Fiction based on reality may seem like an oxymoron. If the story is imaginary, if my characters are fictitious, why not just make it all up; toss the pebbles of ideas into the air and let them fall wherever they want to land? Shouldn’t total fiction mean not having to worry about which building is on which corner of the make believe town I’m writing about? Why base them in reality? Make believe bike paths that are longer than any in real life shouldn’t make any difference. Who would measure?
Why then the statement that readers want fiction based in reality? Whose reality does the author use for fictitious scenes or to define a made-up character? Are the scenes or characters based on his or her real life places or people or does the basis for their fictitious reality rest in the reader’s experiences?
As I began writing Dormer Window I thought I would just write the story. The city was imaginary. There were no street names needed. The people were fictitious, not based on someone I knew. However, the story began to take on details I hadn`t counted on having to know about. What does one do if the reality we know is less than the fiction of what we dream up? Research raised its head.
The teen character had begun using a skateboard. I had seen skateboards around and watched kids using them, but that was the extent of what I knew about what skateboarding involved. So I went to a young teen I knew who had a great passion for skateboarding. He was delighted to sit down with me and talk about his favorite sport. He described for me the details of how he moved and what the parts of a skateboard were called. I showed him parts of what I had written and asked him to correct my wording based on the reality of what he knew. It was definitely greater than my imagination had conceived.
I had taken a first glance at my story and found I needed research about skateboarding, so now I began to have doubts concerning some of the other aspects of my tale. Did my life experiences have enough information about foster care and adoption procedures, for instance?
The thought sent me to a person I knew who had worked with adoptions and I asked him about what was involved. That interview brought to light information that lent reality to my imaginary story. Yet, after reading the manuscript, he found I had still missed a point crucial to the ending. Had I not spoken to him in the first place, he wouldn’t have picked up on it. A reader might have noticed my fiction wasn`t quite real enough.
I began to wonder if readers wanted reality in the details of the story—the action and the characters—did they also want fictitious emotions to be based on reality? Were there enough emotions in my life experience that could qualify me to write about the yearning of my orphan teen to have parents? I had seen the tears of a woman in my childhood when she had to let go of another foster child. The glow of pride when she talked about the achievements of a foster child who had kept in touch with her over the years. I had nurtured children I baby sat, comforting them when their mothers left to go to work. I had seen my grandson’s sorrow when he had to return to his single parent home. My hugs weren’t enough to quench my pain, let alone his.
All of those emotions could lend reality to my character. The rest would need to be how I imagined he would feel. His being moved from one foster home to another, the choices out of his control. His story experience of being unloved or loved would have to be borrowed from my imagination augmented by related emotions in my life experience.
When the story had reached its conclusion, and the time for rereading and working out the kinks had arrived, I began to question how much research was enough. Would the reality of my fiction satisfy my readers?
I had done as much homework as I felt I needed. The story was complete. I hoped the fiction had enough reality to satisfy, and enough emotion to fulfill the lure to keep reading. But was it enough? Sometimes life simply gives us one more thing and we find out part of what we’ve written is the pebbles falling in the right place despite our efforts to do enough.
One afternoon I was answering my doctor’s questions regarding what my book was about. We talked about orphans a bit, and he asked for the age of my character. I was mystified as to why he would ask that until he explained how the brain of a child matures and at what age a person would have the ability to look after themselves without adult supervision. The gift I received that day was the affirmation that I had chosen my character to be the right age to be able to do the things I had him doing. The reality fit my fiction despite the fiction having come about without my knowledge of the reality beforehand.
Whoever said writing real fiction wasn’t hard work?
Pat Redekopp was shortlisted in our 2015 Free Publishing Contest for_ Dormer Window. Learn more about our current contest here
Pat currently lives in Regina, picking up inspiration from her various activities as a homemaker, volunteer, mother and grandmother. She loves to create, whether with words or other unique designs.