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A Clever Way to Make Your Story a 'Real' World

Updated on July 18, 2011

When we craft a fictional world for a commercial readership, the reader wants to believe in our world and mentally ‘live’ in it. The novelist Clara Reeve made this point as long ago as 1785.

‘The perfection of [the novel] is to represent every scene, in so easy and natural a manner ... until we are affected by the joys or distresses of the persons in the story, as if they were our own.’

Ground your story in the reader’s world

One tip for persuading the reader that our story is ‘their own’ is to ground it in the reader’s own life world. Unless you are writing outright fantasy (and even then), make your incidental details specific, authentic and verifiable.

For example, if you want your character to take a bus from Ivinghoe to arrive before her Luton office opens at 8am, use a real timetable. ‘She jumped on the 6.55am Arriva and it brought her to Luton at 7.44am, with just enough time to buy a newspaper.’

Yes, there is such a bus! If you invented it, some reader would be sure to spot the error, discard your story in disgust and possibly chide you in a web forum. But if you are verifiably correct in all your minutiae (even a bus timetable), such tiresome pedants will not only indulge your Big Lie - the story itself. They may also, in admiration, buy everything else you’ve written.

It’s the secret of a classic tale

Authors have used this trick since classical times to give their stories credibility. Both Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid built fables around a real city - Troy. The fiction of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales cites the real roads and wayside inns of 14th century Kent. James Joyce consulted Thom’s Dublin Directory to find a real Dublin house - vacant in 1904 - where he could lodge the fictive Bloom and Molly of Ulysses. And so on.


It’s easy to research a place we know well. But suppose our story is set in a location - say Santo Domingo (to take a random example) - that we can’t easily visit? How can we still discover those little details of local colour that are so trivial they are not mentioned in guide books - but which are so accurate they will convince a Santo Domingo shopkeeper that we live next door to him?

Solution: find the place on YouTube!

The highly respectable poet, Prof Grevel Lindop, recently published an enchanting book Travels on the Dance Floor. Inexplicably, he journeyed around the seediest nightclubs of South America - at the age of 61 and by himself - to dance the salsa. When back in England and writing up his notes, he discovered he had forgotten some details of his nocturnal forays. (Strange, that.)

So he did a keyword search on YouTube. He discovered amateur videos. They had been shot in those very bars, clubs and dancehalls where he had sashayed away the night. They gave him the local colour to put in his book.

‘Thank heavens,’ (he must have thought) ‘I can’t blame the tequila. There is a pink elephant hanging from the ceiling at La Sarten!

(And there really is. I've just found it on YouTube.)

Seriously, YouTube - and other video and ‘virtual tourist’ sites - offer us powerful ways to populate our stories with intriguing minutiae. They convince because they’re true. We’ve been there! And all without the expense of travel (or tequila)!

For a 'little university' in story writing ideas, with complimentary enrolment, please go to:

Also see... Tested Ways to Beat Writer's Block. Click here.


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    • John Yeoman profile image

      John Yeoman 7 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England

      Thanks! The rest will not be long forthcoming...

    • E. Nicolson profile image

      E. Nicolson 7 years ago

      Wonderful Hub with great advice. Thank you. I look forward to reading the rest.