Tuesday, April 21, 2009

“Make it real.”

That’s what thriller author David Morrell once advised me about writing novels. At first, I wasn’t sure what he meant. After all, a novel is by definition fiction, a carefully contrived blend of plot, setting, and characters. How can it be real?
But after thinking about it, I realized what David was telling me was that for a reader to be able to suspend belief and get swept up in the story enough to care about the outcome, the story has to feel real.
This is always a risk for a novelist who uses an actual setting. All well and good if the reader has never been to the location where a novel is set, but what if it’s a place they know well? I’m currently reading a mystery that takes place in an area where I lived for 30 years. As I’m reading, I keep getting pulled out of the story. Even though I don't want to, I can't help weighing the details I'm reading against what I know.
In another instance, I read a book set in Dallas, Texas in which the author obviously knew the area like the back of their hand - and proved it by naming so many streets and landmarks, the story started to read like a travel guide.
Some authors don’t concern themselves overmuch about reality. I’ve always loved what Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child wrote in their authors’ notes for Reliquary: “It should be noted that in certain important instances the authors have altered, moved, or embellished what exists under Manhattan for purposes of the story.”
I find their hubris incredibly freeing. While I write science thrillers, my novels are not a scientific treatise, they’re fiction; meant not to educate, but to entertain. If the truth works, terrific. If not, like Preston & Child, I’ll twist my science until it does what the story wants.
Setting, however, can be tricky. I've never been to Antarctica, the location of my first novel, and while I read the online journals of people who spent time there, and I have plenty of personal experience with snow and cold, the cold truth is, I made much of it up.
That’s why I’m so excited to be able to travel to the location of my next novel. There's nothing like hands-on research. It elevates an author’s prose, so that the reader absolutely knows the author knows what they're talking about.
Plus, seeing things first-hand, hearing small comments made by the people who live there -- just getting from point A to point B -- will generate so many details and ideas I never could have dreamed up on my own, I know I'll have no problem following David’s advice.

Karen Dionne is the author of Freezing Point, a thriller Douglas Preston called "a ripper of a story," with other rave endorsements from David Morrell, John Lescroart, and many others. Her novel published October 2008 from Berkley Books.

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