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 Amazon.com Author’s Page.
[To read James Bruno’s post – click here. – The Editors]