Friday, November 27, 2015

What Does It Mean To Write Fiction? by Roz Denny Fox





According to my very large unabridged version of Random House Dictionary, second edition—Fiction is the class of literature comprising works of imaginative narration especially in prose form, or something feigned, invented or imagined—a made up story.

I thought about writing this blog a couple of months ago when I received a letter from a reader who had gotten a copy of one of my fairly old back-list books at a library book sale. She wrote a two page letter saying how unhappy she was because my story, set in her state, wasn’t in any town she or any of her friends had ever heard of, and she’d been a resident all her life. She claimed she’d spent hours looking at small towns on a very detailed map. She further said that surely since the people I wrote about had jobs in the town, someone who knew them would probably like to tell them they’d read about them in a very nice story. (So hey, she complimented something)


I wrote back thanking her for taking the time to write to me, and for enjoying the story. Then I said the town was fictional. I assumed this would be the end of it. But she wrote back, again disappointed. She wondered why I would put such real-sounding people, with very real careers, in a town that didn’t exist. If I wrote fiction, she said, none of the book ought to feel real.


I admit that stumped me. And I started thinking about the lengths we who write contemporary romance go to make sure the bulk of our stories are real. Our cops, military men and women, lawyers, veterinarians, nurses, doctors…and the list goes on, we interview people in those careers to keep the realistic flavor.

In the end I decided it wasn’t something I could explain any better and let it go. Then on another loop of writers I’m on, someone asked for input about injuries that might occur if someone fell off a roof. Many responses were detailed and came from people who worked in emergency rooms. But one answer had me again considering writing this blog to see what other writers thought. One person wrote, and I’ll paraphrase: Can’t we arrange an accident to suit ourselves? A person could trip on a step, hit their head and die. Another person could fall off a two-story roof and get nothing more than a limp. A character might break his or her leg in a simple way, and we could give them complications. Another might get a seemingly small scratch and die of tetanus. Isn’t that the joy of writing fiction?

So is it fiction if we aren’t writing books about unreal creatures, or building whole worlds that are populated with super-human characters? Are contemporary books set in real places in the U.S. or other countries, with people who come out of our heads, but have all of the characteristics of someone working in a real field—is that fiction?

Very early on in my career a well-known author said something that stuck with me. She said, I always set my stories twenty miles out of someplace that’s real. I don’t say it’s north, east, west or south of the real city. She said she neglected to name the highways or byways, rivers or streams. She just picked a spot where she knew the architecture, flora and fauna and wrote her book.

That’s worked for me until this very picky reader started me wondering, how much of what I do can I call fiction? Some books have disclaimers at the front that say any mistakes or embellishments are your own and not a result of any person to whom you may dedicate the book. Should all fiction books, however real, come with a disclaimer?  Or did I happen to hear from the only reader in our universe who reads contemporary romance and thinks every itsy bitsy thing in the book is totally real?

I’d love to hear what others think? Or tell me I’m really reaching for something to blog about-lol
 

37 comments:

  1. Roz, how wonderful that you created a fictitious world so masterfully that you were able to draw your reader in sufficiently for her to think it was real! Take it as a compliment!!

    One of the things I love hearing most from readers is that I was able to whisk them away, even if just for a short time, from a world that can sometimes be harsh to one that uplifts and where they know they will have a HEA. The more real we can make our stories, the more effectively we can do this.

    I like what you said about the author who creates fictitious settings just outside real cities to enable her to make them believable. This is an example of what I refer to as fictionalizing facts. My belief is that doing this enables us to make our stories more real for our readers, and consequently make it easier for them to get drawn into our stories.

    MY QUESTION TO OUR READERS: How realistic do you like your fiction?

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    1. Kate,
      love your comment, and your question. I should have asked that.

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  2. Thank you for that thought-provoking blog, Roz! All forms of fiction, including science fiction, horror, fantasy, dystopian and historical, where settings cannot always be fact rather than fiction, are sure to include realistic characters with whom readers can relate. Also, towns/settings are characters in our books. We don't use real people in our books. Why should we feel compelled to do that when it comes to settings? My opinion says that we have the right to use our creative license- and you do such a lovely job of that, Roz!

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    1. I second that, Karen, about the wonderful job Roz does!

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    2. Aw, thanks Karen. But thanks for putting your thoughts here so clearly. I have always read fiction with the idea of some fact. In fact as a life-long reader when I visited places I'd read about in Nancy Drew books, I sometimes felt I'd been there before.

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  3. Anything that isn't non-fiction, no matter how realistically written, is fiction. As the other ladies have said, it's a testament to your talent that this reader read your book and thought it was a "real" story. You do create characters that resonate with readers, because it could be any one of us experiencing what your characters do, and that's the beauty of fiction writing. When you can draw your readers into the world you've created, even if it is set in a contemporary setting and doesn't have beasties in it, then you've done your job. :)

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    1. Cindy, that is the crux of fiction writing---to make it feel real. Thanks for your input.

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  4. Cynthia - and everyone else here is absolutely right. I can't imagine your book is the only one this reader has come upon that uses a setting she can't find on a map. Congratulate yourself on having created characters and a situation so real, she wanted to be able to pinpoint where their HEA happened. I say let it all come out of our heads and our hearts. Who says readers don't want to read about actors or supermodels or celebrities who travel in lofty circles? Does the reader just want to read about the woman next door? I don't think so. When I open the cover of a book, or borrow Ron's Kindle, I'd like to know there's a job out there I could never fill, or a gorgeous body I could never inhabit, or a handsome man who'll never cross my path in an idyllic setting - but it's all out there for some heroine to enjoy. Great blog, Roz, as always.

