The dangers of using real life in your writing.

Recently I talked about how using the modern day in writing can be a difficult thing to work with. When I say “recently”, I mean back in this post.

Now I want to talk about why it’s as difficult as it is.

There are three methods to working with the real world in your story: Authentic, believable, and fringe. Each is rather distinct in their implementation, but each poses their own problems and advantages. Each, also, works better in specific genres on average than another. Using the fringe method in a crime novel … probably not the best idea unless it’s specifically that way. Just the same, using an authentic style in a supernatural story can be risky.

1 – “Authentic”) The authentic use of the real world is the act of making sure that everything (details, people, agencies, companies, ect) matches its fictitious counterpart. This method of writing in the real world can be the most difficult on someone who isn’t as worldly or experienced as the true professionals. That said, it can be the most convincing way to draw a reader in if, you know, your story is still any good.

One of the perils of using this method, good at it or not, is that your story will always take a backseat to the authenticity monkey. You will always scrutinize every detail in your story to be sure that you have the right region, weather patterns, agencies and departments, building designs, ect.

It can get kinda crazy. On the other hand, if you pull it off with a convincing story, you can have your readers stuck to you as if they were glued.

The people that are best equipped to use this style of writing are those that either do a ludicrous amount of study on all the aspects of real life that they use, or have past experience in the fields that they bring to the literary table. Let’s face it, who’s gonna write least authentically: A nurse, a med student, or a writer with a day job and a movie collection to weed through?

2 – “Believable”) The believable method is that odd little child that popped up from a weird night when Authentic and Fringe both got wasted and booked a hotel room. It lacks the nitty-gritty details that make up the authentic method, yet it is more plausible than the fringe method.

When would one use the believable method? Unlike the authentic or fringe methods, you can be believable nearly in any genre. Crime story? It might pay to be more authentic, but believable can suffice. Got Elves drifting around in Chicago? You could argue that being more of a fringe writer would be easier, but being believable can make your readers attach to the set piece.

While putting some research in to make sure you’re using the right agency (ex. FBI or US Marshals?) can add a layer of credibility to you as the writer, it can also put you in an awkward spot. If you do some digging and use the right details for some aspects, lacking other details can make your readers scratch their heads.

If you want to be believable, you want to be more on the side of authentic than fringe; however, be ready in case any blow-back comes your way for some incorrect details. I’m not saying you can’t make up some city in Florida, but please don’t say that the Space Needle is in Miami.

3 – “Fringe”) And then there’s the fringe method. I’ll be honest, this one is my least favorite of all these styles of using the modern world. It lacks any sense of believability or authenticity, and reeks of someone just spouting off some random real world names and abbreviations  for the sake of saying “Hey! You know of New York, right? That’s where this story happens!”

That’s not to say that the fringe method doesn’t have its own uses. In particular, it can be best put to use in paranormal or science fiction stories where it can be used to provide some basic attachment.

You only want to use a fringe method of writing for the modern day if your story absolutely must come first; trying to be make people think you actually know what you’re talking about while mixing up or inventing names just doesn’t work.

In real world fringe writing, you don’t care about the details and their accuracy. All that matters is the story and your characters; making sure that you have the right name of a state county or checking to see if SWAT teams belong to the FBI comes last. While I love stories and characters that come first, I am no lover of a story that completely forgo any fact checking.

So here comes the great question: What method do I use then, if I am such a connoisseur of styles?

I aim for the believable spectrum. I am not an expert on the world by any stretch. As of writing this, I am twenty-two and have worked at a retail store and a tool shop. I have no experience with the FBI, I’ve not had any extended stays at a hospital, nor have I signed up with the military. As such, I don’t have the experiences or knowledge that an FBI agent, a doctor, or an infantryman might have.

All of that said, I also can try and put my best foot forward and make sure that the right agency investigates the correct type of crime. I can check and make sure that the US Army does not have its own battleships. I also know that the Empire State Building is not, in fact, in Toronto.

I may not have the worldly experiences of someone who has traveled or lived some of these amazing lives, but I can at least do some due diligence in making sure that the basic facts are checked.

The only thing I can ask of anyone who wants their story to take place in the modern world is that you realize what style you’re using. If you’re going for an authentic crime novel, don’t be an expert on the police side of the story but not know a single thing about how a hotel operates.

If you’re gonna write a story in the modern world, find your style and stick to it. Don’t jump from authentic to fringe in the middle of your story, just be sure that you recognize where you belong and work with it.

In my case with The Veil (again: modern story with divine/demonic forces), I want it to feel like the story could happen today. That doesn’t work with a fringe method, but I don’t have the knowledge or experience for authentic. That leaves me with writing a story from a, hopefully, believable perspective.

I’ve tried to get what details I can in order for it to seem more plausible, but I know I’ll make some mistakes in the process. I know I’ll get some details wrong in how the FBI conducts its investigations, and that I’ll not have correct hospital procedures followed.

That said, I’m at least making sure that I am sending the right agency after my protagonist, and that my home state of Washington isn’t as hot as Arizona. The more details that I get right, the more I can draw my readers in. At the same time, my story and characters will come before exact authenticity.

2 thoughts on “The dangers of using real life in your writing.

  1. I think this is good advice. I too try to stick to “believable,” as best I can when writing fiction set in the modern world. I tried writing authentic for a while, but I just got so bogged down in cross referencing and fact checking that my creative output slowed to a crawl. I think the important thing is that it’s believable enough, so that the reader isn’t removed from the story. To me, the whole point of fiction is immersion, and anything that breaks that is problematic. I think even too much authenticity can break that immersion as well. Too many irrelevant details, and the reader gets thrown off course just as badly as if I write about my character’s amazing trip to the Eiffel Tower in Prague.

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    • I agree completely; the act of simply detailing everything from an authentic standpoint can be more burden than it’s worth. That depends on the genre mostly, though.

      In a crime novel, you have a lot more reason and time to detail the processes involved. Let’s face it, attention to detail in such a story is part of the immersion; by extension, it serves the story. In a modern fantasy, however, you don’t have quite the same reason for the detail; it isn’t serving the story.

      For the work I am putting in on my manuscript, it’s readily apparent to me that the story and characters come first. That doesn’t mean I can’t put some basic facts in, but I’d be wasting time and effort if I was trying to put real street names and buildings to the page.

      Think of it this way: If you’re sucked into the story of the poor son-of-a-bitch I wrote up who’s being chased by demons and feds, how much attention will you pay to check if Pacific Highway turns onto 16th Street? Probably not much.

      On the flipside: If your victim has been beaten to death with a cattle bone and left inside a dry cleaner, knowing the area around that dry cleaner and where said cattle bone might come from does have relevance.

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