Fiction and Reality

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by Deborah Rather

I write contemporary Christian romance. As soon as people find out that I have written numerous novels (nearly 80 now), they almost always ask the same question.

“Where do you get your ideas?”

This bewilders me. I always want to come back with something pithy like, “Don’t you pay attention to what goes on around you?”

Most writers, particularly writers of fiction, are observers first. Don’t misunderstand me. Even in fiction, experience counts. Some of the most moving books I’ve ever read sprang straight from the author’s personal experience, but personal experience isn’t enough for a truly prolific author. A writer of many books must be able to “see” what goes on in life in general, to internalize it, think about it, put it into words, and at some point, transfer those words to paper (or the electronic equivalent). We writers put our words into the mouths of characters created from our observations of others and fleshed out with our own emotions. The only problem I have when it comes to ideas is weeding through the plethora with which life presents me to find those that are most interesting, understandable, appropriate to my purpose and, yes, marketable.

My own novels tend to be character-driven, but anything can spark an idea that leads to a story premise: a photo, an overheard conversation, a song, a pregnant woman walking away from a broken-down car, a single page from a handwritten letter found in an airport waiting room… Once, while doing research, I interviewed a very helpful special investigator for the Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association in far West Texas. He answered my questions for hours, then he asked me a question that produced one of my all-time favorite books. Did I think it wise to advertise in Dallas for a wife for a rancher who lived at the end of 50 miles of dirt road, without running water or electricity? (I did not, but surely under the right circumstances a young woman could be induced to become a modern mail-order bride.)

Whatever the premise, the resulting story must be believable, engaging and satisfying. In other words, it must contain enough reality that the reader can identify with it. I shy away from real people and real events. I rarely even use real cities as settings. Often I create fictional communities, place them in areas with which I am familiar and skew the topography so that the setting cannot be definitively located.

For the Eden, Oklahoma series from Love Inspired, I used parts of all the small towns in the area where I grew up to create Eden. Then I placed it equidistant between two real towns-10 miles from each-that are only 13 miles apart in reality. Many of the letters I received thanked me for using the readers’ hometowns as “the model” for Eden. I was happy to know that I had made Eden, a fictional place, so real for them.

Deborah Rather writes as ARLENE JAMES. The author of more than 75 novels, she has published steadily for more than three decades. She and her husband, artist, James E. Rather, have traveled extensively and now live in northwest Arkansas.

Comments 0

  1. Hi, Deborah,
    As a contemporary romance writer, I enjoyed this post — and I agree that you never know what might spark a story. I have to remind myself to pay attention to what’s going on around me — to not get so busy with real life that I miss out on ideas for the lives of my imaginary characters.

  2. Thanks for your post, Deborah! Yes, I agree with your comments about observing what is going on around us. I believe that observation is the bucket that draws ideas from the well of life. I’ve been an observer of life all of my life. When one observes life on a consistent basis, one never lacks for story ideas. They are everywhere.

    Thanks for sharing your insights. 🙂


    MaryAnn Diorio, PhD, MFA
    Harbourlight Books-December 2012

  3. Thanks for a quickie primer on setting. I’ve been mulling over how to create a small town sandwiched between two known cities. Question answered.

    And I just started reading Carbon Copy Cowboy. Loving the Texas Twins series.

  4. Deborah, I am a new writer of Christian Fiction and your post about the creation of a town for a novel is encouraging because I have done that in a couple of short novels. Thanks for the input.

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