When I’m out on the road doing “real” school visits (as opposed to “really cool” Skype visits), I of course spend some of the time talking about myself because I’m such an interesting character. Early on in my presentation I’ll mention what kind of stuff I write, just in case the kids’ teachers and librarian haven’t been completely successful in pounding it into their students’ heads, and I’ll ask them what fiction is. Their responses often make me smile. “Made up.” “Fake.” “Imaginary.” “Phony.” “Not real.”
The kids are right, of course, and I tell them that, and I talk about the differences between fiction and nonfiction and how some fiction is so fantastic that it probably couldn’t happen in real life but that other fiction is so close to real life that you might think it actually happened. Or is happening. I’ve had readers write to me and ask me whatever became of certain characters in stories I’ve written. They want to know what those characters are doing now.
Just because a story is “not real” doesn’t mean it can’t seem real. When I speak to kids about my stories, I sometimes introduce them to a big word: verisimilitude. They’re always very impressed. I can tell because their eyes begin to glaze over. So I hurry on, explaining that verisimilitude doesn’t mean real life. It means like real life, and that’s what I aim to accomplish in my writing. To make the story feel like real life.
Because setting is such a significant part of many stories (sometimes almost like another character), it can play a big role in determining the apparent authenticity of the tale being told. How well an author describes a setting can make the difference between a reader just hum-drumming through a piece of fakery, and completely suspending disbelief and getting totally immersed in a story that feels real.
So when I’m describing a place and want to be sure I can transport my reader there, I try to avoid fakery, or fuzzy detail, or lack of detail, or laziness. When possible, I like to get out early in the process of writing the book and visit the story’s location. I take photos. I take notes. I make adjustments to what I’d already imagined. Not only does this keep me aligned with reality, it also allows me to sharpen everything, to pick up on small but maybe important and memorable details that I wouldn’t have been aware of if I’d stayed home and relied on online searches and imagination.
The wish to write authentically has taken me to an abandoned silver mine in the Cascade Mountains for THE LAST MAN’S REWARD, to a juvenile mental health facility for FRAMED IN FIRE, to a small town in Snohomish County for HAUNTING AT HOME PLATE, to northern Idaho for COLDER THAN ICE, to the former site of the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in Newell, California for THIN WOOD WALLS, to the back roads of Whidbey Island for DEADLY DRIVE, to the mountain trails above Port Orford, Oregon, for A PIECE OF THE SKY, and to the roads and waters and mountains of the Olympic Peninsula for EPITAPH ROAD. My “research” for SOMEONE WAS WATCHING was done at an early age. When I was an impressionable kid my family lived on the shore of a Minnesota river much like the one in the story. On the other side of the river was Wisconsin, where a lot of the tale takes place. From there it moves to the gulf side of Florida, where I’ve also spent time. Images of these settings were tucked firmly in my brain; the others I worked for.
If I’d taken the easy way out and stayed home, these stories probably still would’ve found a publisher. But they wouldn’t have been the same. Getting out to the actual locations not only gave me facts and images and impressions, it also gave me inspiration. It sparked my imagination. When I was doing my THIN WOOD WALLS research, the woman in the general store that was once, fifty years ago, the administration building at the Tule Lake site, directed me to a nearby fairgrounds, where two of the original barracks buildings—plywood and tarpaper shacks, really—had been moved with the intent of restoring them someday. I took photos, I took notes, but mostly I imagined what it must have been like to live and sweat and freeze and eat dust in those tiny four-to-a-building “apartments” for four years. Uprooted. Lonely. Shamed. Two suitcases of belongings. A thousand miles from home.
That’s why I get out.