Monday, May 16

How Real Should Your Book Be?

All writers borrow from real life occasionally. Some may steal a snippet of conversation overheard in the grocery store line. Others may borrow a distinctive mannerism from a long-ago teacher. Our experiences as a whole help to not only fire our imagination, but sometimes fill in the gaps for us.

I just finished reading Commencement, by J. Courtney Sullivan, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It is a terrific portrait of friendship, as well as a lovely reminder of the halcyon days of undergrad life. That being said, I felt as if I was peeking into the author's mental underwear drawer. It was such an intimate portrait of life at Smith College, clearly peppered with many, many true life details. When you turn the last page, you feel as if you've been matriculated from Smith - the reader knows it inside and out. All its time-honored traditions, both big and small, ridiculous and rich, are exposed. Overall, it made for a deliciously layered read. But I still squirmed at the obvious pockets of reality. More importantly, I wondered how many Smithies were reading it and squirming.

When a book is set in a real place, or depicts real events and people, there is always a tightrope that must be delicately trod. There is a deep sense of responsibility to get every detail right - or else the wrath of a reader - who swears your two block walk to the ocean really takes four blocks and that ruined the whole book for her - may fall upon you. Of course, I feel that onus in my fictional locales as well. Much planning is required to convince a reader your setting is real, and even more detail for them to imagine it from scratch.

But I don't ever want the reader to feel as though they've peeked into my life. I've got a friend who constantly lobbies to be used as a character in my books. That is NEVER going to happen. Oh, he'd make a terrific character, don't get me wrong. But his larger-than-life personality would be too tempting to inflate into a caricature, and I'm quite positive hurt feelings would ensue. All the book sales in the world aren't worth that happening.

On the other side of the coin, I'm currently writing a book about a wedding planner. Yes, I've got years of experience under my belt, and I've worked in a few vignettes. The difference (and what I hope will protect me from any threat of litigation) is that I don't believe they are singular experiences. Yes, the high maintenance mother of the bride complained the size of the meat at the reception was different than what she had at the tasting three months earlier. I worked it into a funny scene. But I'm willing to bet there are fifty caterers out there who've harbored this same complaint. The point being that it isn't just my real life on display; rather, reality in general.

And I encourage everyone to read Commencement!


  1. Great post, Christi. I love feeling like I'm there, but it is important to keep things true. I remember reading a book where the author kept referring to Indiana University as the University of Indiana. It was an okay book, but that repetitive error is what I remember best about it. Figures, huh?

  2. I think one of the skills of being a really good writer is the ability to take a true situation, dramatize it, and tweak it so it reads as good fiction.

  3. they complained about the size of the meat? Thank God you put that in the book - might help some over-worked MOB get a grip. :)

    Great post...I struggle with the too-real/not-real-enough quandry, too.

  4. I may pick a quirk or two from people I know, then I change everything else about the character so it doesn't sound like anyone in that can be pinpointed.

  5. I have a sign in my office that says "Be careful or you'll wind up in my novel."I have kernels of truth buried in my stories--only the guilty will know. LOL!