Friday, April 27, 2012

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.

With graduation season looming, this is a great time of year to read 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 about to release a book about a wedding planner. Yes, I've got years of experience under my belt, and I've worked in a few actual 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.

Do you use real people and experiences in your books?  As a reader, has any book's obvious dip into reality made you uncomfortable?


  1. Hi Christi, I just found you through twitter. I try to avoid writing characters who might be mistaken for real people (the hurt feelings thing) but I think we all put some of ourselves, and people we know into our stories, we just do it in a way that they're not likely to recognize themselves.

  2. Very timely for me. I've just subbed material from a novel inspired by a year spent in the US (I'm a Brit writer) back in the late 80s. I think that good writing has emotional authenticity, and one way of getting that is to draw upon intimate and personal experience, even if you end up fictionalising (and amalgamating) characters and inventing dialogue.