Monday, February 25, 2013

Adding Reality to Fiction

Today my partner in life and in crimenovels, that isLarry K. Collins is my guest. See how we create reality in our fiction.

During a conference presentation, I was asked this question: “I write fiction. What kind of research should I do? And how much?”

My answer was: “As much as you can. The more reality you put into your fiction, the more believable it becomes. As a rule of thumb, I put in a true fact, a fact, a fact, a fact, and make up a fact. If I do it well, my readers won’t be able to tell which one is made up.”

In our second mystery, Murder in Paradise, our protagonist, Agapé Jones, retired NYPD detective, was supposed to drive from Honolulu to Hale’iwa. While doing research on Oahu, I drove the same route, noticed the outrigger canoes parked along the Ala Wai Canal, and shopped at the Foodland in Hale’iwa. Then Agapé did the same things in the book. We know our readers will never forgive us if we mess up their town. And if our hero drives the wrong way on a one-way street, we’ll never hear the end of it.

While writing a story in a real place, I surround myself with photos, clippings, and maps of the area I intend to write about. Anything to keep me grounded in reality.

Sometimes a picture will inspire a scene. In Murder in Paradise, I had the grandmother character tell the story of growing up as a child on the North Shore and visiting the Hale’iwa Hotel, a beautiful Victorian-style inn featuring a two-story lanai and luxurious dining room. Opened in 1898, the building was torn down in 1952. As inspiration, I purchased several early photos of the old hotel from North Shore Photo Hawaii and hung them on the wall over my computer. The pictures themselves never appeared in the book, but my descriptions became more accurate because I could visualize being there. Hopefully I passed my vision on to the reader.

Lorna and four friends created the fictitious town of Aspen Grove, Colorado, as the location for their anthologies, Snowflake Secrets, Seasons of Love, Directions of Love, and An Aspen Grove Christmas. This allows the authors to invent shops, restaurants, churches, B&Bs, etc. to fit the various novellas. They placed Aspen Grove in the mountains west of Denver on the road leading to the ski resorts. Even though it is fictitious, it needed to have the real look and character of the area. Aspen Grove became a composite of several real towns.

Walk down the main street of Idaho Springs and you expect to see Daisy’s Diner and the Book Nook. Wander along the lakefront in Georgetown to find Drew’s log cabin and on through town to the stone building housing the Presbyterian Church. Several readers have remarked they would love to visit Aspen Grove. So would we.

Not only do the locations need to be correct, but also the specific time period. The events, language, customs, clothing, and props must all fit the era.

In historical fiction, it is even more important to do accurate research. Our latest endeavor, The Memory Keeper, concerns life at the San Juan Capistrano Mission between 1820 and 1890 as seen through the eyes of a Juaneño Indian.

For inspiration, an original etching by Rob Shaw, published in 1890 by H L Everett, showing the mission grounds, currently hangs over my computer.

Our bibliography is running about five or six pages and growing. We have also enlisted the aid of the local San Juan historian and a Juaneño native storyteller as beta readers for historical information. We won’t be satisfied until they are satisfied with the accuracy of our details.

Now that I’ve said all that, I have to remind myself. Never let the facts get in the way of the story. Too many details can turn a good story into a boring history lesson. In the end, the research should support and enhance, but not overwhelm. We must choose carefully which facts to include, leave out, and make up. If we’ve done our job, our readers will become so involved with the plot and compelling characters, that the facts just blend in. They’ll never know how much research went into it. But we will.


  1. Good research is a must even for fiction. I read a book that had a five-story building along a certain street in a nearby city. Trouble is, that street doesn't have five-story office buildings (city code). Knocked me right out of the story. A little credibility goes a long way in pleasing the reader. Thanks for your post, Larry!

  2. Excellent piece. It IS hard for writers, once they've gathered all that wonderful information, to leave it out. you say, it can be information overload and not add to the story at all.

    1. Thanks for your wise observation. You an spend years gathering material, but you can't put it all in! You have to use it judiciously, like seasoning.

  3. Excellent observation, Larry. We can get to caught up in our research. I write about fictional locations located near real locations and based on real locations. I started doing that in the beginning because the town I live in is the basis for my Tempe mysteries--unfortunately businesses never last long in our town. It was easier to make up places that could stay in business.

    1. I agree, Marilyn. That's why we created Aspen Grove for our romances. Unfortunately for the historical, we have to correctly depict San Juan as it was during the period. That's a lot harder.

  4. Loved the part about going out to the North Shore. I'm a UH grad and my husband often played golf at Ala Wai and going out to the North Shore, well things have changed in the years I was there. Drove out there last year and now there is coffee bushes where there was once pineapple.

    I write historical fiction, so research is very important, but you're right about place. Best to get it right.

  5. You might enjoy our mysteries since they're all set in Hawaii. The first one is on Maui, and the second on Maui and Oahu. They require research for accuracy. We're not altogether dumb! My story for the award-winning romance anthology"Directions of Love" is set in Oahu including UH. Do you think we like Hawaii?

  6. Good information. I like your idea of using actual photos to get a feel for a place. I've done the same and also like to steep myself in contemporary newspapers for the same purpose.