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Should You Use Rose-Colored Glasses in Fiction?

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Please welcome New York Daily News columnist and novelist Linda Stasi [2] to Writer Unboxed today, to talk about grit and realism in fiction — and the effect of Real Life. More about her:

Linda Stasi, the popular columnist for the New York Daily News–her Wednesday and full-page Sunday columns have reached more than 600,000 in a single day–and previously for the New York Post, is also an on-camera TV co-host with Mark Simone on NY 1 -Spectrum “What a Week!” 

Stasi’s first novel, The Sixth Station [3], was selected as a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award, and was hailed as, “A helluva religious thriller,” by Nelson DeMille, while Steve Berry said, “You’ll be grabbing the pages so tight your knuckles will turn white!” 

Stasi’s anxiously awaited sequel, Book of Judas [4], has received acclaim from mega bestselling authors such as Sherrilyn Kenyon, who calls it, “An innovative masterpiece!”

Stasi, who has also authored five nonfiction books, has appeared on The Today Show, Good Morning America, The View, and many others.

She was named “One of the Fifty Most Powerful Women in NYC” and has won numerous awards including Best Columnist by the Newswomen’s Club of NY, Best Humor Columnist, and Woman of the Year by the Boys Town of Italy for her charitable work such as driving a tractor-trailer in an 18-truck convoy from NYC to the gulf states with relief supplies for Hurricane Katrina victims.

You can learn more about Linda and the Alessandra Russo series at lindastasi.com [2] and by following her on Facebook [5] and Twitter [6].

Should You Use Rose-Colored Glasses in Fiction?

I once had a pair of rose-colored glasses, but the thing is? They kept sliding south forcing me to only look down at the dirt on the street, or, worse, to only look up to at the clouds in the sky—just to keep them on. Both views distorted reality so I threw them away. And I’m glad of it. I decided it was just better to look straight ahead.

Rose-colored glasses don’t work if you’re a reporter (like me), and they really don’t work if you are, or want to be, a novelist (like the other me). Even funny fiction and way-out fantasy have to have a dark side to feel real. That’s the first thing I found out while learning to switch from the grit of real life news to the fictional world of religious and conspiracy thrillers.

Fantasy, conspiracy, and all fiction in fact, are like good comedy. You need to have one foot in the dark side, one foot in the light, and your head in reality for your fiction to read real.

I was always told, as I’m sure you have been, that we should only write what we know—right? But hell—what did I know about religion before my first novel came to me on a road trip through (I swear) the backroads of Turkey? Answer: Not very much.

But then again, what did I know about John Gotti before he began writing to me from federal prison, or pedophile priests before one decided to “confess” to me? What did I know about hurricanes or driving a truck before I drove a tractor/trailer to Mississippi in an 18-truck convoy bringing relief supplies to Hurricane Katrina victims? What did I know about murder, epidemics and frivolous stuff like fancy dress balls, the famous, the infamous and those just plain awful celebrities before I had to report on them? Answer: So much nothing that it’s shocking.

So when I began to write my first novel, I brought with me all my reporter skills, and all my training in reality; all that stuff I learned from covering all that stuff. I ended up fictionalizing what I knew, and what I didn’t know I spent time learning inside and out.

Not that it was a walk in the park—more like a walk in the park in the dark.

I mean seriously? It took me six years to investigate and research my first novel, which means I drove through five countries alone, road tripped it through Italy with an exorcist priest from the Vatican, climbed Montségur twice, stayed with Monks in the mountains of Manopello Italy who guard a relic with what I believe has the DNA of Jesus on it, and hung with a crazy cloistered, hermit nun in her two room house on a mountain.

For Book of Judas, I traveled to Israel and found a distant, distant relative. I was then allowed to go deep under the foundations of his home into what was recently unearthed there: a 3,000-year-old burial tomb. That’s when the lights blew and I was in the dark underground with hundreds of the long-dead souls. Scary? Yes. Beautiful? Incredibly so.

For me, going to the places that I write about gives me not just insight, but mean something extraordinary, and oftentimes, literally out of this world, happens to me which ends up enriching the story in ways I would never have been able to make up.

But to each of those new experiences I bring my own baggage: what I know and feel from the experiences I’ve already had. No just the crazy news stuff, but the raw of me.

When her infant son is placed in mortal danger, New York City reporter Alessandra Russo is forced to save him by tracking down the missing pages of the Gospel of Judas, a heretical manuscript that was unearthed in Al-Minya, Egypt, in the 1970s. The manuscript declares that Judas was the beloved, not the betrayer, of Jesus.

My ongoing character, Alessandra Russo, whether I like it or not, therefore is me. Well, me with a few pounds and several years shaved off.  But although she is a character who sees the world through jaded eyes, she herself isn’t jaded—as I hope I’m not, despite all I’ve seen. But what Alessandra and I both experience is real sorrow, and sometimes depths of fear and despair—the reality that a writer can’t make up any more than any of us can create life from plastic.

For me, the pains I’ve experienced, as well as the joy, the love, the hatred, and here’s the tricky part—the passionate sex—all has to be as real in my novels as was for me when I experienced it. Tough, I know. It’s like taking a naked picture of yourself before you shaved your legs and went on a diet. Shaving your legs is easy, dieting is tough, but writing real without those rose-colored glasses? Impossible yet possible, embarrassing and—for me, anyway— necessary.

Where did I throw those damned glasses anyway?

How about you? Do your stories veer rosy, or toward the grit of life? As a reader, what type of novel do you crave most frequently? What does that shade of life feed in you?