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Part of what makes fiction so appealing to me – both as a reader and as an author – is that it can be so true. When I wrote In The Shadow Of Suribachi about my father's experiences as a Marine on Iwo Jima, I chose to present the material as historical fiction. I did that for many reasons. First, my interviewees were veterans and survivors of that most horrendous of battles. They were willing to tell me one kind of story if their names were going to be in the book. However, when I promised not to identify them, I got a much deeper, emotional view of their time there. Second, by creating a group of fictional characters, I could explore perspectives different from mine without having to say so – and thus offer a well-rounded discussion of the event by having my characters live it. Finally, fiction allows an author to control the outcome of historical events. What can be more fun?
Compelling fiction is intimate, intense, and intriguing. Here's how I use research to create stories that embody those three qualities.
Authors create intimacy by allowing their characters to endear themselves to the readers. Protagonists must be like us in some way – so that we understand how they are feeling and why they do the things that they do. We should experience the hurt of a child recoiling from her mother's slap, the anxiety of a mother who sees her daughter run out in front of a car, the horror of the driver as he tries to avoid hitting the small figure in the road ahead of him. We can identify with these people because most of us have had similar life experiences.
The little incidents of our experience are rich fodder for plots that others can find familiar. However, sometimes we want to dig deeper. Psychology and psychiatry are wonderful tools. They can enhance our understanding of human behaviour. Philosophy and religious/political ideologies provide further information. Will the belief system of the mother change how she disciplines her child? Will the religious scruples of the driver impact his feelings about the impending accident?
When planning a story, I spend a great deal of time developing the characters. I look at my friends, neighbours, and family members. How would they react to the situation? I go to the library and surf the Internet to see how various mental conditions might influence behaviour. I talk with experts – religious figures, teachers, psychologists, politicos – and I evaluate how their opinions might augment my approach.
Finally, I interview people who have gone through the same things as my characters. I talk to them about their experiences. I ask about how it felt, tasted, and sounded. My goal is to create three-dimensional, "real-feeling" characters that seem like someone my readers know already.
I want my stories to move my readers to tears. I want them to experience the plot and react to it with fear, anxiety, and tenderness as appropriate. Intensity begins with depth and passion. The reader must not only identify with the characters, he must care about them – and he must care what happens. He needs to be pulling for these people as they go through whatever they are going through.
To create this dynamic in my work, I look to details. Real places. Real events. Things that folks recognize. I set my stories in everyday places. One time, I had a serial killer hide in a bathroom in the main concourses at Pittsburgh International Airport. That's someplace that we can visualize. It's where we feel reasonably safe. The idea of danger lurking there is chilling. After all, we can't avoid going to the toilet. Later in that same story, I had the serial killer stalk a child in the toy department at Wal-Mart. My readers tell me that that scared the pants off them. They wanted to call out to the little girl, "watch out" or to trip up the monster in some way. A lot of readers have been to the toy department in Wal-Mart at some point – it's so familiar that reader reactions are immediate.
I go out of my way, when planning a story, to visit the places where action will occur. I take photos, make sketches, create a list of options – and a list of questions that I have to answer within the story. I try to find little things that are normally innocuous – and turn them into something ominous. One time I had a woman squirt the bad guy in the eye with dishwashing liquid – and another time, I used a key fob that actually started a car to lead a character into thinking that she was getting away from the villain. To make it seem real, I had to go learn how those things work. I've gone to car dealerships and test driven vehicles I intend to use in chase scenes . . . and climbed to the top of a platform on Culp's Hill in Gettysburg and gripped the railing at the point where my character would leap to her death. Being there helps me feel the experience – and if I feel it, my readers will feel it too.
Readers love trying to figure out the plot. The more complex the plot, the more engaging it will be. Intrigue results when the author reveals information to the audience in a slow, deliberate way. Sometimes, it can be done by following the point of view of a particular character. Other times, the audience will know more than the protagonist – this also creates intensity. When I'm laying out the twists and turns I want to build into my books, I create diagrams and outlines. I usually begin with a timeline showing when everything should happen. This is what I call my "God's eye view" of the story. Then, I overlay a chart that helps me understand who knows what when. Each of my characters will behave differently based on when they learn certain facts. If I can't keep track of such things, my readers will be lead astray and feel betrayed. I mark up these charts … indicating where I should drop clues and who should provide the information to the audience. This part of writing a book is definitely the most fun – and the most technical.
To build intrigue into my work, I spend a lot of time understanding the history of the period I'm using. In Suribachi, I learned about the hurricane in Islamorada, Florida in 1935. It became a pivotal part of the plot as that event changed the course of action for one of my main characters. I read everything I could find about that event, including the fact that hundreds of World War I veterans died when the storm hit – they were washed away by the huge wave, blinded by the combination of sand and wind, or crushed by a locomotive that was blown off the tracks. The real story gave me a lot of information to create intrigue within my fictional one.
I hear lots of people say that they like to sit down and let it flow. They believe that they are just 'making up a story' and that research isn't necessary. However, I maintain that a writer's whole life is research. Those times that folks just sit down and write, they are relying solely on their own history. They are drawing on things they have already learned and assimilated. These resources can be greatly enhanced by research. Imagination intertwined with everything ever seen, heard, thought, or known gives us great fiction.
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