Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Fiction, Reality, and Thrillers

image This was totally inspired by Mark Terry's post today of picking up Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Time Weiner.

There's a great quote out there about using fiction to tell the truth. And there's a whole lot of research that goes into a thriller. I mean, try writing a thriller once, and I think you will have a whole new respect for thriller writers. It is truly, at the very least, at least an hour of research per page.

Frankly, I'm pretty sure I could write a nonfiction book on several subjects and do tons less research.

Just walking down the freaking street requires hours of research. God, make them run, and you've got to find the proper alleys, shops, etc. It's insanity.

And there is a pressure I perceive to be ultra-realistic when writing a thriller. It's a bit of a fashion to be able to boast that such and such is real, that every cafe, store, restaurant is real, that every detail and every locale is real. Even the politics must be real.

This is where I always get stuck. Like, right away, instantly. And then I bang my head against the wall for weeks.

I actually find the extreme realism a bit off-putting, even when reading spy thrillers. I need character, character, character first. I need an emotional journey to connect with. Of all the thrillers, spy thrillers are the most character-oriented. (Strictly spy thrillers; if you segue into more action-type spy thrillers it's different.)

My biggest problem in finding my inner thriller writer is finding that balance between fiction and reality. If you look at the spy thrillers being released today, they are mostly either historical (where facts and situations and countries are easily researched) or they are written by an ex-Intelligence Officer of some sort, or the former head of MI5 (Britain's CIA).

I wonder if this is also a fashion because there's an easily-promoted media hook, or if readers are craving this sort of novel.

Because it's my impression that the spy thriller experience is about believing that one person can make a big difference.

So when you sit down and research, well... you run across a lot, and I mean a TON of ex-spies/intelligence officers who are BITTER. Very bitter and frustrated. Even in their fiction. And I think all the writing of reports makes them grow up and become writers.

The others who write spy thrillers are journalists. They do the best job of blending the fiction into the reality, even though they are a bit dry about it sometimes.

A big part of writing is finding your own song. I'm not sure where I meant to go with this. I've just been watching my pseudonym write, trying to figure out how to play her song on a different instrument. I suspect that once I find that "note" that feels just right in a spy thriller, I'll be off and running.

I also suspect it will be one of those outside-the-norm books that will either fail immediately because it's completely different, or it will get a lucky break because it's completely different.

I like my fiction to be fiction, and the emotional story and core of the characters to be true. I like to create worlds. I like fiction that has to suspend disbelief.

As a joke, I sometimes refer to it as fictional fiction, or Fiction with a Capital F.

This puts me at odds with the norm of a spy thriller. I don't ache to be more realistic; I love to suspend disbelief. There's nothing I love more than an idea or story where I think, "Oh shit, can I pull this off? Can I make a reader believe this?"

I'm not really thinking about the spy thriller at the moment. I have two 40 - 50K novellas to write fast and an essay which requires me to re-read eighteen books.

But here I am. This story haunts me, but it won't let me write it yet. It just won't freaking let go. And yet I can't find it, either. Have you ever had a story like that?

And what about you: what sort of balance between fiction and realism do you prefer in the books you read? The books you write?

9 bonus scribbles:

Mark Terry 7/02/2008 01:45:00 PM  

I have mixed feelings about it. In truth, I suspect 99% of what a spy actually does is pretty dull. I had very mixed feelings about RJ Hillhouse's "Outsourced" because I frankly think it would have been a more interesting nonfiction book. I kept wondering what planet her characters were from and worrying that, you know, the military is really made up of people that irrational and adrenaline-addicted.

I like Barry Eisler quite well, but I have that same sort of issue at times, where I wonder if all the painstaking research was really all that necessary. Some Tokyo restaurant is just as likely to be out of business by the time the book comes out, given the high turnover in businesses. Yes, it's great that on such-and-such a street there are these types of businesses and whatever details you can give helps, but if I want a travelogue I'll probably read a travelogue.

But then again, a lot of readers like that, or in the case of spy thrillers in particular, like to believe the writer has some sort of "inside or secret knowledge."

I lean more towards the James Bond kind of action thriller and I like to read about heroes, so I'm pretty willing to make exceptions... Lee Child, for instance, has a main character so improbable, yet I enjoy the books a lot.

Balance, balance, balance.

Zoe Winters 7/02/2008 04:31:00 PM  

heh...I'm glad that pressure doesn't exist in paranormal romance. If I wanted to write a nonfiction guidebook, I'd write one.

Though how much pressure could there really be with vampires to be realistic. :P

Almost all of my towns are totally made up.

spyscribbler 7/02/2008 06:50:00 PM  

LOL, dull or a lot of work for nothing. I loved the short story she wrote that became the beginning of Outsourced, but I haven't been able to get through it yet. I get put off by the whole "I need to go prove I'm as good as a man" shtick. Valid and probably real, but it's an old story, and I want to read fiction.

LOL, that's why I like your female characters so much. You just let them be. The best, not the best, whatever, but never compared to a man. I really like that.

I love Barry Eisler's stuff, but good point about the travelogue. I love Lee Child's stuff, too. That's more my ideal, except I want more spy, LOL. :-)

spyscribbler 7/02/2008 06:51:00 PM  

Zoe, so true! I do love fantasy for that reason; I love to make everything up. I love creating worlds.

Edie 7/02/2008 07:23:00 PM  

Ugh, I don't even want to think of all the research I need to do on my wip. I'm leaving gaps that need to be filled in later. This is a mainstream contemporary, so I'll have to make the background stuff right. I'm really stretching myself with the book. It makes me want to write paranormal.

spyscribbler 7/02/2008 07:34:00 PM  

Edie, I don't blame you! It makes me want to write fantasy. I hope the research doesn't take too long for you.

Edie 7/02/2008 10:43:00 PM  

Natasha, I'm not researching ahead of time because I did that once, researched way too long, and only used a small part of it. This way I might not over-research.

spyscribbler 7/03/2008 01:18:00 AM  

I remember that, Edie. That's awesome. It's a good technique. I wish I could use it for spy thriller, but the plot is contingent on the research, unfortunately. (Or, at least, that's how little I know.) I really, really, really want to use that technique, though. I think it's the smartest!

Jaxon 8/06/2008 12:29:00 PM  

I ran across an intrestin new Spy Thriller by the name of Epire of Lies, That I Higly suggest. It's a verry intresting story about a hardend Christian on te search for the last revelation of the Qur'an.