First off, before we go any further, let me stress that I know (having taught many creative writing classes) that “truth” or “reality” doesn’t always make for compelling fiction. I know without a doubt that sometimes what really happened makes for a boring—or unbelievable—story.
Now that that’s out of the way, I can continue. 😉 Here’s what I want to stress, though: if a story doesn’t feel real, it loses a lot of its allure (for me anyway). If it feels unrealistic or farfetched, you’re going to lose me as a reader. That’s why I try really hard as a writer to keep elements of my stories as realistic as possible (although, with the beginning of Seal All Exits, I probably failed).
But getting things right as an author (most of the time anyway) means so much to me that I conduct painstaking research. Sometimes I use the internet; other times I rely on observation. There have even been times when I’ve polled groups of people or questioned individuals to find out things I have no way of knowing (even if I suspect something and just want to confirm). I’d hate for a reader to be halfway through a book and then think, “Oh, well, that would never happen because ________.” If I’ve lost you, you won’t finish the story. That’s happened to me more times than I can remember, and it aggravates me more than it probably should. For example, right now I’m reading a book that’s set in the 1990s but the characters all feel and act like they come from the 50s. The characters are in college in their early twenties, and they drink and smoke like the characters in Mad Men and use things like handkerchiefs and fountain pens. Occasionally, there’s an F word thrown in or a reference to cocaine, but more often than not, it feels like the author found a loved one’s manuscript (grandparent or parent) and just added her own scenes here and there so she could sell it to the publisher. I went to college in the 80s and not once did I see a young man use a handkerchief! There’s also no mention of computers or CDs or…well, you get the point. The story might feel real if it was set in the era in which it obviously belongs (the 50s or even the early 60s). Knowing it’s set in the 90s makes me roll my eyes every time I read another few scenes and it’s this lack of realism which makes it hard for me to trudge through this book. I promised a friend I’d read it or I would have put it down a long time ago, because the author (and I also blame the editors and publishers for letting that sh*t slide) didn’t invest in making the story feel real.
That’s one of the things that reviewers have mentioned about Bullet over and over and over again—it felt real to them. That was what I wanted to do, to make a story so believable it was compelling and hard to put down and, in the process, caused readers to invest emotionally—because that sort of investment makes for a rewarding read.
What’s the most realistic book you’ve ever read?