A good portion of my suspense fiction is pure fantasy. I don’t mean fantasy as a genre, but fantasy versus realism. Not only am I not remotely involved with any kind of criminal investigations, I don’t even know anyone who is. I have no experts pointing out my bogus assumptions about law enforcement or the criminal element. All of the detection and mystery and crime solving in my books—which make up most of the plots—comes out of my imagination, what I’ve seen on television and what I can research on the internet.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an aspect of reality to my stories. It’s extremely important to me that my characters, settings, actions, relationships and dialogue are totally believable. The books are set in the present time about real human beings, who get hungry and thirsty and have to use the bathroom, who make mistakes, freak out, fall in love, and work to figure out their lives. I try to make them act as I believe real people would act in given situations, even if those situations are extraordinary—being held at gunpoint, finding hidden treasure, stumbling against dangerous villains, and so on.
How would I feel if I suddenly got pulled into the edges of a criminal conspiracy, just because of where I worked or happened to be at a particular moment? What would I do, think, feel? That’s my starting point—though my characters are often very different from me, in which case I have them do or think or feel things that are behind my reckoning or capability.
As I write and learn about my characters, I find them developing not in the do-or-die moments, but in the regular ins and outs of life—who is the heroine when we first meet her? Where does she live and work? What’s her life situation, and how does she feel about it? And as the novel progresses and the suspense builds, I continue to follow what else is going on with her work and play, family, relationships—because those things don’t just stop when a mystery lands in your lap, and often deeper aspects of a character’s life are affected by what happens over the course of the story.
In my recently finished eighth book, Beneath These Streets, due to be released March, 2013, the main character is newly divorced from her husband of some years, which was also my situation at the time I started writing. Though our marriages and how they ended are not the same, many of her reflections on divorce, starting over, dating and so on are things that I and my divorced friends have also experienced. I don’t create characters to be projections of myself, or even aspects of myself, but it lends realism to the people in my stories when I write from life.
The same is true for dialogue, and the way that the characters relate to and feel about each other—I’m not writing about things that have happened to me, but I work to find believability in the characters’ words, sensations and actions. I’m always thrown as a reader when a relationship seems hollow, or when I find myself getting tangled up in dialogue that just doesn’t feel natural. I really try to put myself in the settings, too, whether it’s a restaurant I find online, a house I dream up or a famous monument. I want the place to have a very real feel to it, giving a reader a sense of being there.
Fiction is fictional for a reason, especially escapist romantic mysteries like mine, and I love being able to take my stories into wild, weird, dangers places where I’ll never actually go. Yet if I didn’t write from life as well, pulling from my experience and the people and places around me, my characters would be empty shells, acting in totally unbelievable ways in unknown settings, without any depth or spark to them.
I don’t know about you, but I definitely wouldn’t read that book beyond chapter one!