Something I see more often than I can even count are novels that don’t ring true.
“But it’s fiction!” people protest when this gets pointed out.
Yep, you may be making up the story and the people, but that doesn’t mean you can play fast and loose with the truth.
In fact, I’ve always loved Hemingway’s take on this—a novelist’s job is to tell the truth.
Now, he was talking about Truth with a capital T, meaning, the Truth as you know it. But you can’t successfully convey that if you include things—really, even just one thing—that doesn’t ring true.
Because you’ve just lost your audience. And as you probably already know, some astute reader will bust you with even the most minor detail.
And bigger points that aren’t right on the money will get you hooted at.
So how do we make sure your novel rings true and is believable? What are the secrets of how to write a good novel? And how to write a good novel plot? The kind that holds together?
֎ Write what you know
I know, I know—you get sick of hearing this, don’t you. But there’s a reason this old adage holds up—if you don’t do so, and aren’t really, really, really careful, it’ll show up like a petunia in a sea of sunflowers. To write a successful novel around something you don’t know, say, you’re a teacher but your protagonist is a neurosurgeon, rarely works well.
And I see this all the time.
Besides, you have tons of things you do know, right? Either by vocation or avocation, or fields that you’ve studied and become immersed in for decades. Focus on those and let the richness rise.
֎ Key in on the areas of your own expertise
The things you do know, those endeavors you participate in and already understand the blood, sweat, and tears that go into them, will come off so much more believable. And every bit as important—will be richer, deeper, with more nuances.
That doesn’t mean you won’t need to do some research, but you’ll be able to add depth and texture without thinking or worrying about it, because, well, you understand all the various shades.
֎ Make sure your plot points could actually happen
I know, I know—we’re writing fiction! By definition, made up. But that doesn’t mean you can set San Francisco in Brazil.
Sounds pretty clear when put this way, no? But I see variances of this all the time.
For example, one novel I edited (which was not a Fantasy, where you get leeway to do that kind of thing) included a part where because a piece of property was deemed a historical marker, it became sovereign and no legal action could be taken against the owners.
Of course I pointed this out, and the writer said, “This is fiction so I’m leaving it in.”
Those astute readers will draw blood . . .
There’s just no reason to tempt the truth police.
֎ Spend time in the places in your novel
If your setting is the Dover Cliffs of England, and you haven’t been there, we have a problem.
Yes, you can imagine what any setting is like. But the whole point is to put your reader there, no? And you do that through the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feel of a place—through the perception of your viewpoint character.
For example, Jamaica has one of the most unique aromas on the planet. The entire island smells of rubber trees. It’s a rich, somewhat pungent smell that wafts through the air no matter if you’re at the beach or high in the mountains.
I’ve edited a number of novels set in Jamaica, and by this sense alone I can tell if the writer has been there. Of course, if not, all the other senses are missing too . . .
And isn’t it just a terrible thing that you’ll have to be traveling to exotic places to get all of this right J
֎ Find mentors
If your protagonist does engage in a profession or hobby with which you’re not familiar, and that’s just what he does and it would change the entire novel to have him switch to something else, then find a mentor you can establish a long-term relationship with.
This isn’t a one-time interview. You’ll need to spend lots and lots and lots of time with people who know and actually practice the thing you’re researching. Engage in the activity along with them, asking questions and more questions as you go.
And of course, they love to be a part of a novel! I’ve yet to meet someone who wasn’t intrigued and then delighted to be helpful in that quest.
Be sure to thank them in the acknowledgements!
֎ Have one of those experts go over your draft for veracity
Again, they’ll be more than happy to! That way, you’ll make sure that even with your best intentions, you didn’t stumble somewhere and make one of those egregious mistakes that’ll have readers laughing. And not in a good way.
Plus, an expert will often provide additional nuances on the page, about points you wouldn’t even have known to ask.
All of these add richness and texture and depth, which is the point of great fiction. Not to mention, keeping the verisimilitude intact so you won’t get slammed by those astute readers or reviewers.
Finally—and this is the most important key—all of this will help your plot influence your characters, and your characters drive your plot, making your novel one cohesive whole.