May 30th to June 5th: “Is fact really stranger than fiction?”

Is fact really stranger than fiction? This week, authors C. C. Harrison, Anna DeStefano and Andrea Kane discuss how to weave fact and fiction to make a really compelling story. Start June off right by following this can’t-miss discussion!

C. C. Harrison’s award-winning books include, THE CHARMSTONE, a mystery set on the Navajo Indian Reservation, that was called “An important book!” by Tony Hillerman.  Next came RUNNING FROM STRANGERS, and SAGE CANE’S HOUSE OF GRACE AND FAVOR written as Christy Hubbard), which was honored at the Aspen Institute as a finalist in the 2010 Colorado Book Award.  PICTURE OF LIES will be released October 2011. She is currently working on CEMETERY TREES, a Michigan mystery.

Anna DeStefano is the best selling author of romantic suspense for Harlequin and Silhouette and contemporary psychic fantasy for Dorchester Publishing. She’s won and finalled in numerous national contests, including twice winning the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award. She teaches craft workshops across the country and blogs regularly about both her writing experience and the fascination with metaphysics and parapsychology that led her to create her psychic-based Legacy Series. For more information, please visit Anna’s blog.

Andrea Kane‘s groundbreaking romantic thriller, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, became an instant New York Times bestseller, paving the way for a series of smash hits.
 Her most recent triumphs, TWISTED and DRAWN IN BLOOD, featured the dynamic FBI team of Special Agents Sloane Burbank and Derek Parker. THE GIRL WHO DISAPPEARED TWICE introduces Forensic Instincts, an eclectic team of maverick investigators. With a worldwide following and novels published in over twenty languages, Kane is also the author of fourteen historical romances.

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  1. There’s no doubt in my mind that truth is stranger than fiction. How many times have you heard a bizarre or frighteningly coincidental news story and thought to yourself, “If I wrote that into my novel, my editor would toss it right out and say it was contrived”?

    As novelists, we are storytellers. Our primary goal is to entertain. And our entertainment comes in the form of fiction. HOWEVER, our job is also to enlighten. Integrating those two things is quite a feat. The trick is to do our research, know it inside out, and also know that most of it is never going to make it into our book. The reader would be napping by Page 50. That means we have to capture all the authenticity of our months of research, intersperse it (in sprinkles, not a deluge at a time) with the pacing and excitement of our characters and their plight, and create a believable and compelling story—fiction with its foundation in fact.

    Can we bend the rules a bit? Sure. If it enhances the story and/or the characters, we can do what I call tweaking. Tweaking is subtle and acceptable, distortion is not. Example: Anybody watch “Criminal Minds”? Well, I’ve worked extensively with the real FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit. Trust me. They have no private jet. In fact, they fly commercial. And not first class. Not even business class. Just plain old coach, like the rest of us. They also don’t have one magic button to press that calls up everything from a suspect’s criminal records to their marital history to their vital stats. But they sure wish they had both—the magic button and the private jet!

    It’s all done for the sake of entertainment. How much tweaking you feel comfortable doing is a personal decision. But expect to be called on your tweaks. Readers find them. And, at the same time, never forget that your final product had better be good—good and thrilling!

    Check out my just-released thriller, THE GIRL WHO DISAPPEARED TWICE, and see if I’ve done my job!

  2. I came to writing mysteries from a background of writing nonfiction, first as a news reporter, then as a corporate writer, finally as a writer for a career reference publishing house where “real” was primary, and there was no room for fiction. I checked and double checked my facts, and worried incessantly about interpreting my research accurately, and getting the quotes correct.

    Then when I wrote my first novel (you know, that unpublished practice book we all have in the back of a closet), I was a slave to accuracy. I finished it and submitted the manuscript to an agent who replied something like this: “This is quite good. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to represent it, but I’ll bet it was therapeutic for you.” I can laugh at that now, but I was crushed at the time.

    Often in my writing workshops, I hear my students respond to criticism with the statement, “But that’s how it really happened!” I then tell them what was told to me by a very successful, much published author, and that is, it doesn’t have to BE real, it just has to SEEM real. If there is a golden secret to writing and selling, that is it.

