How Authentic Should Fiction Be?

I’m fascinated by prison. The idea of being locked up, handcuffed, possibly assaulted, all beyond your will…it’s terrifying. Not surprisingly, prison plays a big role in The Conduct Series, my romantic suspense trilogy. My favorite cons, Grant and Sophie, are just starting their parole at the beginning of the series.

As my friend Janine commented on a chapter from my work in progress On Best Behavior (The Conduct Series Book 3), the question about authenticity in fiction novels struck me. In striving to create authentic worlds for our characters, do we risk confusing the reader? How “real” should our stories be?

I have another friend who’s a psychologist at a prison, and I recently consulted with her about life on the inside. She kindly shared some slang from the women’s prison:

Inmate = “Offender”

Corrections Officer = “Police”

Other cell block = “Across the street”

When I wrote a female inmate telling my main character Sophie that “police” escorted “offenders” “across the street”, reader Janine astutely wondered why county police would take inmates outside the prison. Once the manuscript is complete, I have confidence my lovely editors will swoop in and ensure the terminology makes sense to the reader, but for now I ponder how authentic the prison culture should be in my novels.

At times I purposely choose not to be authentic in order to improve the story.

There are quite a few therapy scenes in the series, and I feel more comfortable portraying the psychological world due to my day job. Therapy can be dramatic and insightful, but it can also be plodding and quite frankly boring, and I don’t want to put my reader to sleep by portraying the mundane with complete accuracy. The wonderful HBO series In Treatment depicted each therapy client as intensely challenging and dramatic, and real life therapy is just not that way. (Thank goodness! I’d rather not have clients regularly seduce me, attempt suicide in my office, or buy me elaborate gifts).

Real life conversations are also meandering, full of starts and stops. As writers we choose to drop all the “um’s, likes, what’s?” to create more interesting, active dialogue between our characters.

Authors, how authentic do you try to be in building your fictional worlds?

Readers, how authentic do you want your stories to be?

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12 thoughts on “How Authentic Should Fiction Be?”

  1. Great post! Possessing intimate knowledge of things like prison speak, cop talk, slang and certain industry lingo is great. I think we just need to make sure we introduce it the correct way in our writing so Gen Pop knows what we're talking about, or tone it down so the masses will easily understand. We want to be authentic, but at the same time, we don't want to alienate our readers. It's a precarious line to walk, lol!!


  2. It is hard to do the research when it come to ICE but I had friends who were int h NYPD & FBI & TSA. So I was able to piece togather a lot of how ICE operates and then from thier website and PR articles. It trook hard work and investigating ut I loved every minute of it. Dark Waters came out well but in the end the focus wasnt on the agency but the romance, so you never need to go that indepth butint never hurts to know more.


  3. As a reader, I like getting to know new lingo and \”inside\” stuff, so I prefer having it incorporated, but like you say, it has to be presented in a way that the reader can understand. I'm with you all the way on weeding out the boring, mundane part of reality…yet I don't like it to be completely ignored either. I'm the kind of reader who appreciates a few summary sentences that acknowledge the mundane reality—e.g. It took several more sessions of slow progress for the therapist to extract his full background and begin to establish a rapport—to establish it happened but doesn't get into the detail.


  4. That's spooky. A couple of scenes in my current wip are set in Strangeways, the UK's largest prison, and I'd read about the setting in the visitor centre so thought I could write about it without visiting. Now, like a gift, the prison is being featured in a series of TV documentaries. They showed the visitor centre and I was amazed to see that the chairs are red and blue. It's the little things that matter.As a reader, I like it to feel 'right'. As a writer, I don't feel comfortable until I can see or hear things clearly in my mind.


  5. It is a line we dance on – reality vs. interesting. I have similar conundrums when it comes to injuries and medical conditions. How much detail do I have to provide about the injury to make it feel real? How long does it take to recover from a given injury? What kind of treatment is required – and does that affect my story? How important is it that the reader know all the details?Luckily I know some wonderful medical professionals who help me make my writing sound realistic. But I've learned that not every little detail needs to be explained, and overlooking a few isn't the end of the world. Nicki's right – using the correct terminology goes a long way, just so long the reader understands the language.I think it all boils down to doing your research so you know what's real, rather than just saying something that \”sounds good.\”


  6. A very good question!I’m impressed when fiction about something-I-know is authentic; and, when I know it’s authentic, I’m interested to learn the jargon, etc. That said, if a novel isn’t authentic, it doesn’t niggle at me – as long as the storyline is captivating, I dismiss little inconsistencies with reality. In my favourite tv series (Prison Break) we’re frequently asked to stretch our imaginations or “suspend belief” – and that doesn’t bother me at all! ;)To me, it’s important that the reader isn’t confused or misleading him/herself. In your “police taking the prisoner across the street” example, a less informed reader could erroneously believe that the novel is NOT authentic – because it’s unlikely that prisoners would be taken to therapy outside prison walls!(?)I have no problem with characters rattling on, for a short while, in a discourse that goes over the reader’s head – as long as the purpose of the conversation isn’t the content of the convo, but that fact that the characters are rattling on in that discourse (e.g. brainy mathematicians!) If the writer wants the reader to understand the content of the convo, he/she’ll have to think of subtle ways to ‘teach’ the reader the discourse without them feeling as though they’re at a dry lecture.Like most tricky topics, I suppose it depends heavily upon the context – writers will have to make a judgment call every time they face this issue!


  7. That's very interesting and so true that the best fiction reflects reality in some form. We need something to connect to even if the rest of the story takes place in a space station run by furry blue anteaters.


  8. Lisa, loved how you used slang (\”gen pop\”) in your response–perfect!Gabriella, it's good to have friends in high places. :)Nicki, I'm the same way–I like to learn new things when I read and learning accurate information sure helps. Good idea with the summary sentences.


  9. Shirley, how serendipitous that the documentary is showing just when you needed the info! I see I'm not the only one fascinated by prisons. That's an interesting idea that the reader can sense when things aren't exactly accurate.Robin, I've heard about some medical novels that drone on and on about medical details, so that is a dicey area. I've also consulted with some medical professionals (friends) to help make it more accurate.Shona, I didn't mind those \”Prisneyland\” moments either even though they were so implausible that they were humorous. A hot leading man can make me accept ridiculous concepts, I guess. 🙂


  10. Janine, thanks for inspiring this post. You call your cellies \”office-mates\”? 😮 I guess work does feel like prison sometimes, ha ha.JJ, thanks for stopping by! You have a great blog too.Carol, furry blue anteaters? LMAO!


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