JSB: The Three Rules for Writing A Novel – Part II
John D. MacDonald also said, "I want the writer to make me suspend my disbelief . . . .I want to be in some other place and scene of the writer's devising."
This gives us the second "rule" for writing a novel—we must weave the "fictive dream." We have to create the impression of something really happening in a real world, even if that world is in the future.
Readers WANT to suspend their disbelief. They start out on your side. They hope your words will lift them out of their lives and into another realm.
So how do you do this? First, by being accurate. If you're writing about 1905 Los Angeles, do not include the Dodgers. Or if you're writing about lawyers, don't have one asking his own witness leading questions without the other side objecting. And so on. You have to know your world before you write about.
One way to get it right is through experts. People love to talk about what they do, if you approach them correctly.
The other day I needed some detail about the Los Angeles Police Department. I have nurtured a contact at the Police Academy, and called him up. He invited me to the Academy and even bought me lunch. He was glad to answer all my questions.
A few days later, I was downtown and dropped in on Parker Center, the headquarters of the LAPD. I did so because I wanted to absorb the actual physical details, which will be in my book, and also to ask some questions. At the desk I asked the uniformed officer if I could speak to media relations. He got someone on the phone and I asked my questions, got some answers. Then I asked the desk officer if I could ask a couple of questions of him.
He frowned. I gave him one of my cards (with a book cover on it. See, writer!) and explained that I was writing a novel that would have a scene here and I wanted to get the details right so that 'if the book ever gets into your hands you won't think a complete doofus wrote it."
He smiled then and went on to give me all the information I needed and some police forms I could keep. He was happy to talk to someone who wasn't complaining for a change.
When you get details like this, even if the reader doesn't know they're authentic, it will add an air of verisimilitude to your novel.
Want to know how a master does it? Read Michael Connelly. He usually writes about LAPD detective Harry Bosch, and as a former Times reporter knows how to get the details right. It gives his books complete believability and heft. The world he paints seems real.
Another way to weave the fictive dream is to use concrete detail over plain vanilla description.
"He jumped into his car and drove away."
Wait. What kind of car was it?
"She was beautiful."
Was she? I don't believe it. Describe her so I'll know it. Show me how other characters react to her.
Some writers, like a James Michener, do a ton of research up front. Others, like Stephen King, wait until the first draft is done and then see what needs to be fleshed out.
I like a method in between. Enough research to write knowingly, then when I come to a place in my WIP that needs detail or depth, I'll leave a comment in my document and then pick a time to research it out more. I do this so I don't end up writing a long scene that is completely off
Whatever methods you use, keep working to build that other world, the one that readers will love getting absorbed by. You will have Rule #2 working its magic
James Scott Bell is the author, most recently, of Presumed Guilty (Zondervan) and Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure (Writers Digest Books).
"The Suspense Never Rests."