  3. There’s another often repeated, but misguided piece of advice I ask my workshop students to ignore, and that is WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. Really now, how UNrealistic is that? How many of us KNOW what it’s like to take a bullet, fall down a cliff, be chased by a stalker, fight our way out of a dark alley, track a fugitive, chase a bad guy through a construction site, survive in the desert, launder money, escape a maniac, go into hiding, or any of the other activities that need to happen in a book to make a good story? Not many of us.

    So, I modify that advice into something that is much more sensible and realistic and doable – WRITE WHAT YOU CAN RESEARCH! Either on the Internet or with an expert.

    My nonfiction assignments required me to seek out experts in a field, people I didn’t know, and ask them questions. I interviewed them over the phone or made an appointment to sit down one on one with them and get information. This experience serves me well now, because I have no problem calling up or emailing strangers, and asking for information that will add “realism” to my mysteries.

    I don’t write police procedurals, so I don’t have the pressure of getting the cop stuff right. My books tend to explore the theme of an ordinary woman (or man) getting caught up in some wickedness, and having to get her or himself out of it, with or without the police. I do try to get the guns and explosives right, though. Thank heavens for the Internet.

  4. Hey, Andrea and Anna, how do you handle book time?

    I recently read an interesting discussion on a writer’s blog about book time – how to REALISTICALLY accomplish everything that needs to happen in the abbreviated timeframe of a mystery or romance novel. Characters grow and change. Travel, meetings, and conversations must occur to move the story forward, but those events aren’t necessarily shown on the page. Still, the reader needs to be grounded in time and place to avoid confusion and maintain continuity.

    Book time is something I’m very aware of when I’m writing, but when I’m reading, I pretty much go with the flow of the story timeline without noticing the book time passing unless called to my attention by the author. One of the reasons I’m so aware of this challenge in my writing is that some time ago a previous agent told me that the “time tags” I used, you know, those lines at the beginning of chapters giving the date or day of that chapter’s events, was too distracting. I had to change it and incorporate the book time passing in the text. Later, in that same manuscript, the editor said that my book time passing references within the text was a bad habit. So I truly struggle with that in my writing, showing the passage of time in a way that seems REAL.

  5. Hey, C.C.

    Book time is definitely a tough one. I, too, used to head each chapter up by orienting my readers with a date, time, etc. And I, too, was told that it was distracting. In fact, that kind of “time tagging” only works really well when you’re doing some sort of countdown to an event– like a ticking bomb that’s set to go off in x hours.

    But I need a sense of time passage. Not only as a writer, but as a reader. I lose that edgy, fast-pacing of a thriller if I don’t have that knot in my stomach of racing the clock or running from something/someone (or being on a deadline! :)).

    I think the best way I tackle it is through dialogue. To me, it seems much more natural for a character to say: “That scare yesterday/last week/last month really threw me” then to insert a tag line or even an intrusive section of narrative placing the reader where and when he needs to be. So maybe think about what you want to convey time-wise and weave it into the dialogue, or the internal thought process of a character, or even a quick reference in your narrative (ex. “This was the sixth straight day of rain and the ground was saturated.”)

    I struggle with that same problem when it comes to a sense of place. For me, long descriptive paragraphs cause a major break in the tension/action. So I’m working on getting that sense of place across to the reader in more subtle ways and in less of a one-chunk paragraph format.

    I’m not sure I helped. But at least you know you’re not the only one who struggles with all this stuff!

  6. Yes, Andrea, that’s exactly what I mean. In the dialogue. In the narrative. That’s what I did. LOL, the editor didn’t like it. But, oh well, I NEVER argue with my editor.

    So, let’s look at some fact and fiction in novels, and in life.

    FACT – Relationships don’t always end well, or even exist well.

    FICTION – We all know this is a fact in life. But it’s a fact that can be used to great effect in fiction. Though my female characters always have a love interest (or possible love interest) in my stories, the relationships don’t always end well. Sometimes they end badly, sometimes they just go on and on and on while my characters are busy solving crimes and doing their jobs. OH! Just like in real life.

    FACT – In life, good people do bad things.

    FICTION – This fact makes particularly good fiction, as well. In fact, it’s my favorite story line. I especially like story lines where the character does what he or she thinks is a teeny, tiny misdeed of no great import, then have it turn into a huge problem with grave danger.

