Please welcome Colleen Oakley as our guest today! Colleen’s debut novel Before I Go was a People Best New Book Pick, an Us Weekly “Must” Pick, a Publisher’s Lunch Buzz Book, a Library Journal Big Fiction Debut, and an Indie Next List Pick. Formerly the senior editor of Marie Claire and editor-in-chief of Women’s Health & Fitness, Colleen’s articles, essays, and interviews have been featured in The New York Times, Ladies’ Home Journal, Marie Claire, Women’s Health, Redbook, Parade, and Martha Stewart Weddings. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, four kids, and the world’s biggest lapdog, Bailey. Close Enough to Touch is her second novel.
People often ask me which I like better—writing articles for magazines or writing fiction, and I often say the two go hand in hand. Though fiction I’m obviously making up, I rely heavily on the research and reporting skills I honed in journalism to help guide and craft my novels. I think that surprises readers sometimes, so I’m passionate about sharing my process and the idea that the best fiction always has at least a small basis in fact.
How To Make Your Readers Believe the Unbelievable (Or, The Importance of Facts in Fiction)
Like most writers, I’ve always loved telling stories—the more outrageous, the better. As early as preschool, I remember making up the craziest things about my day to share with my mom when she would pick me up. Like the time I told her that the gingerbread man who I had been convinced lived in the little plastic house on the playground finally came out of hiding and chased us all around. Or the time I plucked a clover to bring home and when she asked about it, I told her the entire class had taken a field trip to a greenhouse and we got to pick out anything we wanted.
Fortunately instead of chastising me for what, in retrospect, appears to be a compulsive lying problem, my mom would just nod and go right along with whatever stories I was telling her. And I think, even more than the telling of the story, that’s got to be one of the most satisfying parts of writing fiction—when you’ve captivated the attention of your audience. I love when a reader tells me they completely bought into my story, that they were right there with my main character through every thought and feeling and couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to find out what happened next. But, it can also be one of the most challenging parts of writing fiction: how do you craft a believable story, especially if your story is based on an incredibly far-out premise?
Fortunately, I’ve been honing that particular skill since, well, preschool, and these are a few of the things that I’ve found work for me.
Do your research. Maybe it’s due to my background in journalism, but research is one of my favorite parts of crafting a novel. And I think it’s actually one of the most important parts. For fiction to be believable, it must have a basis in facts. For example, my latest book Close Enough to Touch is about a woman with a rare medical condition—she’s allergic to other humans. Now, I completely made it up; an allergy to humans doesn’t exist (I told you I like outrageous stories!), but I still needed to be knowledgeable about allergies and the science behind them, so I could convince readers that it was a real illness. I went deep into Google, learning as much as I could about both common and bizarre allergies and I interviewed a couple allergy experts at length, who helped me come up with the theoretical genetic cause of my main character’s affliction. Also, my nephew and niece both suffer from life-threatening food allergies, so I learned from watching what they have been through what it’s like to live day-to-day with a potentially fatal allergy.
Create realistic, relatable characters and focus on the emotions. If a reader can relate to your main character, literally anything can happen and they will suspend belief and go along for the ride. See: Harry Potter. The real key to this, though, is that the emotions have to ring true. We all know a school for wizards doesn’t exist, but if it did, how would it feel if you were told at the age of 11 that you had magical powers and were meant to go learn more about them? Amazing, terrifying, exciting. But if J.K. Rowling hadn’t captured the true awe that Harry Potter (or anyone) would feel upon hearing that news, the book would have fallen flat, instantly. Put yourself in your characters’ shoes and try to glean the truest, most human emotions and reactions that you can to whatever you’re putting them through. And not only do their emotions and reactions have to feel real, the characters themselves need to be three-dimensional, like your reader could sit down and have a conversation with them over coffee, which leads me to my next tip…
It’s all in the details. In high school, I lied to my mom (see? It’s really been a lifelong problem) and told her I was going bowling instead of to the party I knew she wouldn’t let me attend. Even back then, I knew I better have the details ready when I got home: what we ate, what my score was for the three games I didn’t bowl (and that it should be a low number and not 354, which a friend kindly informed me was not a possible score in bowling). And the same goes for fiction— the more specific details you can include in your story, the more a reader will buy into it. That’s why it’s important to know your characters— what do they eat for breakfast? What was their most embarrassing moment in life? What do they listen to on their way to work? Are they good drivers or have they had 14 speeding tickets? The same goes for setting— if an alien spaceship is going to land in the backyard of your protagonist’s house, that better be a realistic backyard. Let your reader see the azalea bush brilliantly blooming next to the ancient cement birdbath, smell the fresh-cut lawn that’s mostly weeds and clover (to the constant consternation of your main character), feel the warm sun beating down on their skin— that then gets blotted out by the silver domed aircraft silently drifting down from the sky.
Believe in yourself. Yes, this trite Hallmark saying applies here too, but I mean it in the most literal sense—convince yourself first, commit fully to your idea (no matter how bizarre or out there it may be) and forge ahead with confidence. Because if you don’t believe in the story you’re telling, you can guarantee your readers won’t either.
How do you make your readers believe the unbelievable?