It’s an odd experience to read a novel — a work of fiction, something imagined — by someone you know. As a reader and writer, I’ve been on both sides of this. When I’m reading a novel or short story by someone I know, I can’t help but compare what I know about the author to what I’m reading.
And readers of my books who know me wonder the same thing. They see a lot of Walt and Betty in my husband and I — but they are two fictional characters, with plenty made up about them.
So what’s real? What’s imagined?
[Nope — no need for a spoiler alert; I promise I’m not giving anything away here!]
Take a birthday visit to Pea Body National Wildlife Refuge, add some birdwatching, and you have the opening of Pea Body. It’s also close to a day my husband and I spent together in North Carolina a few years back.
Real? The visit to the Refuge. Birdwatching. The observation tower. The mosquitoes. The back ponds.
Big difference between fiction and reality: we never saw a body — thank goodness!
But I did take a lot of “bird butt” pictures, and along the Outer Banks, we did see lots and lots of For Sale signs. We did hear about tension between the National Park Service and the locals because of beach closings caused by the endangered bird.
All of these facts got my gears turning. What if there was a relationship among all these various issues? What if…?
So I did some research and a lot of imagining. Plus, because I worked on most of Pea Body after we’d left the Outer Banks, I called on my (creaky but still working) memory for things like the humidity. Might sound silly to people who live with the heavy air all the time, but I wrote much of the novel in the desert Southwest, so my notes helped. So did my photos.
If you read our travel blog (Bob and Ellen’s Great RV Adventure (at http://bobandellen.wordpress.com) then you know I love taking photos. We’ll take a short walk and I’ll end up with dozens of photos. A longer hike and I’ve got an easy hundred to sort through.
Photos like this one, of blooming lilies outside a restaurant on Hatteras Island, conjure not only the bright beauty of the area, but look closely and you’ll see a misty gray in it. Yep, we walked outside from air conditioning into that stifling humidity and my camera lens steamed up — leaving me with photos that plunged me right back into that heavy tropical air despite sitting in 0% humidity.
Although many novelists can write well about places they haven’t been or experienced, I’ve always found it best to set my stories in towns and areas I’ve been. Tooling around neighborhoods on our bikes or in our truck (or, these days, Jeep) we pick up lots of details. When we visited Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, back in 2011 it was — like Walt and Betty — our first trip to the Outer Banks in about ten years. So many of the things Betty mentions are things we noticed. And yes, we did wander around one of the cemeteries edging a back street…
…and spent plenty of time walking the beach:
Even an old boat house or bait shack like this one can stir plot ideas:
So the answer to the question, “What’s real and what’s made up?” is everything. The real details get mixed into the imaginary plot… and the characters? Well, that’s a more complicated recipe!
What about you? Do you wonder about the real underpinnings of novels you read? Are you curious about the “behind the scenes” aspect of a book — what inspired the central idea, the characters, the setting? Or does peeking behind the scenes spoil the effect for you?