What makes a book REAL to you?

For me a strong sense of place makes a book or story REAL.  The novel I am currently writing does not take place anywhere in North America but in an isolated and pristine coastal area of Southern Africa.  I spent almost two months there earlier this year to get a ‘feel’ for that special place and more importantly to trace the steps one of my main characters would take in my story.  



One the many reasons I love writing is that it makes me, for a time, an expert.  I have to research and study topics and places if I hope to write with conviction and engage the reader.  I was born with an insatiable curiosity about most things and writing makes it possible for me to butt in and dig around and ask questions that most people avoid asking.  But to be honest I wouldn’t have attempted to write this story set in South Africa had I in fact not been born and raised there (which I was) and so I am intimately familiar with the people, the customs, language and landscape.   That said, I don’t believe writers are limited to writing only what they know. Do you?

Watch Tony Kushner’s unexpected advice on writing what you know:


So what makes a book real to you?  is it the sense of place or the characters’ real issues and dilemmas?  I would love to hear from you.





8 thoughts on “What makes a book REAL to you?

  1. Some thoughts, rough and perhaps from the point of devil’s advocate as it’s the wee small hours here, but I agree – the construction/representation of place can make or break a reading experience for me. I don’t agree with a blanket rule of ‘write what you know’ – if we followed that too closely we’d have no great works of historical fiction or adult novels about childhood. I think that it’s a writer’s job to convince us that that their subject matter is what they know, or at least convince us enough to not think about asking the question in the first place. I suppose I usually read the setting of a work of fiction as another character – as long as it has structural integrity within the novel, I’m not inclined to start questioning it unless the text gives me reason to.
    I love to read about places I’ve never been but I also love when familiar settings crop up unexpectedly. I always appreciate when a writer has clearly taken the time to research a place well or if he/she has a natural feel for a setting.
    At the same time, pedantic attention to detail almost always distracts from my reading. For example, I itch when specific bus routes are mentioned in a text: for me, it’s enough to know the character is on a bus, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the no 3 or the no 33. I think this annoys me so much because it creates a little clique of readers who are ‘in the know’ and, therefore, most readers, usually including myself, are cast as outsiders.
    On a wider level, I do firmly believe that where we’ve lived, grown up, traveled to, hugely influences our personal identity, and equally the identity of any fictional character. But of course, each of our experiences is subjective – it’s highly unlikely that, even if an author, a character and I shared a commute on the no 3 bus, our representation of that place at that time would share much more than mere commonplace details, filtered as the experience is by how we live it individually. My account would be no more or less real than another’s.
    Finally, to turn your question on its head, indulge me in a personal anecdote. My favourite novel is Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, set in Newfoundland. If you’ve read it (and if you haven’t – do, please do!), you’ll know that the book is all about a sense of place. Newfoundland is beneath, beyond, below, behind each of the characters. It is the heart of the novel. When I read it for the first (and second, third, fourth, fifth) time, I had never been to Newfoundland. A couple of years ago, my brother and I finally got to travel around the island and, even though we had experiences there that I’ll hopefully never forget, I didn’t need to kiss a cod for that place to be real to me. It had been real to me for years already, since I first read the opening pages of Colony. The question then might be not what makes a book real to you, but perhaps what does a book make real for you.
    Anyway, for a discussion of place much more lucid and interesting than any I could generate, you might like to have a look at this recent post on the Savidge Reads blog: http://savidgereads.wordpress.com/2013/10/22/your-country-in-tenish-books/
    Enjoy, Em.

    • please don’t kiss the cod 😉 I have not read Wayne Johnston so will add this book to that ever growing pile! I love the point you make that it is a writer’s job to convince us that they know what they’re writing! I had to laugh out loud when you mention bus no 3 as only recently I finished reading a novel set in London where the writer had one character making very real train connections and transportation hops (black cabs, buses) for what I can only assume was to prove she had been there and dare I say it, word count. Thank you for your great comment Em and thank you for bringing great books and blogs to my attention;-)

  2. The first answer which springs to mind is ‘Honesty’, honesty on the part of the writer adds depth and meaning to what I am reading. Another would be ‘Empathy’ a book which grabs me must hold aspects which I can relate to on a personal level, ‘Empathy’ may not be entirely the right word but I like to have a sense of understanding and identify with what I am reading on some level.

    • Oh I love your comment! yes, very true. Excellent points. I think honesty adds to the conviction; a sense that the writer knows what he or she is writing about and has somehow experienced the emotions/dilemmas in the book. Thank you 🙂

  3. Pingback: When you write | Cherry Pickens

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