When you’re writing fiction, you need to make your novel as real as possible. Characters, settings, situations, and dialogue must feel credible to the reader. Writers have different techniques to do this, but here are a few of mine:
- Research it! My newest thriller, Reef Road, is based on a true crime: the 1948 Pittsburgh murder of my mother’s twelve-year-old friend. You can be sure I read every newspaper article about that crime, obtained the coroner’s report, spoke with the Pittsburgh Police Department, and did every scrap of research I possibly could. While all the details of the real crime did not make their way into the fictional version, it made a huge difference to have all that information in my head (and spread out all over the room around me!). As they say about professional dancers: Miss rehearsal one day and you notice it. Miss it two days and your teacher notices it. Miss it three days, your audience notices it. It is the same with research. A writer needs to build the entire foundation before cherry-picking which details to use and which to eliminate.
- See it! This one is a matter of personal choice, but I like to write real places into my novels. As a reader, I enjoy that frisson of excitement when I recognize a setting in a novel I am reading. I practically jump out of my chair with the thought, “I know that place! I’ve eaten in that café!” Many writers use fictional (or fictionalized versions of real) places. Which is fine. When they do it, however, they always endeavor to make the details as truthful as possible. Think about it: the slick cobblestone of a wet street that turns your ankle, the particular scalded milk smell that hits you when you step off a plane in Paris, that exact slant of pale pink sun at the end of a winter day. Put it in and make it real.
- Speak it! Before I submit a final version of a novel to my editor, I actually read the entire book out loud. Have lots of water on hand to salve your throat because this is a long process. And try to do it in as few sittings as you can manage. You will be amazed at how many times you repeat a word, where your dialogue is clunky, and which passages simply do not trip off the tongue. Fix all that while you can. It makes a huge difference, particularly in this era when most books have audio versions. The rhythm and cadence of language is one of the greatest delights of a novel.
- Calendar it! One of the tricks I use which is quite analog but works better than any digital version I have found: I print out month-at-a-page calendars for any month I am writing about. Then I spread them out on a table in front of me. I make notations on particular days that are invaluable in keeping my timeline straight. For example, if there is an object in your book that disappears on July 5, 2019, you must be sure that you never see that object again until you intend to see it. This little calendar trick helps me keep chronology straight better than a timeline on my computer. When your story is non-linear and you are hopping back and forth in time, this is an invaluable visual tool.
Let us know what strategies you use to make your fiction real! Join us on Facebook to talk real fiction….
Deborah Goodrich Royce is the bestselling author of thrillers that examine puzzles of identity. Her latest, Reef Road, hit Publishers Weekly’s Bestseller list, Good Morning America’s Top 15 list, and was an Indie Next pick by the American Bookseller’s Association for January 2023. Ruby Falls won the Zibby Award for Best Plot Twist in 2021 and Finding Mrs. Ford was hailed by Forbes, Book Riot, and Good Morning America’s “best of” lists in 2019.
She began as an actress on All My Children and in multiple films, before transitioning to the role of story editor at Miramax Films, developing Emma and early versions of Chicago and A Wrinkle in Time. With her husband, Chuck, Deborah restored the Avon Theatre, Ocean House Hotel, Deer Mountain Inn, United Theatre, Savoy Bookstore, and numerous Main Street revitalization projects in Rhode Island and the Catskills. She serves on the governing and/or advisory boards of the American Film Institute, Avon Theatre, Greenwich International Film Festival, New York Botanical Garden, Greenwich Historical Society, the Preservation Society of Newport, the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach, and the PRASAD Project.
The Ocean House Author Series—a salon style conversation that Deborah created in partnership with The Savoy Bookshop & Café—brings world-class authors to readers in the stunning seaside location of Watch Hill, RI. This year, Deborah will talk there with two dozen writers ranging from Chris Bohjalian to Katie Couric. Past authors have included Zibby Owens, Emma Straub, Annabel Monaghan, Zain Asher, and many more.
Deborah holds a bachelor’s degree in modern foreign languages and an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Lake Erie College.