HOW MUCH REALITY DOES YOUR FICTION REALLY NEED?
by Jennifer AlLee
Does anything in this conversation sound familiar?
New Friend: “So, what do you do for a living?”
You: “I’m a writer.”
New Friend: “Oh really? What do you write?”
New Friend: Laughs and nods knowingly. “Man, it must be nice to just make stuff up for a living. Wish I had an easy job like that.”
At that point, you’ve got a couple choices. You can (A) insist that research is a huge part of your far-from-easy writing process; (B) point out that while you do enjoy your job, you’re sure not making a living doing it; or (C) find a clever way to change the subject before your new friend starts telling you her amazing ideas for books that you really should write. Generally, I opt for the third choice.
Any writer worth her salt will tell you that all books require some level of reality. Yes, we create characters who may or may not bear a resemblance to real live folk. But even though they are the products of our imaginations, those characters still must have believable emotions, reactions, and motives.
Early on in your writing career, you’ll be faced with the choice between keeping it real and making stuff up. Let’s take setting: You want to write a story set in a small town in Ohio. The problem is, you’ve never lived in Ohio. In fact, you’ve never lived in anything but a big city. So you decide to make up a town. That way, if you mention the drug store on the corner of Main and Cypress, you don’t have to worry that that intersection probably doesn’t exist. But there’s still so much you DO need to know. What’s the weather like in that part of the state? What’s the terrain like? What do the people there do for fun? Would they be more likely to wear cowboy boots or hiking boots? Would they ride horses or ATVs?
|Photo credit: Crestock/4774344sean|
Of course, if you decide to set your story in a town that already exists, you have a responsibility to get the facts right, whether you’re able to go there or not. But in a lot of ways, that may actually be easier than making it all up. Thanks to the internet, you can take a virtual tour of almost any place in the world. One visit to Google Earth and you can practically stroll down the streets of whatever town you’ve decided is the perfect setting for your novel.
In my most recent novel, Last Family Standing, I took the question of reality one step farther by having my characters compete in a reality TV show. The world of reality TV is notoriously closed-mouth. Unless you know someone who’s on the inside, it’s nearly impossible to get the scoop on what goes on. Believe me, I tried. But there are ways around that.
1. Observation – I don’t watch a ton of reality TV, but I have watched Survivor since its second season. So it was natural for me to base the show in my book on Survivor, in part as an homage to something I’ve enjoyed for so long. But I didn’t want to simply copy the show, so I threw in a lot of new stuff, particularly the element of family members competing together to win the game. Ironically, right after I finished writing the book, Survivor announced the new season would be “Blood vs. Water” which pitted family teams against each other. It was one of those weird coincidences that happen so often to creative folk. I purposely did not watch that season of the show, simply because I didn’t want to accidentally take too much from it. And I just found out that the new season of Survivor will feature a similar family twist. You better believe I’ll be watching that.
2. Research – Try as I might (and boy, did I try) I couldn’t find anyone to talk to about being on the show. However, I found several books written about the production of reality shows and the psychology of participating in them. I also dug up print interviews with former cast mates and crew members, as well as YouTube videos that helped me with what the location would look like.
3. Imagination – Yes, Virginia, you really can make some stuff up. After all, I DID create my own reality show. It was up to me to decide the rules, the pitfalls, and all the fun little details that make it so interesting. I just had to make sure it was all plausible.
When it comes down to it, fiction is always a careful blending of the real and the imagined. As writers, our job is to weave together just the right amounts so the reader never has time or cause to wonder which is which.
GIVEAWAY – Jennifer is giving away two autographed copies of her new novel, Last Family Standing. Please leave a comment for a chance to win.
Every family has drama . . . but it doesn’t usually play out on national television.
Twenty-five years ago, Monica gave up a baby girl for adoption. Now, the thing Monica didn’t dare hope for has happened: Jessica has reentered her life... and wants to meet her. There’s just one catch: the reunion must happen on a reality TV show. Though Monica has hesitations, she’s willing to swallow her pride—and a few other unsavory items—if that’s what it takes to connect with her daughter.
Between the unpleasant surprises of nature, the awkward tension with other cast mates, and her desperate attempts to do or be anything remotely athletic, Monica quickly learns that reality bites… hard. It all might make for good TV, but it isn’t very helpful in building relationships. As she stumbles through challenges and faces buried emotions and regrets, Monica wonders if she can be what her daughter wants and needs—and is that more than just a teammate? Can Monica and Jessica ever really be the Last Family Standing?
BIO – Jennifer AlLee was born in Hollywood, California, and spent her first ten years living above a mortuary one block away from the famous intersection of Hollywood & Vine. Now she lives in the grace-filled city of Las Vegas, which just goes to prove she’s been blessed with a unique life. When she’s not busy spinning tales, she enjoys playing games with friends, attending live theater and movies, and singing at the top of her lungs to whatever happens to be playing on the car radio. Although she’s thrilled to be living out her lifelong dream of being a novelist, she considers raising her son to be her greatest creative accomplishment. She's a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Romance Writers of America, Christian Authors Network, and the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance. Her novels include The Pastor’s Wife, The Mother Road, A Wild Goose Chase Christmas and the upcoming Last Family Standing (9/15) from Abingdon Press; Diamond in the Rough, Vanishing Act, and Curtain Call from Whitaker House and co-written with Lisa Karon Richardson; and the novella Comfort and Joy in the Christmas anthology, Mistletoe Memories from Barbour. Visit her at www.jenniferallee.com and www.inkwellinspirations.com