Details: Realistic vs Authentic

A few weeks ago I said, “tune in next week” for this post. I don’t know what possessed me to write that line since it clearly portended that I would not, in fact, tune y’all in so soon.

Right. Well.

In that particular post, I discussed the idea of authors getting the details right in their stories and at what point the details can cause a reader to be pulled out of the story. I made the distinction between realistic details vs. authentic ones, that details might be accurate, but in the face of plot may feel inauthentic.

In fact, inaccurate details/information can actually be more authentic in the face of plot and characters. Author K.M. Weiland wrote a pair of posts that have to do with asking our readers to suspend their ideas of disbelief, but in order to do so, we have to help the reader believe that what she is reading is true:

As writers we have a responsibility to accurately portray the worlds of our stories. Accuracy is important not only in sustaining suspension of disbelief, but also in creating stories that ring true—because, after all, good fiction is always about discovering what is true about life. Study, research, dig through facts like crazy to get to those nuggets of truth—those telling details—that will bring your story to life. But, at the end of the day, don’t forget that you’re a fiction writer. The whole point of fiction is making things up.

In other words, yes, it’s fiction, but even if it’s fantasy, we cannot stray too far from authentic behaviors and settings. In other words, write what you know, and research what you don’t.

In my first book, my main character is an educator and since I am one of those too, that fits in extremely well with “write what you know”. However, her counterpart is a Hollywood actor and, well, I didn’t really know anything about that. Since I was already a Bones fanatic and following on Twitter all the actors, writers, directors, and assistants I could that were related to that show, I simply added a few more. (BTW, the most responsive? Director Tim Southam. He was great about answering technical questions. Plus, he gave me good leads on publications I could read, which gave me a couple of useful books that helped a lot with jargon.) Okay, a lot more. I started following showrunners from other shows I was watching, actors from shows I used to watch, and all kinds of other related people in the television biz. In this way, I started to learn a lot more about lifestyle on and off the set.

Granted, that’s definitely a fun way to do research, although a bit overwhelming, too. For a story that isn’t really about Hollywood or the television business, though, it was enough to give my character authenticity, even if not 100% realistic. I made up his shows that he worked on and made up his call sheet schedule and made up the stage format, but if you see what I did just there, you’ll notice that I slipped in the “call sheet” and “stage” jargon and for many of you, you already believed that what I made up was pretty real after all.

My current novel involves a plot that touches upon in vitro fertilization. While it’s not the primary plot line, it is a key element and probably the most useful research I did for that was to attend an informational seminar from a local reproductive clinic. I could have tried to just call and ask my 2-3 questions, but this way I had context wrapped in, and got a full picture that was ever so much more useful – including the vocabulary that surrounds it.

And while writing authentic behavior and describing realistic situations tops all, of course, it’s getting the little details right that can make the final sell.

Jodi Webb discovered that “ those little sugary doo-dads you sprinkle on your ice cream are called sprinkles but at the beach they’re called jimmies.” This can make a huge difference when setting is at play. My current novel takes place in Minnesota and cringe if you must, but we call things like Coke and Sprite “pop” – not soda (or even Coke, like many parts of southern U.S.) Is it a supermarket or grocery store? A sofa or couch? Where do people shop? What time is primetime TV?

Or, some basic questions that I’ve had to ask my Twitter world, “What do you order at a coffee shop?” and “Who’s a sexy country music star that might have a song you can line dance to?”

For me, it’s really the bigger stuff that can pull me out of a story, but when an author gets the little things right, then I am that much happier. As a writer, I value getting right what I can, as often as I can. When I do, it makes it that much easier to slide by that other part, that one that was completely made up, yet still offers the ring of authenticity.

What kind of research have you done that has been especially memorable? What are some examples of more minor details you’ve had to double check?


I can always count on Peter, Paul, and Mary to offer me a contextually appropriate song. Here is “Autumn to May” in which the details are such that our suspension of belief lets us enjoy a tall tale of a runaway imagination instead of making deeper, realistic meaning of it.


“And he who tells a bigger tale would have to tell a lie.”


4 thoughts on “Details: Realistic vs Authentic

  1. This is so true. Occasionally I’ve read things where you can tell the author was trying really, really hard to be accurate, but they ended up sacrificing authenticity (or worse- making their story sound like a game of Jeopardy).

    Oh, and research? One more reason I couldn’t be a novelist. I’d get caught up in all the research I’d need to do, all the questions I need to ask people (Ugh, interacting), and I’d give up. I really have to admire the historical fiction folks on that one. So much pressure.


    1. Currently I am dreaming up an occupation for my main character that makes it so I do NOT have to do a bunch of extra research. Kind of limiting, though…


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