Saturday, February 7, 2009

Writing Tip #2: Weaving Illusion Into Reality

A favorite query I receive from interviewers who've read my press bio is whether government agencies really have questioned if I've received classified information. The answer is a multiple 'yes', the stories in retrospect more funny than alarming (bottom line, any place on the planet government intelligence can send an agent to dig around, some missionary or aid worker will already be there and know more than they do!). Certainly good research helps and a mind that 'thinks like a terrorist', as one government type informed me. Unfairly, since if like any good journalist, I'm fairly competent at piecing together an intel puzzle and thinking up unique ways to use it, at least I do so only in fiction.

However there was the time, soon after writing my first major suspense novel CrossFire, when I found myself in the DEA compound of a certain Latin American city being grilled by a furious Special-Agent-in-Charge. He was very competently using six-foot, four-inches of Special Forces-trained body language to intimidate one petite female civilian--me! Among his list of infractions was a description I'd made in CrossFire of an interrogation room within the DEA compound. I had at one time been privileged to take the same tour of that compound as any visiting congressional junket. But certain areas were off-limits, and that was one of them. The SAC was determined to find out which of his agents had let 'that author woman' into a 'classified' zone.

The guy was good. I can honestly say that if I were trying to lie, I couldn't have kept it straight five minutes. But since I was telling the truth on all accounts, I rather enjoyed myself as only a writer can, taking plenty of mental notes of what it felt like to be grilled by the 'best of the best'. And I got my revenge (as any good writer should do with obnoxious people in their lives) by writing him into my next book, The DMZ. Yep, that large and furious U. S. task force commander berating a certain female reporter protagonist in the Colombian jungle. I hardly had to change the dialogue.

When I finally got out of the SAC's office, it was to find a couple of agent acquaintances lurking in the hall. "You're still alive!" they commented.

"He was actually quite courteous," I responded, "and accepted my explanations very reasonably."

At which they gave me a disbelieving look and said with what I certainly hope was sarcasm, "That's because you're a civilian, and he knows he can't kill you."

There is far more to that story. But I picked up one great writing tip that day. Good research is important, the blogs, interviews, on-the-ground experience I've mentioned in an earlier blog. But what about when you still cannot find the details you need? How do you weave a plausible reality that can con a counternarcotics field SAC into thinking you've been inside his interrogation room? The answer is again simple.

Reality is in the eye of the beholder--or reader.

You see, I really hadn't been in that interrogation room. However, I have eyes and a brain. When I walked across the front courtyard and through a huge, steel-reinforced door with multiple locks and cameras into the headquarters building, I couldn't help noticing a verandah lined with doors out front that was not part of the tour. Being a nosy investigative journalist, I had to ask myself, if I was counternarcotics with 'bad guy' informants entering my compound to report, where would I want to interview them? Maybe somewhere that gave no access to the inside workings of a DEA field office. Like those doors along the verandah.

On the other hand, I'd certainly want access from those outside rooms into the headquarters itself, just in case an agent ran into trouble and needed backup. So let's add a second door across the room. What else would an interrogation room hold? A table. Some chairs. A surveillance camera. My description was as scant as my knowledge.

I have no idea to this day how close the reality behind those doors matches the picture in my mind as I wrote the interrogation scene in question. What I do know is that those few details I'd included matched my interrogator's own reality closely enough that his own personal experience in those rooms had filled in the blanks to leave the erroneous illusion I had to have been inside.

Since then, a notorious Third World prison, a Vietnam-era Huey, North America's largest underground network of nuclear waste tanks, are among settings I've never actually been, but have heard back from readers who have (including a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission). One humanitarian aid worker who'd been in that same Third World prison wrote, "Reading [FireStorm], Palmasola was so real I could actually smell the urine on the walls."

So how to weave a plausible illusion of a reality you've never experienced?

1) You don't have to know all the details as long as those you use are accurate. Any written scene is only a bare outline of the endless details contained in any real life counterpart. The reader fills in the rest from their own life experience. So as long as you use only details you've researched and are sure of (and leave out anything you can't confirm), the reader who has actually been there will fill in the blanks from their own memories and assume you too are writing from personal knowledge.

This again requires only basic research. In writing of Palmasola for instance, I'd driven by (and so knew its smells!), but had never been through the gates. Human rights reports and other news stories gave me such details as the drug lord mansions with saunas, big-screen TVs, catered meals and mistresses on one side and common debtors ten to a cell without food or bedding on the other.

2) A jungle is a jungle is a jungle. So is a desert. Once you've experienced any setting or situation--an earthquake, blizzard, hurricane, cliff top, hunger, thirst, the terror of personal assault, the joy of love and friendship, or a law enforcement interrogation--you can write that experience in any setting on the planet. All you need is a little research for details unique to that setting.

3) Travel guides like Lonely Planet or Rough Guide are excellent resources. Virtually every country, however remote, has at least one. With detailed city maps, sights, roads, restaurants, hotels, travel and danger tips for every region of a country, and LOTS of pictures, these offer those bare bones details to be able to plot an accurate setting in your mind. has the widest variety. Add those traveler blogs for your local color, and you are set.

Now how to navigate the shoals of all that internet data to know which is truth? Again it's simple, but that's for another day.


  1. This is an awesome post, Jeanette. Not only will it help me create my own more realistic writing, but it makes me eager to read all your books!

    Laurie (fellow AWSA member)

  2. The woman wrapped in the American flag is so sexy. I love her!!!! Oh Oh Oh!!