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How to Use Facts in Your Fiction

Details, details. You need them to make your story believable, but too many can drag your plot to a halt. Here’s how to strike that just-right balance of fact in your fiction. by Karen Dionne

Novelists are naturally drawn to write about the subjects that interest them. Doctors pen medical thrillers. Lawyers turn their hands to courtroom dramas. Suburban soccer moms write about—well, suburban soccer moms. Some add to their experiences by arranging to ride along in patrol cars, or taking flying lessons, or traveling to the locations where their novels are set, all in the name of research. Others spend hours combing through resources in libraries and on the Internet.

But just because an author is deeply interested in a topic doesn’t mean her readers will be. You’ve probably read novels in which you skipped over dense paragraphs of exposition or lengthy descriptions to get to the “good stuff.”

What went wrong? And more important, how can you incorporate your own research into your novel without distracting or overwhelming readers?

When your novel deals with obscure or difficult topics, assume your readers are on the fringes of knowledge. Don’t talk down to your readers, but don’t show off what you know, either, thinking that copious details and technical jargon demonstrate authority. You’re writing a novel, not compiling a research paper.

To someone who has only a mild interest in science, reading a detailed explanation of some obscure scientific phenomena in the middle of a novel is like biting into a lump of salt in a cookie. Facts add seasoning to any narrative, but no matter the genre, good fiction transports the reader into another world because the reader cares about the characters, not the subject matter, or the novel’s time period, or its location. It’s better to err on the side of simplicity than to delve too deeply.

It’s not easy to step outside of yourself and “become” your reader, but that’s exactly what a novelist has to do. Step back and consider: If you knew nothing about this subject, would there be enough information in your novel for you to understand it clearly? And, conversely: Have you included unnecessary details simply because you think they’re interesting?

Readers love learning something new, but above all, a novel is a story. Your job is to entertain. Don’t let your enthusiasm for your material turn your novel into the literary equivalent of three hours of vacation pictures.

Sometimes the subjects that fascinate authors fall outside their areas of expertise. “I was a lawyer, but I didn’t want to write about the law,” says New York Times bestselling thriller author Steve Berry. “I like conspiracies, secrets, history, international settings, action and adventure, so that’s what I wrote.”

Authors like Berry spend many happy hours digging through books, newspaper archives, scientific papers, websites and blogs. They post questions to community research sites like Ask MetaFilter ( and to specialized e-mail lists and usegroups.

All of that is necessary, and has its place. (See the sidebar on Page 36 for tips on effective research strategies.) But how can your legwork yield more colorful material, the kind you can’t seem to find elsewhere—the kind of insider details that will enhance your story and captivate readers?

“For a sense of plausibility, we always turn to experts,” says Joe Moore, an international bestselling writer whose thrillers, co-authored with Lynn Sholes, have been translated into 23 languages. In researching their novels, Moore and Sholes have consulted with such experts as Secret Service agents, Navy commanding officers and professors. “The most remarkable thing we’ve discovered is that expert advice is easy to get,” he says. “Almost everyone we’ve approached has been eager to provide fictionalized theories and futuristic details that help make our often outlandish premises ring within the realm of possibility.”

To approach experts, send a brief e-mail explaining your project in a sentence or two, with a short list of three to five key questions. Express appreciation for any help you receive, and it’s likely your expert will offer even more. (Be sure to note the names of all such expert sources so you can thank them later in your acknowledgments.)

Regardless of how you glean information from secondary sources, because they’re one step removed from your own experience, it’s important that the details you choose to include in your novel don’t sound stilted—especially if you’re regurgitating material you don’t fully understand. Readers balk when a character conveniently cites a book she just happens to have read as the source of her random wisdom, or when a character without a college education starts spouting detailed scientific explanations. Anything that smacks of the obvious or the contrived spoils the mood and takes the reader out of the world you’ve created.

“The common wisdom is that only about 1 percent of a novelist’s research ends up in his or her book,” says Gayle Lynds, The New York Times bestselling author of eight international espionage novels. “In my experience it’s even less—closer to a tenth of a percent.”

Facts are fun, but if a detail doesn’t move the story forward by establishing the setting, advancing the plot or shedding light on the characters, it doesn’t belong. If you’re not sure whether you should include a particular section, take it out. If the story doesn’t suffer, paste the discarded section into an “extras” file for the day you might find a use for it, and move on.

“My books are both research intensive and dependent,” Berry says. “That usually means 200–300 sources per novel. The hard part comes in deciding what to use and what to discard. Unfortunately, there’s no formula. It’s a matter of practice, practice, practice, and it’s something I struggle with every day. Always remember, the story never takes a vacation.”

Research is for the author, not the reader. The main function of research is to ground you in your subject, so you can write your fiction with authority. The rest is up to you.

“The reason we use truth in fiction is so we can tell a bigger, better lie,” says David Hewson, bestselling author of the Nic Costa thriller series. “It’s the lie—how big, convincing and ‘real’ it is—that matters.”

Readers expect novelists to be as accurate as possible. Yet in their authors’ note for Cemetery Dance, The New York Times bestselling co-authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child admit, “Readers familiar with upper Manhattan may notice that we have taken certain liberties with Inwood Hill Park.” Admissions like this raise the question: Is changing reality or embellishing the truth dishonest?

“In a novel,” Preston answers, “something doesn’t have to be true; it only has to be believable. The word ‘fiction’ is a marvelous cover for all kinds of shenanigans, distortions, manipulations and outright fabrications.”

There will always be literal-minded readers who object to authors changing historical dates or moving mountains. But a novel is by definition fiction, an artfully contrived blend of plot, setting and characters.

“Ninety-five percent of the geography, science and history in our novels is accurate and true. But we have no intention of imprisoning ourselves inside reality,” Preston says. “The novel I’m currently writing, Impact, takes place on the real coast of Maine in a real place called Muscongus Bay—but I’ve added a few islands that don’t exist, some currents that aren’t present; I moved a reef about 40 miles northwest and shifted an old radar installation from Cutler, Maine, down to Muscongus Bay.

“It’s that other 5 percent that makes it a novel. And that 5 percent is the magical ingredient which transforms all the rest.”

Whether your research springs from your own experience or from hours of painstaking effort, remember: Your story doesn’t have to be real, it just has to feel that way. Incorporate your facts smoothly into your fiction, and you’ll create a compelling, believable world.

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