Fiction: the little true-life details

When I write fiction set in real places, I like including the real names of stores, streets and attractions, both past and present.

These little true-life facts help describe the places even though readers unfamiliar with the areas usually won’t know whether those details are real or made up–especially if the details don’t refer to widely known local attractions and buildings.

For example, in my adventure novel The Sun Singer, I mention Glacier National Park’s Many Glacier Hotel.

Cypress at Tate's Hell
In Garden of Heaven, I mention Florida panhandle locations such as Alligator Point and Tate’s Hell Swamp. The names alone conjure up impressions in the readers’ minds even before my characters get there and experience the beach and swamp locations that aptly characterize the North Florida environment.

In some cases, my details come out of the past, adding to the “historical record” so to speak while functioning in the novel as places to shop and things to see. Set in the 1960s to 1980s, Garden of Heaven mentions the particulars of the family’s 1950 Nash Ambassador as well as the fact that it was purchased at Bopp Motors in Decatur, Illinois.

In this case, it was easy to write about my protagonist David Ward’s family traveling in a Nash since that’s what my family had when I was six years old. As for Bopp motors, I could have called it Smith Motors or Illinois Motors, but our Nash came from Bopp, so I used the real name of the dealership.

The old Nash was part of my experience as a child just as, in Garden of Heaven, it’s part of David Ward’s experience as a child. To some extent, the little true-life details are simply part of “writing that you know.” But they also help nail down both the action sequences and the place settings in the story.

Example from the book:

He was riding with his parents and grandparents in the proud 1950, blue Nash Ambassador equipped with latest of everything from Airflyte Construction to Duo-Servo brakes to Hydra-Matic drive, from Great Falls, where they visited random aunts and uncles to Pincher Creek, Alberta, where they visited assorted cousins. The car was hot, in spite of the Weather Eye ventilating system.

Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier Park’s Swiftcurrent Valley adds ambiance to The Sun Singer whether I made up the name or not. So, too, Tate’s Hell Swamp near the mouth of the Apalachicola River at Carrabelle, Florida. I could have called these locations Glacier Resort Hotel and Murky Waters Swamp, but I like the authenticity of the real names and places.

In some ways, those obscure true-life details give readers who remember the old days and/or who have traveled through an area in my novels, a little something extra.


Related Post: Impeach Earl Warren – About the old signs that used to appear throughout the Florida and Georgia countryside at the time Garden of Heaven is set.

The Sun Singer is gloriously convoluted, with threads that turn on themselves and lyrical prose on which you can float down the mysterious, sun-shaded channels of this charmingly liquid story. –Diana Gabaldon, Echo in the Bone (Outlander)

6 thoughts on “Fiction: the little true-life details

  1. Hello. I agree with you on the importance of details. Whenever I set a story in an unfamiliar place or time I always make sure I do my research first, because the details can make a story come alive, and give it a certain verisimilitude. Other than that, I think the ‘impression’ of details in character’s lives is important – references to past experiences, places they’ve been, things that happened to them etc.(seeing a flower sprouting from the ground, implies the existence of its roots).

    Great blog Malcolm.

  2. Thanks for the visit, Franklin. Research is so necessary, especially where there are no personal memories or experiences to bring reality into one’s description, narrative and dialogue.


  3. I’m sure that most writers include a lot from experience, but I agree that accuracy of detail and specific details are very important to the credibility of the story.

  4. I agree with you, Malcolm. This reminds me of an encounter I had with a gentleman working on a novel about white slavery in Africa. Interested in the topic, I asked him where in Africa he’d been. “I haven’t,” was his reply. “But I’ve done a lot of research.” I quickly lost interest. While it’s true that research is a vital element of any type of book, it can never fully replace the depth added by real experiences. The Africa you can see on the internet or in books is not the same Africa you can feel, smell, and touch. I suspect that anyone who reads his book who has been there will sense that there is something missing.

    1. I wouldn’t want to write a book about Africa without traveling to Africa. Even if the book focused on historical research, it still seems rather mandatory to see the locations. I suppose some authors who are writing books on speculation may not have the budget, especially if they’re college professors in a “publish or perish” situation. The resulting books may help them get and keep tenure, but there will always be that “something missing.”


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