Monday, October 11, 2010

Keeping It Real

Writers are often asked how a story is born. Did they have a dream? Did the clouds part and angels sing? Did Antonio Banderas knock on the door and deliver a parcel of ideas (oh, how I wish he would)? Ultimately, most writers would say it’s the miniscule details woven into a tale that gives it authenticity – those fine points breathe life into a story and transport readers into another realm.

I have two worlds – one is real-life and the other is in my head. How much time is spent in either depends on where I’m at with my novel and my real-world demands. But when I do write, it’s to create my own reality. I’m not saying the gun-wielding bad guy in my books is me (I’m more like Calamity Jane than Dirty Harry), but it’s the teensy details that make up the big picture. And every now and again I need to come back from the land of my novel to draw upon facts to help make the story more genuine.

Research plays a big part in building the worlds of my stories. Luckily my brain has managed to retain useful information, such as how the Incas used to fasten sashes on their robes with ornamental pins that doubled as a knife. Knowing this might not get me a job as a CEO, but it certainly helps when writing the historical elements of my books. At times I do need to consult a professional (thankfully I have an expert on all-things-Inca at hand) because without my resources I would never have known that the Incas didn’t write or use wheels. These things may not seem important, but if I get them right, the stories are more authentic.

A great example of writers making the fantastical appear real is the genre of magical realism. Two authors I admire greatly are Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel. Their characters accept miraculous happenings as part of everyday life. Readers are taken on a journey and are convinced these adventures could really happen. And this is all done by adding in minutiae to create a world that appears genuine.

My passion for writing stories set in South America is fueled by my own experiences. When traveling I record details, take photos, and madly scribble in travel diaries. I just never know when this material could be used as fodder for my books. I can pull out a photo, read a diary entry and transport myself back in time to a place I want to write about. Images are conjured up, be it Machu Picchu with roaming llamas or the markets in Cuzco, bubbling with colorful locals haggling over fresh produce. It’s easy to lose myself in the moment and feel, touch and smell the surroundings. And this is something I go to great lengths to replicate for my readers.

Chances are Antonio won’t be on my doorstep with a package of ideas anytime soon, so I’ll need to draw on my own travels, resources, and imagination. The bonus is I get to weave in obscure facts and experiences to create a story that feels authentic. Besides, not much writing would get done with Antonio standing at my front door – he’s a tad distracting.

Which books have felt you were the main character? What was it that convinced you?


  1. Oh, Alli, you are so funny with the Antonio Banderas part - and I know what you mean by distracting... Great post and great ideas - looking forward to reading your first bestseller!

  2. Well, since you asked, my favorite novels typically don't make me feel like the main character but rather like a fly on the wall. Or an insider. And the ability to suspend time and disbelief is what usually convinces me.

    Do you use magic realism in your novels, btw?

    Most important, if Antonio Banderas comes to your door, for heaven's sake, please invite him in.

  3. Thanks, Kathy!

    Ah, Supriya, poor Antonio wouldn't be left out in the cold, don't worry! Yes, I do use magical realism in my novels - I can't help it! I think it's because I've read so many South American authors that write magical realism it just flows into my own writing.

  4. Nice post, Alli. I like the two authors you mention very much - also love Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Alexander McCall Smith is another writer (though not of magical realism) who uses small details to bring a story to life.

  5. Hi Sandy! Yes, I'm a big fan of Marquez also. There's something about their worlds that appeals to me. Thanks for the recommendation of Alexander McCall Smith. I just googled him and realised he writes the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. I've heard a lot of great things about these books - now I really must read them! Great suggestion, Sandy!

  6. Where do ideas come from?

    If writers had a dollar for every time that came up there would be no more bemoaning the miniscule retail percentage going to writers.

    As far as I'm concerned the best tool a writer can have is a writing pad that's always at hand whenever a flash of inspiration hits. I have books filled with random thoughts. One 9 word note turned into two (thankfully) unpublished novels.

    Where do ideas come from? Wherever your mind is allowed to roam. Travel is one of the best.

  7. Hi Alli,
    Agree with you 100%. although I write fact rather than fiction, if you get the miniscule details right you can bend the big picture slightly if it helps enhance the story... Love Isabel Allende too. I usually find my spark from a single person i meet or an obsure detail that then becomes the central theme

  8. Yep, travel IS one of the best. Thanks, Dave!

  9. Hi Karsten! Isn't it amazing how one line of a conversation or watching a stranger's reaction to something can send a writer off on a tangent? I love how that works.

  10. Hmm, there seems to be a lot of writers wandering about scribbling in little books. :)

    Alli, the problem I have with all those lovely obscure details is that I collect way more than I can fit in a book. I'm always taking them out again and promising myself I'll find another story for them someday. Poor little orphans.

    Dave ~, did you really get 2 books out of a 9-word idea? Unpublished or not, I'm impressed! Cool last name, BTW. How do you pronounce it?

  11. Yep, Heidi, I hear ya! Your orphans can hang out with mine.

  12. Re: which books made me feel I was the main character. The two that came to mind immediately were Arthur Golden’s "Memoirs of a Geisha" (which I carried with me like a guidebook when I went to Japan to see where the old Geisha quarters used to be) and "The Harlot High and Low" by Honore de Balzac. Do you see the common trend? I do :)

  13. Haha, Lina! Yes, I see the trend - very amusing! I loved Geisha. I must look up Harlot now. It sounds like a good read!