How “Real” Should A Novel Be? by John Wayne Falbey

Author John Wayne Falbey
Author John Wayne Falbey

Back in April, author James Bruno suggested in these pages what he believes are the two essential ingredients for a successful novel. One of these is knowledge of the subject matter. His point is that successful works of fiction utilize characters and story lines that closely resemble reality; in other words, they achieve verisimilitude.

The other critical ingredient lies in crafting a good story. Attorneys have a label for something this obvious: sine qua non; which means the thing speaks for itself. Readers of fiction invariably are in search of a good story. They want to be entertained by the written word. Shallow characters, inadequate descriptive passages, choppy or overly verbose dialog, and weak plots won’t attract large numbers of readers or build a fan base.

With regard to the first point, unless the novel falls into the genres of fantasy, horror, or science fiction, the writer has to create a scenario that could be real. Verisimilitude is achieved when the reader suspends disbelief. This means the writer has to fully understand the subject matter about which he or she is writing. There are a limited number of ways to accomplish this.

One way simply is to be expert in that field. For example there are several physicians who write, or wrote, top medical thrillers including Robin Cook and Tess Gerritsen. There are attorneys who seem to reside atop the legal thriller lists, such as John Grisham and Scott Turow. For that matter, I spent two decades as a practicing attorney, so I should be writing legal thrillers, right? No, I always have considered the legal profession to be pretty dull, and most of my colleagues to be almost personality free. Under the circumstances, I would have a difficult time crafting an interesting and exciting story in the legal thriller genre.

Another way to approach realism in a story is to base it on real events. There is almost no limit to the amount of media coverage for many events occurring today. Take any story, for example a high profile murder case, relocate it and change the names of those involved. There should be voluminous useful materials in the various media outlets, as well as police and court documents. In addition, interview the witnesses, investigators and others involved in the case.

A third method of capturing realism in the novel is through discussions and interviews with experts in the field. If, for example, you’re writing a spy novel, James Bruno suggests talking with people who have been there and done that, such as retired intelligence operatives from the CIA, NSA, military and other agencies.

Fourth, when all else fails, there is the tried and true method. Research. Assuming you know very little about a subject, when should you begin the research? Obviously it needs to be done before you begin writing about the subject to which it pertains. Jim Rollins, the noted NYT best selling author shared his perspective with me over lunch earlier this year. Jim writes fictional tales about science and technology. He does all his research up front. He allots 90 days to complete it, after which he begins writing the novel. With my current novel, Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening, I did the bulk of my research on genetics – an underlying theme – up front then researched other topics that figured into the story line, such as the toys of the über wealthy, sophisticated weaponry, etc., as I wrote the book

What’s the best way to conduct research for your book? For my first novel, The Quixotics, written years ago before the Internet, I did most of my research in the library. Now I do most of it online. But a word of caution applies here: don’t rely largely on a single source. For example, Wikipedia is very tempting to use and covers just about every topic you can imagine. But it’s open-source, meaning that anyone can contribute to it and they may not be accurate.

How much research is sufficient? My rule of thumb is that you should be able to discuss the topic intelligently and in some depth with true experts on that subject. Your readership may include some of those experts. If a reader recognizes that the author has no real grasp of the subject, you won’t get the kind of word-of-mouth and reader reviews you need to help sell the book.

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John Wayne Falbey is a modern Renaissance man: attorney, martial artist, real estate developer, triathlete, university professor, competitive cyclist, lecturer, downhill skier, author, and adventurer. He wrote his first novel in his “spare time” as a student at Vanderbilt University School of Law in order to counter the regimentation of law school. His latest novel, Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening, a techno-political thriller, is the first of a planned trilogy. Learn more about John at his website and his Author’s Page.

[To read James Bruno’s post – click here. – The Editors]

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14 thoughts on “How “Real” Should A Novel Be? by John Wayne Falbey”

  1. True. I submit that even in Fantasy, Horror or Science Fiction there needs to be a fair amount of verisimilitude. The story has to be plausible and believable enough for the reader to be pulled into the state of suspended disbelief. Transgress the limits and the story will fall flat.

    1. And written plain enough that you’re not dying trying to pronounces names and locations! Have read a few of those and quickly put them down.

      1. Excellent points Yvonne and Kathy! It’s my belief that no matter what genre a particular reader favors, they want to be drawn into the story. That’s not likely to happen if they notice facts that are wrong or have to struggle to follow a convoluted plot or keep track of the characters or run for a dictionary to interpret words. I once read that the average American uses a 500 word vocabulary. That’s a scary thought, but if it’s even close, it means writers have to work at keeping their stories clear.

