Friday, September 9, 2016

How and When to Use Facts in Fiction by Jacqueline Seewald

Whether you are writing contemporary novels, historical novels, or short stories, at some point you will realize that you have to do some research to get correct information. If you don’t, intelligent readers will be likely to disrespect your work.

You’ll notice that a lot of writers set their novels in places they either live in or have lived in. This may seem provincial, but in fact, it makes for good writing. If we know a place well, we can create a realistic setting, an intriguing background for our novels. Setting is one of the important components of any piece of fiction—plays, short stories or novels. For example, my latest novel, a contemporary mystery entitled THE INHERITANCE, begins in Manhattan, a city I know very well.

 My mystery series, featuring amateur sleuth Kim Reynolds, librarian, is set in New Jersey. These novels: THE INFERNO COLLECTION, THE DROWNING POOL, THE TRUTH SLEUTH and THE BAD WIFE are all set in Central New Jersey
where I lived for forty years.

However, every work of fiction requires a certain amount of research, some more than others. I believe the best fiction combines elements of what we actually know with research into what we need to find out. I’m no fan of info dumping in fiction, but writers need to read and discover a lot more information than they will actually use in their writing. It’s a delicate balance.

I was reminded of this when I received a recent rejection for a science fiction short story I had carefully researched. The editor said that while liking the writing and the premise I had included too much information that was unnecessary to the story. I read the story over with that in mind and realized the editor was correct. Although I was fascinated by all I had discovered about dark matter in the universe, it simply wasn’t necessary to the story and hurt the focus. So I rewrote and then submitted to another publication.

On a more positive note, a literary short story I wrote inspired by and based on fact was just published in
NEW ZENITH MAGAZINE both in print and ebook editions:

What is your opinion? Do you prefer reading and/or writing contemporary fiction, historic fiction, or possibly speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction or horror) which creates imaginary worlds? What best suits your tastes?


Janis Patterson said...

Great blog! Getting the facts right is so important, but so is avoiding info dumps. It is a fine line to walk, but a necessary one. Congrats on selling your literary fiction story! As for what I prefer, I like either historical or contemporary, but only as long as it is grounded in reality. Speculative/paranormal/sci-fi just doesn't resonate with me.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Janis,

Thanks for commenting and offering your observations.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Your post is a good reminder of the delicate balance we have to maintain between getting lost in what we discover and trimming the information to fit the story. I also liked your reminder that writing about a place you know will bring resonance and authenticity to a story, and the reader will sense this. Good post.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thank you, Susan.

Jan Christensen said...

I like to write contemporary fiction, and most of all, I like to make things up. Including settings. The only stories I've written with real settings are the three Tina Tales mystery novels, which take place in Newport, RI, where I have lived, off and on; the standalone, Sara's Search, which takes place in both NYC and metropolitan NJ where I grew up; and the Artie Crimes series of short stories, which also take place in NYC. But six other novels, and almost all of my 70-some short stories are set in fictional places. I do some research when I run into something I realize I don't know enough about, but most of the time, I make things up. My latest search was about the pink Princess telephone. I needed to know if they still worked. Surprisingly, they do, and you can buy one on eBay.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Jan,

Like you, I do real settings as well as fictional ones. Historical fiction needs the most amount of research, but I concede there are many things I do not know about and have to find info on.

Nikki said...

I like to make settings up, but they're usually based on real places. I try to write them in a way that will allow readers to get a feel for the area, if not the exact locations. On the other hand, sometimes I write about specific places. In that case, I bend reality to fill the needs of story. For instance, I needed a private helicopter on hand at a race venue where only medical and broadcast birds were allowed. So I invented a rule that each race team was permitted one flight per day. Purists may quibble, but as long as the story feels true, most readers will accept it.

Susan Coryell said...

First, congrats on the pub of your short story! I agree about research going too far. In my second book of the Overhome Trilogy, the editors had the same complaint as in your sci-fi work: too detailed. I cut close to 10,000 words, bleeding all the way--but they then took the ms. Nice post, as usual!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Nikki,

A mystery writer who is well-published mentioned how he made-up a poison for his story rather than use an actual one. We sometimes forget that fiction doesn't have to be true to life. Your observation is a good one.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


I know how painful it is when the editors demand cuts. This happened to me with THE BAD WIFE as well as THE INHERITANCE. I didn't feel the cuts were at all necessary. But publishers get the last word unfortunately!

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