true to your readers. Use the details to create a rich depth to your novel. Help your readers experience your story as if they were there and you’ll build loyal fanbase who will be anxiously awaiting the release date of your next novel.


Debra Erfert said...

"Write what you know!" is what I've heard over and over again. Experts help, and being able to actually see settings for yourself before you write them is golden. I felt like was on board that freighter in Ribbons of Darkness, running up and down those steps along with your characters, and although I have a feeling you never actually roamed on one, (I could be wrong) you did a fantastic job in recreating the atmosphere with words.

If-strike that-when I get my first book published, I think my husband will be a little more willing to see what I'm doing as something worthwhile and go on some adventures with me. Who knows? Maybe we'll travel--(eep, after the riots have settled down some.)

Anonymous said...

I don't think it’s so much "write what you know", as it is "write so that you're believed."

That's where inventiveness comes in: the capacity to write outside your own personal experience, to write about what never really happened to you, and do it in a way that it will be believed.

There are five elements to an inventive story. If the author can accomplish them, she is almost assured of publication and readership.

1. Are you telling a fascinating story?

2. Are your characters interesting and loaded with conflicts?

3. Does the plot razzle here and dazzle there? Does it twist and turn about on the way to an unexpected conclusion?

4. Are you telling the reader what she already knows, in such a way that she does not believe she's read it before?

5. Does your story make the reader feel and think and care about some of your characters.

If you have those five elements throughout your novel, then you don't even need to believe what you're writing. You only need to write well enough to know that others will find what you have written believable.

Research adds a deeper dimension to your setting, but it also functions as a sort of plastic covering for CD scratch protection. If you include erroneous details of setting in your novel the reader is drawn out of the reading experience like a CD player playing across a bad scratch on the face of the CD, believability goes out the window, and the reader will stop reading. Readers do not purchase novels to disbelieve them.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Debra, I love traveling and am so glad I was able to visit as many countries as I have. I hope you get to travel someday.

Thanks for your analogy, anon! I enjoyed it.

Taffy said...

Thanks for the reminder, Julie! I won't be able to write about Canada or their Mounties (is that even right?? See what I mean?).