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    1. Muriel, good thought. I wonder how many other people she wrote to, because every state surely has thousands of books set there. I think we don't always want our characters to be too much like a person in a particular town. Didn't some famous author get sued for having a small town librarian in a "real" little town. She'd made her librarian sort of witchy if I remember. We all want to avoid that snafu.

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  5. I think we need to embrace the "willing suspension of disbelief" clause. I mean, if it's a book that's shelved in the fiction section....let's cut our authors some slack, unless of course they use real names and such.

    P.S. It's funny to see the word 'snafu' in your post, Roz. My family just had a little research mission figuring out the origin of that word after my editor called me out on it. Very interesting.
    Hope everyone had a fabulous Thanksgiving! Hugs!

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    1. And what was the result of your research? :-)

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    2. Oh yes, as a military family we all knew the real meaning of the acronym. Sometimes it's appropriate.

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    3. Hi! Just putting my 2 cents in. Was it the objection to the initial for the F word that probably no one knows is in there?

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    4. Okay, you've got my interest. Someone e-mail me please to let me know, to save me having to Google it.... :-)

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    5. Uh, I think snafu stands for situation normal, all f'ed up

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    7. Yep, that's it, Laura! I write for a strict Harlequin line so they asked me to remove it. Funny as I never even knew it was an acronym!

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  6. Should all fiction books, however real, come with a disclaimer? After I took my real hometown and fictionalized it and moved it and a nearby river and reservoir lake a hundred miles east, I asked my editor if I needed to put a disclaimer in the front of the book. My editor's reply: No. It's fiction. :-) great post and kudos to you for writing such an intriguing book!

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    1. Patricia, I actually wondered that same thing about a disclaimer. Glad to hear your editor advised you on that. I can't say the book was so intriguing as more that maybe the woman really hoped to find out who the really bad mother-in-law was. LOL

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  7. Great post, Roz! When I pick up a book labeled fiction, I assume the characters and setting are made up. I agree with the others, I'd take the letter as a compliment. Obviously you made the setting very real to this reader.
    In answer to your question, Kate, I read for escape, so the more real, the better. I do enjoy when a book is set in a place I'm familiar with.

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    1. Maybe you can tell the exchange of letters has made me wary of taking poetic license. I've tried to plop a fictional town in the middle of areas I've lived or visited, hoping to project a real flavor. I also don't want to bug a reader.

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    2. Thanks for sharing your answer, Jill!

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  8. Such an interesting post, Roz. I've pondered these questions so much. What can I use that is real and what to make up? I've been hesitant to use a "real" place because I've been afraid if I fictionalized certain details about the place then a reader might pick it apart and get annoyed. I like capturing the "flavor" of a general geographical location like you referred to above and then letting my imagination take over. Thank you for making me think this morning!

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    1. Carol, it does my heart good to see how many great writers think about this subject. As an avid reader I don't think I waste a lot of time wondering if the story is real, especially if I like the characters, setting, and their journey to change. But that's me.

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  9. Hi Roz. I've wondered the same thing, writing a fictional resort in a very specific real place (St. John, USVI) - but in the end, I fall back on the some of the people some of the time adage & try not to worry. Maybe i'll change my own disclaimer to read "the events and locations depicted in this novel are, for the most part, purely imaginary." ? :)

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    1. Vicky, that sounds like a good plan to me, when you are using a more finite spot like an island.

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  10. I think it's a great compliment to you that someone was so wrapped up in your story that she was disappointed to learn it was fiction! Some of my stories take place in a town I created based on several of the small towns in Minnesota where I vacationed. I wouldn't want to write about a real town as the people who live there might take exception to my descriptions, characters, or whatever. But with our fictional towns, we don't have to worry about getting something wrong. I guess you can't please all the people...

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    1. Rose, so true. That's probably where that saying came from. What you're doing is what I've done in the trilogy I'm currently writing. I plunked a totally fictional town in a sparse location. But there are small towns around. In my "dear reader" letter, I believe I'll make note of my town not existing for real.

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  11. I agree with Rose. How awesome that someone took your story that seriously. To be able to inspire that much passion in someone! Most of the time, when I pick up a book, I just assume the town is fictional. I think it makes more sense to build your own town than risk getting something wrong about a real place.

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  12. LeAnne, I think it works well to build the location, partly because things come and go so fast in a town you may have recently visited---the businesses could turn totally around.

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  13. Oh Roz, I'm picturing this earnest reader poring over her map, becoming aggravated when she can't find your made-up town!! Is she a kind person, eager to visit the town you made so appealing? Or does she delight in skewering people who make mistakes, and wanted you to know that you'd made a big one?
    Thanks for telling us about her.

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  14. I'm not sure what motivated her to write twice about the fictitious town. I wondered if she wanted to see if anyone she knew could tell her who the people in the story were. But I really don't know.

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  15. Roz, I think it was a real compliment to you that she thought your town was real. That means you did a great job with the characters and setting. Woo hooo. And so what if she is disappointed? She just gave you a fantastic compliment. smile

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  16. Sandra, you and the others have been so supportive in this instance. I think we're all a tad fragile when a reader isn't altogether happy no matter the reason. What her questions did was start me wondering if readers understand that the books we write aren't real, but made up out of our heads.

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    1. I think a substantial number think out stuff is autobiographical. I wish I could do some of the things my heroines do!

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  17. I love your posts, Roz. I had a friend track me down wanting to know where the small Indiana town I wrote about was, but he laughed when I told him it was fictional. I do love that our peopled and events are real to readers (though I think yours was a bit unreasonable!)

    Re: what Muriel said--I wish I had the knack of saying the right thing like my people do!

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