Thursday, March 17, 2016

How Much Fiction is Fiction?

This week, I'm on a family vacation in Florida (see photos). The timing has been good because I'm 40-ish pages into my 2017 novel, and I've hit a plot snag. So it's time to slow down and do some research.

The plot will remain in tact; after all, I outlined this one pretty thoroughly (yet, admittedly, I'm not an outliner, per se, so "pretty thoroughly" means a couple-page plot summary I worked on for a week). Last week, I printed out my pages, sat down with my pencil, edited what I have, and realized I have questions about the backstory of two characters that I need answered before I can continue writing the story. These questions are specific to the Syrian refugee crisis.

A family vacation means I refuse to work when everyone else is awake, which means rising early to write for a couple hours before the rest of the clan wakes. The "writing" I've done this week has been looking for and e-mailing (or Facebook messaging) experts on Syria and refugee smuggling. As of this writing, I've e-mailed questions to 1) a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, 2) a Boston College professor, 3) a University of Massachusetts professor, 4) an immigration attorney, 5) a Nova Scotia fisherman, and 6) a former deputy chief of the United States Border Patrol. That's more time networking than writing, which is the cost of doing business for a procedural writer.

I began my writing life as a newspaper reporter (two years after college), so I know how to find and cull information. (Often, I send multiple experts the same questions so I can cross-reference the answers.) And research is vital to writing fiction, especially considering today's information-savvy readers. In our genre, fact-based fiction is the primary difference between procedurals and other other sub-genres (amateur sleuth and private investigator crime fiction). For me and this project, most importantly, lots of people know something of the Syrian refugee crises; therefore, I flat out have to get these details right or the novel will collapse under the weight of failed reader-expectations.

All of which brings me to the question of how much fiction is fiction? And maybe even how much fiction should be fiction? Yes, I research. For some books more than I enjoy. (Robert B. Parker is a hero to me because he knew human nature and the human condition well enough to write clear, riveting novels that dealt with little else.) But today's readers, particularly those who favor procedurals, demand and deserve authentic portrayals of the professions writers explore, be it life as a homicide detective or the life of my US Border Patrol agent. Subsequently, research makes my books better.

And that's the bottom line.

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