  2. Fantastic post! I agree, the more you know about a topic, the better off you will be. But, if you don’t already have knowledge of a topic, then develop that knowledge through research. In my novel, Shepherds Moon, the main character works with the police and other agencies. I don’t normally do that, so I had to develop resources to learn what a “watch commander” does versus the job of a sergeant or detective. It’s a lot of fun learning something new and you get to meet some really interesting people!

    1. Very interesting comment, Stacy! I’ve read that crime or mystery writers have shadowed (with official permission) police officers and detectives in their daily work. Also, some spy and action writers have managed to get embedded with a military unit to gather first hand research on combat activities, weaponry, etc. Sounds dangerous, but undoubtedly is a prime source for realistic material.

  3. I’m with Yvonne – readers need to be able to suspend disbelief no matter what genre they’re reading so the people, situations and worlds all have to be believable. I guess the research we do is sometimes more inward focused but it still has to be done. 🙂

    1. Great point, AC. While I didn’t mention it earlier, I’m sure research is interesting and more enjoyable if the writer is focusing on subject areas that are of particular interest to him or her.

  4. Thanks for a good post. I’ve discovered that one big difference between writing straight fantasy and writing urban fantasy is the amount of research that needs to be done. A book set in the real world needs to have believable details, so that someone who’s been there doesn’t throw your book across the room. 🙂 But in either case, the people and their reactions have to be believable, or you lose your readers.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Lynne. I’m not all that knowledgeable about fantasy, but I agree that plots and characters must be believable in any any genre. I ventured into horror (a form of fantasy, I think) with my short story “He Who Drinks From Lethe…”. I worked hard to make the characters believable even if the plot did require some effort to suspend disbelief.

  5. With my military thrillers I have to be careful. No, I’ve never been there or done that, but my hubby has- so I ask him about missions, and take what he gives me and put a totally fictional spin on it (change place, time, some of the action, etc.) So far, I haven’t gotten into any trouble- fingers crossed!

    Research, research, research!

    Great post!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Kathy. You’re right about research tools for areas that are not familiar to the writer – go to the experts. They usually are happy to share their time.

  6. Great post. I just stopped reading a book that had a weird social structure. Not that weird is bad, but this didn’t have any feeling of reality because the two different facets wouldn’t really exist together. A little social research would have fixed that.
    My research comes in 3 steps. Gather enough background information to tell the story. Research some details while writing. Confirm the rest in revision. The trick for me is not doing so much research at the beginning that I can’t tell the story.

    1. Thanks for sharing your comments, PA. I agree that it is possible to go overboard on research. That’s one of the reasons Jim Rollins, who has had 15 or 16 thrillers on the best seller lists, limits his research to 90 days. He says he likes research so much he would go on forever and never start writing if he didn’t impose a limit.

  7. These all are excellent responses; concise and well thought out. I appreciate every one of them. Two areas seem to emerge from them.

    One focuses on – for lack of a better term – “fleshing” out the characters. I stand corrected on my statement that “unless the novel falls into the genres of fantasy, horror, or science fiction, the writer has to create a scenario that could be real”. Clearly, when it comes to the characters in any story, they must be believable; the readers must be able to identify them as capable of being someone they know or could know. This applies to all genres including horror, fantasy and science fiction. Even the proverbial “one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater” must have a personality and characteristics that grab the reader’s interest. Maybe it’s that of the worst boss you ever worked for.

    On the subject of storyline, I’m not so sure realism is as easily achievable. Plots, yes. Most plots work some variation of good versus evil, white hats and black hats. But there are areas of science fiction, such as teletransportation that, so far as we know, not only don’t exist yet, but aren’t even in the development stages. Techies may be able to suspend disbelief, but most mainstream readers would not.

    The other area that seems to emerge from the responses thus far relates to developing storylines and the messages implicit within them. My concern in particular is the storyline that reflects the author’s personal political or social views. As has been said in many of the responses above, the purpose of a thriller is to entertain. I don’t believe pure entertainment should attempt to proselytize. There are more than enough books on the non-fiction lists that focus on doing that.

    That statement may seem strange in light of my current techno-political thriller, Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening. While the story explores what could be behind the political turmoil and extreme partisanship in government today, many readers will be hard pressed to figure out which characters are the good guys. Extreme leftists certainly should find their heroes, while those with a much more conservative perspective will identify with other characters. But the critical point from my perspective as the author, is that my personal socio-political-economic views are not part of the thriller.

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