Recently, I was given a nudge down my “how to improve” writing road journey, while thinking about my most recent book club selection discussion. I’m sure I’ve previously mentioned how much I like—and have learned from my local monthly book club. Indeed, without the diversity of selections members put on our list, there are so many books and authors I would have regretfully never read. So first off, let me say again, I love book club!
For example, our August book selection was Catalyst, written by the highly acclaimed and award winning Science Fiction/Fantasy author Anne McCaffrey, this offering written with Elizabeth Ann Scarborough[i]. Great writers, but in a genre which is not my forte—which I’ve proclaimed on several past occasions. Thank goodness for members who ignore me and push us all outside our reading cocoons. Indeed, I’ve self-indulgently proclaimed on more than one occasion about the genre, “Not what I like. Not real.”
On my way home from our meeting, I had one of those “good-grief” moments that astound me at my own silly thinking and categorizing. I write fiction. Duh, not Real! Mystery fiction writers ask readers to accept people, places, events, etc.—all that often aren’t real—though sometimes based on real events and situated in real places.
From there, I headed down the “how real should our fiction be?” path. Sounds silly, but what I mean is the importance of having the right “reality balance” to our commercial fiction—mysteries in particular. I’ve talked before about closing books without reading because the characters don’t grab me, or I dislike them, which sorry to say, I seem to be doing more of. But, does the reality-balance also have something to do with my lack of story engagement?
- For sure, for me in particular, I want readers to be able to visualize a non-existent-unreal town of Shiné as a real place. Store fronts, roads, places of business, even a castle. If they actually visualize an unreal alien world they can’t go to, will they want to mentally be there, or visit again? Indeed, I want them to escape from the reality of their habitat to a neat identifiable place they’d like to visit, but different from where they are—at least for a couple hours. But not as far as a different planet or world?
- Are the characters real? Certainly not. But real enough for a reader to visualize a real person they can piece together, and at the same time find the character different or eccentric enough to find interesting? Normal enough to be real, but not too normal as to be alien, or worse, unlikable. Another balancing act.
- Scenery? Can they see a real place in their mind’s eye? In my writing case, the Mojave Desert does exist. But Shiné? No. But can a reader imagine a place “like” this possibly existing in the real world?
- And here’s a hard one. Are the events real? Especially with some of the mystery writing conceits in use. Of course not, ask any policeman(and I’ve asked several–thank you my PSWA friends and San Bernardino County Sheriffs). Indeed, we’ve got the reality in our own lives of actual bad guys and victims. The balance here is of not trivializing real crime and horror, but at the same time offering escapism with characters being killed and justice of some kind happening. Hmm…
- And here’s another tricky one, is it a realistic story? Again, of course not. The goal is larger than life adventures, with larger than life characters, with larger than life attributes—and minimal flaws. Not reality for sure.
- Is the conclusion realistic? And on this one, not a dilemma or quandary for me at all. No. It’s what I want to happen. Reality doesn’t matter. That being said, sometimes an author has hit the mark on all the previous points, and I’ve gotten to the end and said, bah humbug!(smile)
Agatha Christie, I think, was a genius when it comes to snatching a reader into sometimes outlandish unreal situations, with larger than life characters when it comes to abilities, and posit some implausible situations and happenings—but leaving me thinking these people, places, and events actually happened. Easily suspending my disbelief while reading. Her non-reality was/still is[ii] for me very real.
Still pondering, but thinking “real” fiction writing of any kind, is a balancing act for sure. My take away from these meanderings? For me—more carefulness when it comes to reality-balancing, when developing all my characters, places, situations, and conclusions. And maybe read more Scifi(smile).
Happy Writing and Reading Trails!
[i] More about Catalyst and Anne McCaffrey here on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Catalyst-Tale-Barque-Cats-Book-ebook/dp/B002XHNOMO/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=catalyst+anne&qid=1629596367&sr=8-1
[ii] I re-watch Poirot mysteries on DVDs all the time (with David Suchet).