You wouldn’t call this lily a rose
Those of us who write nonfiction know we have to “get it right.” But often fiction authors aren’t as careful. When I’m reading fiction and see something way off base I often stop reading. Why didn’t this writer take the time to find out how something really works? My husband is an avid reader, a gun lover and an auto and airplane mechanic. Nothing annoys him more than to run across a character in a fiction story who does something absolutely wrong when it comes to guns, cars or airplanes. There are experts like him in every field and chances are, some of them will read our books and experience the same reaction.
We may be writing fiction, but we need to get the real stuff right. Gone are the days when we could make up everything and get away with it.
We can all make mistakes, but we ought to do our best to make sure our writing rings true. I realize there are people who think they know everything and some of them don’t. No matter, it’s important to check your facts. Just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean you can make up everything.
Researching can be frustrating. I’m sure that all writers have some unique, funny, serendipitous and outrageous stories to tell.
When I was just getting started writing novels and interacting and networking, other writers told me not to be afraid to call an expert and ask questions. I had worked for a newspaper and was accustomed to interviewing people. But asking questions for a book I was writing was difficult. What if they asked me what books I’d written? What if they wanted to know where they could get one of my books? That would be embarrassing. I wasn’t even published. Getting up enough nerve to do this was especially difficult for me. I’m outgoing with people I know, but with strangers, not so much. For a long time it was my husband who told people I was a writer.
My first experience didn’t exactly prove my writer friends right. I was working on a novel that would take place in a Texas town that had been deserted by its main industry, oil, and most of the businesses had closed down. So hubby and I took to the road one weekend and headed for a state highway in Texas. As we passed through the small, often half-deserted towns, I would judge them by how prosperous they appeared. We finally found one that fit the bill. I won’t mention its name here, and you’ll soon understand why.
On the outskirts of town oil wells sat capped and silent. We parked and began to walk the sidewalks, avoiding the weeds that had sprouted through enormous cracks. Many of the brick buildings were boarded up, others were simply closed. On the main street, which was also the highway, some places continued to remain open, though they weren’t exactly thriving. There weren’t many new cars or pickups parked in town. A bar with a flashing neon sign that read L__oy_B__G__ appeared to be open. A faded painting of a high-kicking girl in boots and cowboy hat decorated the concrete block wall. Several of the brick buildings had caved in, giving the town a dilapidated appearance. This was exactly the town I wanted.
We made our way on down the weed choked sidewalk and on the corner of Pecos and Houston Street was City Hall, a small but neat building. Some effort had been made to keep the dying town at bay. It was a losing battle. A sign on the door read closed, but it looked like it might be open occasionally. I wrote down the address and took some pictures as we made our way back to the car. We spent the rest of the weekend checking out some other small towns, but I had found my setting.
A few days later, back at home, I wrote a letter to the city clerk asking for background information about the town. A bit of history. I only told her that I thought it perfect as a setting for my book. Remember, all my writer friends had assured me that everyone wants to be in a writer’s book, and will quickly answer questions.
It wasn’t long before I received this terse reply. “Dear Ms Brotherton, We do not wish our town to appear in any book.” That was it. Well, you can bet that town did appear in my book, but I fictionalized its past and gave it a different name. The things I made up about the town were probably worse than the truth.
As writers we must keep our eyes open all the time. We must check out the small stuff. The way a child clings to its mother’s skirts, the way a teenager dresses, walks and talks, the expression on someone’s face when they converse with a friend. Take notes. Eavesdrop, get out occasionally and sit at the mall or in a bar or restaurant. If you don’t want to take notes use a recorder. But collect everything you can about the human condition. One day you’ll need to use a bit or piece of everything you learn.
Actually I’ve found that most folks are eager to share their experiences and lives with a writer. Once in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, when I was working on a book that had a motorcycle rider in it, I saw a group of bikers parked in a motel lot and I pulled in, got out and talked to them for a long time about their bikes. They were a lot of fun and full of information about bikers, bikes and some of their adventures. And a bonus was, I learned their vernacular.
Everyone doesn’t speak the same way. So many writers never vary the speech of their characters. Everyone in the book sounds like an English professor, as if the writer were afraid to loosen up and play around with expressive bad grammar. I’m not talking about dialect, overuse of that isn’t a good idea. But everyone expresses themselves in different ways. A sprinkling of slang, though, should be like that bit of salt you put on a tomato. Too much puts a bad taste in your mouth, gets boring, and dates your story, something you don’t want for a contemporary book. Two years later, the slang is old hat while the book may still be available.
Historically, people spoke a different language. As with slang, don’t overdo their lingo either. Good books to use are those put out by Writer’s Digest, “A Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the … Wild West; Regency and Victorian England; 1800s; Civil War; Among the American Indians,” are good examples for researching not only language but the way people lived, dressed, worked and played.
It may sound old fashioned to use books for research when the Internet and search engines are readily available to offer just about everything we need to know. Check out the resources of online postings because anyone can post information, and some of it is incorrect. And by all means, when you rewrite that manuscript for the final time, make sure you “get it right.”
My latest book, Beyond the Moon, has months of research behind the story. A lot of what I learned never made it into the book, but I feel comfortable in the 1970s and 80s world of Katie and Glen. Of course I lived then, but so much still had to be researched to produce an authentic story. A story of a man, broken by torture and imprisonment during the Vietnam war, and that of the woman grieving over the death of her husband who bonds with him, and their struggle to discover peace and love.