If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I’ve started the (painful) process of publicly editing a novel I finished in 2007. If you missed the first two parts, you can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here. In Part 3, I’m going to talk about authenticity.
When I wrote this particular book, I was calling on my personal experience of working as a newspaper reporter for a small daily. I held the job for a little over three years, and I loved it. I worked several different beats, and I think I did a pretty good job of it. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons I made my main character a reporter. I could relate to her that way. (Write what you know and all …)
The problem was that I got lazy. I extrapolated my experience as a small-town newspaper reporter to that of a reporter working for the Chicago Tribune. Consider this small excerpt:
She had been down at the station looking over some run-of-the-mill reports and talking up a couple of the newer detectives. Her wholesome, Southern drawl and big blue eyes appealed to the men and they enjoyed talking to her. [What she had learned in her years at the other papers was that she was usually much better off, at first, if she simply let her subjects talk. She laughed at their jokes, listened to their stories about their jobs and families, and just took a general interest in them.] –>>This section in brackets is telling instead of showing. Don’t do this. On September 28, it paid off.
Emma had finished skimming the reports and the two detectives had returned to their desks. As she turned to leave, she caught sight of Chief Michael Fields entering the division and knew something was going on. It was after 1 a.m. and Fields wasn’t usually in the building when she was. Never having spoken to him personally, Emma approached the two younger detectives and asked innocently, emphasizing her drawl, “Isn’t that Chief Fields over there?” The two had nodded simultaneously, their brows knit together as though pulled by the same set of strings. Something was definitely up. “I’m gonna hang around over by the report files, gentlemen,” Emma continued. “Could I talk you into filling me in on the news, when you find out why he’s here?” It was the first time she had asked them for any type of information and she held her breath, hoping the interest she had cultivated with them for the last several weeks was about to sprout its first crop.
“Sure Emma,” Detective Warner had replied almost immediately, and his cohort, Detective Lloyd, added, “We’ll check it out and let you know.”
So … this is cringe-worthy again. The very first part is OK. Most men enjoy making conversation with a pretty woman. I can let that slide. Pretty much everything else after that, though, not so much.
(1) She’s at the precinct at one in the morning? I couldn’t have done that–gone through police files of any sort–in my small town at 1:00 a.m. Why did I think Chicago would let her do that? It’s crazy.
(2) The chief of police shows up at this odd hour, something big is happening, but the detectives are happy to agree to tell her what’s going on? Uh, no. I don’t think so. Reading this today, it sounds so unbelievable. I should have contacted some detectives in Chicago. Seriously. I should have tried to talk to someone who could tell me, “Yes, this might happen if this and this and this,” or “No, this wouldn’t ever happen like this. You’re nuts.” I didn’t talk to anyone. Had I done this kind of research, I could have also asked what their protocol is for allowing reporters access to any of their reports.
(3) I should have called the Tribune. I should have tried to talk to someone there who could lend some authenticity to the whole story, to Emma’s character. Just because I was a reporter for a small-town newspaper does not mean I could write authentically about being a reporter for a metro like Chicago. It comes off sounding silly because I didn’t really know–and I never asked. Shame on me.
Something else I didn’t do was go to Chicago, which I totally should have done. I should have walked around the Tribune–taken a tour even. I should have oriented myself as to the location of the Tribune and the police station where I set some of this action. I should have walked between the two places. I should have visited the station, toured as much of it as I could. All of that lends authenticity to a story, and mine has virtually none because I didn’t do any of this.
Write what you know, yes, that’s fine. But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I think sometimes it can be better to pretend you know nothing, to start from scratch.
Some of you might also be thinking that you could likely learn what you need to know from the Internet, Google Earth, etc. To a certain degree, that might be true. But nothing can take the place of walking in your character’s footsteps. What does the concrete feel like under your feet? Is the sidewalk clean or dirty? What kind of people do you pass as you walk where she walks? What are they doing? What are they wearing? What kind of noises do you hear? What’s the weather like and how does it affect your experience of being there? All of that information adds layers of authenticity to what you’re writing. You can’t fake that. Your readers will know.
And that’s why it matters. Your readers will be able to discern if you know what you’re talking about. They’ll know–quickly–if you’re trying to fake it or if you have a solid background of knowledge upon which you’re relying to tell this story. The more they believe you know what you’re talking about, the more easily they’ll suspend disbelief and follow you in the story you’re telling. It matters. Details count.
If you still aren’t sure you believe me, read the acknowledgement sections in your favorite novels. Who are your go-to authors thanking, and what are they thanking them for? Crime writers are thanking cops, lawyers, private detectives, and sometimes criminals themselves for sharing their knowledge and their experiences. Writers of medical dramas are thanking doctors, nurses, emergency responders, and often patients.
Authenticity matters. Details count. Investigate. Educate yourself. Ask, ask, ask. And then say thank you, thank you, thank you.
When you’re ready to talk to me about dissecting (or copy editing) your novel, please send me an email at email@example.com and tell me about yourself and your book. Let’s make it shine!