    FACT – Bad people do good things. I’ll bet we all know someone like this.

    FICTION – This is another favorite theme in fiction. All villains are not evil through and through. I think those kinds of villains are kind of boring. I much prefer to read about villains who have a bit of a kind streak, as well. In the manuscript I just completed called CEMETERY TREES, one of my villains is Saginaw Grey Wolf, a Cherokee Indian who smuggles people into Canada, all the while carrying his baby daughter in a Snugli on his chest. He has to do this because his wife ran off and abandoned them. He does the smuggling so he has money to feed that baby and pay for her medical bills. Without getting into an ethical discussion here, I found this character fascinating.

    Can anyone think of more examples?

  7. How about the concept of “Is there equity in real life?”

    The immediate answer most of us would come up with is, “NO!” On the other hand, if one believes in the long haul and the concept of “what goes around, comes around”, then the answer has to be “maybe”. So many factors play into this one– factual, spiritual, intangible, wishful.

    I have to be honest. I like creating equity. Not with all my characters, and not all the time. But with all the chaos in the world around us, it sometimes boils down to just liking seeing “the good guy” get his/hers and ditto for “the bad guy”. It’s never that simplistic, of course. C.C. is right, there are no such things as all good or all evil characters. But aren’t there some you’re just dying to see get what they deserve? 🙂

    That having been said, I, too, love writing gray characters. Especially the antagonists and the unlikeables. I love the complexity of figuring out how their minds tick, and why. I have so many gray characters in THE GIRL WHO DISAPPEARED TWICE, each one of them unique and suspect, that it was a psychological playground for me. A tough playground, but a rewarding one.

    Do any of you have pet peeves, where it comes to reality vs. fiction in a thriller? Where you draw the line? What you’ll accept and what will lessen your connection to the book?

  8. Well, Andrea, I will accept almost anything in a thriller or mystery, even when the character goes into the basement at midnight to check out out those spooky noises!

    Many readers (and authors), call this TSTL (to stupid to live), but I call it courageous. And don’t we all want our protagonists to be courageous? Especially our women characters? We don’t want them fainting and running away at the first sign of trouble. We want modern, intelligent, curious, but especially brave, female characters who are able to take care of themselves and solve their own problems. Sure, it’s okay to have a man in their lives cheering them on or even helping them, but I no longer accept, and I don’t think readers accept, weak female protagonists anymore. Besides, where’s the story in that?

    Can I just make a few more comments on this final day of Thriller Roundtable about fact and fiction in books? My books and the characters in them are all completely ficticious. Now having said that, I can also say many of the characters and the stories are BASED ON FACT – embellished fact.

    The events in my book THE CHARMSTONE, set in Monument Valley on the Navajo Indian Reservation, are based on people I met and experiences I had while living on the reservation as a VISTA volunteer. I also used information I gathered while I worked on an archeological dig at an ancient Anasazi site. RUNNING FROM STRANGERS, set in Durango, Colorado, was inspired by my experiences as a child advocate in a southern state (but I dare not say which state.)

    In my new book, a contemporary mystery called PICTURE OF LIES, my character travels to the Navajo Indian Reservation looking for people in a fifty-year-old photograph, including a child who was kidnapped by missionaries and never returned. This really happened, but not the way I portrayed it in the book. Not even close.

    I think all authors expand and embellish fact this way. For me, everything that happens in my life, everything I hear about or observe, is a potential plot for a book. Let that be a warning to you, my friends. (smile)

  9. Let me close my part in this round table discussion by saying the following. Up until now, I’ve focused on my feelings as a writer. As I am in every way (not just the accuracy of my research), I’m far harder on myself when I’m the writer than I am on other authors when I’m the reader. So my advice to all readers would be this: Perception often IS reality. So enjoy reading the thrillers you choose. If an inaccuracy is acute enough to jump out and punch you in the nose, or stop you in your tracks, that’s a problem. But if it’s just the author’s attempt to entertain by stretching a truth (not fabricating one), accept it and keep reading. Don’t shut yourself off to a fantastic read just because a time frame is shortened for pacing purposes, or an action scene is pushing the boundaries for excitement purposes. Thrillers are meant to do just that, thrill you! So sit back and savor the ride!

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