Writing Reality: When the Real World Doesn’t Cooperate
The old adage, “write what you know,” has been an important source of inspiration for me. Having spent twenty-plus years in the trenches of government, politics, media and economic development in Western New York, not only do I have the experience and insight to write authentic stories from the political arena, but I have more than enough stories to never run out of fiction fodder. It’s all good stuff for writing – especially in an area where sometimes what happens in real life is as good, if not better, as what can be conjured up in our imaginations.
But one thing I’ve learned over time is that writing using real life as your environment can be tricky. Because things change. Big things. Small things. From the time you first put pen to paper through the time it will take for your work to be in print, there is an awful lot that can happen. Writing political thrillers, I would suggest, are among the most volatile genres to engage.
I know this because I’ve dealt with it on a number of occasions. Wanting to be as realistic as possible, I dive into election law and campaign finance requirements and governmental processes and Robert’s Rules of Order to make sure that not only does my fiction ring true, but I want anyone who is going to try to poke holes in the story to have to earn it. In a college playwriting class, I had written what I thought was a grand drama about a veteran who’d lost his right hand in combat, but who spent the entire first scene doing card tricks. After the read-through, one of my classmates said, “Is he doing his card tricks with one hand?” I decided… Not happening again. Not that easy.
But that has certainly led to extra work trying to place my characters into a real-world environment. Sometimes they’re easy tweaks. Sometimes they require significant changes. And I’ve run into a few situations where something that changed in real life – things that I know people knowledgeable in politics would salivate over pointing out if it was wrong – literally drained the emotion and suspense from the original intent of the story.
I should’ve known from the outset of my writing career. After having been encouraged by a few of my English teachers in high school to write, in the summer before college I embarked on a screenplay about a mission to Mars. Looking back, it was drivel, embarrassing. But, the story revolved around a re-upping of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. space race. When I was near completion on the script… The Soviet Union fell. Causing the inquiry, of course, Why does this stuff always happen to ME?!!!
Over the next decade, I wrote a few novel-length manuscripts and, like many young aspiring authors are apt to do, unprofessionally shopped them around as though they were the next THE DA VINCI CODE. My first self-published book, BORDER TROUBLES, however, is a political thriller set in Niagara Falls, close to my home. Much of the political environment is, of course, based on real life, but while I was writing the novel, the U.S. and Canadian changed the rules for border crossing. Since much of the story is based on getting across the border… Rewrites!
My most recent novel, THE CAMPaiGN, another political thriller, involves a political campaign in New York. Halfway through writing it, the real-life New York State government changed the election calendar, moving much of the election process earlier in the year. Completely disrupted the flow of the story and required writing an entirely new set of circumstances for continuity.
People often ask me why, among the political thrillers, I’ve written time travel. First of all, I’m obsessed with time travel for all of its possibilities. But… There’s something to be said for making things up as you go along and not having to answer to anyone!
Thankfully, one of the other great things about “writing what you know” is that when you work in an arena such as politics, you can’t help but have a tremendous resource network. For the political thriller with the changed calendar, when it happened I called a colleague who’s an election attorney and said, “How am I going to fix this?” Ten minutes of brainstorming, and we’d concocted a premise that I believe is better than the original was.
The challenge hasn’t been big enough so far that I just waved my hands and went full-tilt into my own made up science fiction worlds, but even then, as you might suspect, my time travel books have plenty of political intrigue in them. Can’t get away from it.
Either way, politics is still a fun sandbox to play in. Even when the real world doesn’t cooperate.