A few years ago, I was at a book festival talking about my debut novel, Distress Signals. When it came time for the Q&A, a hand in the front row shot up. The person it was attached to had a question about the extract I’d just read from the novel’s opening scene where my main character, Adam, is being rescued from the water by the coast guard after falling from a cruise ship. ‘Why did you call it an oxygen tank?’ she asked. (I had described Adam’s saviours as diving into the water in wet suits, with oxygen tanks on their backs.) I blinked at her, unsure of what she was asking. ‘I dive,’ she said, ‘and what’s in a scuba tank is a mixture of different gases, not just oxygen.’ My mouth was opening to say something – I didn’t know what, yet – but before I could answer, she threw me a lifeline. ‘Was it because the tank was for Adam, not the diver? Was it because the oxygen was for him?’ I said yes, yes, that was it. That’s what it was. Totally. Yep. Someone else put up their hand to ask a question and the conversation moved on.
But here’s what I wish I had said: it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter that I called a scuba tank an oxygen tank in my novel because it’s not a documentary. It’s not non-fiction. It’s not a reference book. But most importantly, it’s a first person narration, told from the point of view of my character Adam, who doesn’t dive either and who is, when we meet him, drowning. So when he sees a tank on the back of one of the figures who has come to save him and he refers to it as an oxygen tank, that’s okay, because that’s what he thinks they’re called and it’s got bigger problems than scuba-diving terminology right now, thanks.
I am firmly of the belief that it’s called fiction for a reason. It doesn’t need to be true or accurate or real – it just needs to feel like it is.
The question you have to ask yourself as a writer is: what are you aiming for? What is your goal here? If you write historical fiction or police procedurals, accuracy is incredibly important. Research is a must, because a big part of the reason readers come to those genres is to learn more, to be immersed in the details and methods of another time or world, and your contract with them will be rendered null and void if you just make it all up.
That’s not what I write though. I write, on the whole, thrillers were terrible things happen to ordinary people. Average Joe doesn’t know how the Gardaí operate, or the exact letter of the law, or how to do an autopsy. He only knows as much as I do, sometimes even less. If he runs into a Garda or a lawyer or a pathologist, then they better have their ducks in a row, but he’s only got what he starts the book with: what’s in his (and my) brain. So my aim is different. It’s to entertain, and by entertain I mean completely immerse the reader in a story to the point where they forget they’re reading a book.
If I violently yank a reader out of the story with something that makes them say to themselves, ‘Wait, that would never happen…’ then I’ve failed at that. The spell is broken. I’ve reminded them that they’re reading a book, that I’ve made up this story, and I pulled them out of the world I’ve worked so hard to create. How do I balance that with my stance that it’s called fiction for a reason? Well, I stick to these three principles:
Minimise the Risk
Our scuba-diving lady from the first paragraph would definitely have been yanked out of the story of Distress Signals on almost the very first page, as soon as her eyes landed on the words oxygen and tank – but I wouldn’t have written the book any differently, because I believe she’s in a very small minority of readers who would bump up against that. And that’s what I’m always thinking about: if a detail is potentially ‘wrong’, how big is the size of the group of people who are (a) likely to read this book and (b) also know that?
What I mean is: you need to get your common – or mostly common, or maybe even just largely known – knowledge right. You can’t get away with putting JFK Airport in Los Angeles, because the amount of people who will know that is wrong is huge. I heard once of an American novel where a Garda station was called a Gardaí station. How many people would know that’s wrong? At least 4.784 million, the population of Ireland, plus anyone who had ever read an Irish crime novel written by someone who had got it right. Same for calling the subway the tube or the metro, or making a flight from London to Paris five hours long, or having someone spend euros in Galway in 1998. No one is going to have a chance to even start believing your story if you don’t get things like that right.
Use What You Know
It takes far less detail than you think to paint a picture. Trust me on this. Go and read something you’ve written that’s set in a place you know, that you’ve been to many times. How many actual details from your personal knowledge have you included in order to set the scene? Unless you’re writing a travel guide, I bet it’s fewer than you think. When we haven’t been to the place we’re writing about, this also works in our favour: one or two details is all we need to set the scene. This is where I like to take the age-old writing advice of write what you know and change it slightly to use what you know.
For example: I’ve never been on a cruise ship, but one of my main characters in Distress Signals had to work on one as a cabin attendant. Fun fact: I used to be a housekeeping supervisor in a Walt Disney World hotel, where I was personally responsible for overseeing the cleaning of around 100 rooms each day. Professional housekeeping is professional housekeeping, whether it’s cabins or rooms. I was able to take little details from that – terminology, how heavy a housekeeping cart is, how long it takes to clean a room, etc. – and infuse my cruise ships scenes with them to make them feel real.
Reality Isn’t As ‘Real’ As You Think
Before I was a housekeeping supervisor, I was a front desk agent at the same hotel and I have since done the same job in other properties. I’ve also used this in my books. (Thinking about it now, there’s hotel action in every one of my books so far!) In one scene, someone calls the front desk to find out whether or not a certain person is staying at the hotel, and the agent gives him some personal information including the address attached to the reservation. I have at least one Amazon review that angrily asserts that that would never happen. But it does. It happens all the time.
What should happen isn’t always what does. Procedure isn’t always followed. The rules aren’t always abided by. So even if you do your research and you apply what you’ve learned to the letter, you still might not be writing something ‘real’. Consider police investigations. If every book, TV show and movie actually portrayed police procedure as it is in the real world, we would have episode after episode of people sitting at a desk, making phone calls and waiting weeks for results to come back. So how much of your time and effort do you really want to put into to making something ‘real’? What is ‘real’, anyway?
Real is what you make it. When I sit down at my desk to write a book, what I’m trying to do is to cast a spell. I want whoever reads it to forget that they’re reading a book. I want them to become completely immersed in the story. In order to achieve that, I need to make it feel real. Not be real.
Fiction does what fact can’t always. Sometimes, what we made up is more real than the truth. Let’s take advantage of that.
(c) Catherine Ryan Howard
CATHERINE RYAN HOWARD is an Edgar-nominated crime writer from Cork. Her debut novel, Distress Signals, was shortlisted for the CWA’s John Creasey New Blood Dagger and the Irish Crime Novel of the Year, and was optioned for TV by Jet Stone Media. Earlier this year her second, The Liar’s Girl, was shortlisted for the Edgar for Best Novel by the Mystery Writers of America and was named by The Guardian as one of the best thrillers by women written since 1945. Her new novel, Rewind, is out now. Catherine will be signing copies of it at Waterstones, 69 Patrick Street, Cork, on Saturday 31st August between 3-5pm.
From the bestselling, multiple prize-shortlisted novelist Catherine Ryan Howard comes an explosive story about a twisted voyeur and a terrible crime…
Andrew, the manager of Shanamore Holiday Cottages, watches his only guest via a hidden camera in her room. One night the unthinkable happens: a shadowy figure emerges onscreen, kills her and destroys the camera. But who is the murderer? How did they know about the camera? And how will Andrew live with himself?
Natalie wishes she’d stayed at home as soon as she arrives in the wintry isolation of Shanamore. There’s something creepy about the manager. She wants to leave, but she can’t – not until she’s found what she’s looking for…
This is an explosive story about a murder caught on camera. You’ve already missed the start. To get the full picture you must rewind the tape and play it through to the end, no matter how shocking…
‘Catherine Ryan Howard is a gift to crime writing. Her characters are credible, her stories are original and her plotting is ingenious. Every book is a treat to look forward to.’ Liz Nugent
Order your copy online here.