So you can read my books

Sunday, July 15, 2012


Odd question, isn't it?

Of course your novel's not real.

But it needs to be if you want it accepted by an agent and loved by readers.

You suspend disbelief when certain things in the book you're reading rings true :

Clothes :

Hamlet doesn't wear gold chains and zoot suits. Samuel McCord is a brooding, reflective man who does most of his fighting at night.

He, like Hamlet, wears black. Mark Twain, Sam's life-long companion, wears his all white suit to stand apart from his brooding friend -- as he does everything in his rebellious life.

{Twain's eventual death sends Sam into a spiral of depression from which it takes him years to recover.}

Maija, Meiliori's contemptuous of society twin sister, wears a skin-tight "Dragon-Lady" scarlet outfit -- even in 1853, when the mere showing of a bare ankle was scandalous.

She, like Twain, is rebellious.

But unlike the humorist, Maija is cruel and sadistic -- which is why whenever she arranges to meet Sam after her sister has left him, Maija wears an exact copy of the retro-Victorian dress Meilori wore on the night she stormed off into the darkness.


Do all your characters sound the same? It might surprise you that they do.

Close your eyes. Have a friend read a rather common sentence from two of your characters from two different parts of your novel. Can you tell who is talking just by their speech patterns? You should.

Reporters and policemen both talk tersely. The reporter tends to go for the dramatic. The policeman keeps objective. In public at least.

Out of public view, the policeman usually is cynical of everyone's motives, having seen too many at their worst. The reporter tends to go for the underdog, having seen big business and big government swallow the little guy much too often.

Not all teens talk the same. The nerds have their own phrases. And jocks their own vocabulary, matching their interests.

The shy mumble. The quarterback smirks. Yet that can be overdone into a cliche. The thinking, reflective quarterback from an abusive home could be the magnet that holds the interest and heartstrings of your readers.


Take physicians.

One of my favorite novels is CAPTAIN NEWMAN M.D. by Leo Rosten

It is a novel of a caring psychiatrist treating mentally bruised soldiers from WWII, told with wit and compassion.

But there are other mindsets among physicians. And it is understandable why they develop that perspective.

They're trained to prioritize, to emotionally detach themselves from their patients' pain and trauma, and to deal with crises as problems to be solved ... the solutions to be broken down into their component steps. Such a mindset works for them professionally.

In their personal lives, that mindset can be destructive. For many to become emotionally detached takes its toll. To step back from the trauma around them, they must cut loose in another phases of their lives.

On the other hand, become emotionally detached long enough, and you find it spreads like a drop of ink in a beaker throughout your whole life. You awaken one day to find yourself a stranger to your friends, your family ... even to yourself.

A few latent sadists are drawn to the profession. They channel their anti-social compulsions into socially approved actions. But like with scratching a mosquito bite, the more they stroke their sadistic natures, the stronger, the more demanding it becomes.

To make a physician real in your novel, you must incorporate all the above into that character and his/her environment. The same is true with every walk of life you have in your story.


Now, this one is a bugger. There's real. And then, there's realistic.

I wrote a historical fantasy. Historical fiction is not a time machine.

Should you and I go back to the world of 1853, we would find the physical hygiene appalling and the moral consensus even worse. We would be walking around with our mouths open and clothes pins clamped on our noses.

Indigenous races were not considered even human. Women were thought of as a second-class, intellectually deficient breed. Slavery was applauded in most corners. The "science" of medicine was part butchery/part unfounded, faulty supposition.

Still, we would understand only 2 out of every 3 words spoken by the aristocracy : their vocabulary was extensive and littered with Latin and ancient Greek proverbs.

The Divine Right of kings was accepted in a third of the civilized world. And democracy was in its infancy.

Speech was more formal even in casual conversation, more elegant even.

For RITES OF PASSAGE, I had to create the illusion of 1853 in such a way as to root my reader in the reality of that age without tuning him out.

I made Samuel McCord a man educated by his Harvard professor father and inhuman Jesuit priests. His travels across the world has made him a more open-minded man. He has the sensibilities of a 21st century man at odds with the 19th century world.

Therefore, the reader can identify with him as he locks horns with the accepted status quo that offends his compassionate reasoning and the reader's modern sensibilities.
There was a TV series which highlights how the mindset and customs we take for granted are just a thing of the moment : LIFE ON MARS :


  1. As you said, with all of those things, the reader needs to relate. When writing about time or place removed from our own, we must be sure there is enough familiar for the reader to grasp.

  2. Alex:
    You are so right. Just because we are writing of a woman of the 1700's doesn't mean we are writing TO women of the 1700's! LOL.

  3. Great advice and I liked the clip. Never saw that show but it sounds kind of good.

  4. The Desert Rocks:
    I was beginning to think I was playing to an empty house! I only discovered LIFE ON MARS when released on DVD. It was a fun show right up until the last episode when the creators tried to wrap everything up upon cancellation, ruining the whole she-bang. Sigh.

    I hate TV ratings! LOL.

  5. There appears to be a lot more to this writing lark than I would have imagined. I am fortunate indeed that my stories are actually real and as such are mere statements of facts.

    This post emphasises what I have suspected all along, I'm not a writer just a story-teller. It is lucky I have had / am having a somewhat quirky life.

  6. BTW Life On Mars is a British show and the scripts in the US version are almost identical. IMO it doesn't translate that well. If you liked it there is a follow up series called Ashes To Ashes.

  7. A reader needs to relate or why read?

    You may have sworn them off, but you have several awards on my latest post. I've been hoarding.

  8. jp:
    Even reality must be transcribed with wit and style, so I am sure your prose is just as well-crafted as another's fiction. Several of Hemingway's most popular books were reality-based.

    As with jokes, it is how you tell the tale that counts! :-) Thanks for letting me know about the series ASHES TO ASHES. I will look into it now.

    Exactly. I'm heading over to your blog now. Awards are nice. :-) Thank you.

  9. Fab post, Roland!

    "The thinking, reflective quarterback from an abusive home could be the magnet that holds the interest and heartstrings of your readers."

    You've already captured my interest. I want to read this character's story.

    I'm adding Captain Newman to my TBR shelf.

  10. LOL, hopefully I'm not one of the sadists! Very thought-provoking post, though. Thanks Roland.

  11. Interesting, Roland. It is important to make your stories as "real" as possible. Thanks!

  12. Jennifer:
    CAPTAIN NEWMAN MD is an older book, made into a movie starring Gregory Peck. (Yes, it is that old! I found the book in a used book store!)

    I think running counter to stereotype makes for a more engaging hero like you do.

    Every profession has those who are drawn to it for the wrong reasons! :-) I am sure you are a fine physician! Glad you liked my post.

    I like your new avatar. Yes, we must be "real" to draw our readers in. Thanks for visiting and staying to chat a bit over my cyber-fence!