Charlie Laidlaw is an author and tutor at Creating Writers
To be credible, a novel must be authentic. It must have authentic characters, good or bad. The story, narrative and dialogue must unfold in places that feel real.
Those places and those characters may be actual or imaginary but, without authenticity, the book will fall flat.
Some books require little research. The novelist Anne Tyler, for example, sets all her books in and around Baltimore.
My books, essentially, are set in and around Edinburgh, a place I know. My books are character-driven, so could be set anywhere.
Others may be set on Mars or a completely fictional town. Others still may be set in the distant past or distant future.
Making the imaginary real is the job of the novelist; to create pictures in the reader’s mind that not only suspends their disbelief but engages with them.
It’s often easiest to write about what we know – for example, the highs and lows we’ve experienced, or the places we’ve visited.
Engagement is important. You have to grab your reader’s attention, right from the start, and make them want to keep turning pages. So if your book needs geographical, historical or other research…do that before you start writing.
But you don’t always have to know, or have visited, those places. Go online, search them out. Have a look at Google Street View.
Likewise, if you need to know about something – a cathedral, car, aeroplane, anything – search out the facts on the internet. See what videos are on YouTube.
It can be the details that let you down. You might never have been to Paris, but if a scene is set in Paris, many of your readers will have been there.
But having done your research, don’t bore your readers with too much detail. Your character might be walking down a Paris street but, unless it’s important, don’t tell your reader about every cobblestone.
Your reader will assume that you’re showing off your knowledge, and that’s never a good thing for readers to think.
That’s particularly true if you are a real expert in something. For example, if you know everything there is to know about brain surgery, Roman deities or 19th century English painters. Don’t blind readers with your knowledge.
You have the same kind of responsibility to your reader as a newspaper journalist. They don’t set out to write fake news (not usually, anyway) and neither should you. In that sense, your work of fiction should also read as a work of fact.
If your novel is set in the past, make sure that the timeline is correct. You might assume a 17th century English or Italian idyll – but at the time your book is set who were those countries at war with? What plagues or other misfortunes were happening to their populace?
Sometimes detail doesn’t matter. Sometimes, detail is everything.
If you need help getting started, Creating Writers has two creative writing courses, an introductory course and our flagship Diploma course – with a real qualification at the end of it.
They’re intended to give you the confidence and skills to understand what makes great writing – and, on the Diploma course, to actually get you started on your novel.
For more information, you can contact us here.
Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash