Getting your Inner Journalist on… Reporting Techniques That’ll Enhance Your Fiction
Though it sounds counterintuitive, reporting techniques can greatly enhance your fiction. I wrote journalism and literary nonfiction for two decades before ever attempting to write fiction, but when my second memoir didn’t sell, I took the plunge.
The transition was slow at first, but before long I was writing from multiple perspectives—from a Mexican gardener to a meth-addicted looter to an obsessive art collector. All along, my reporting skills remained the bedrock of my creative process. This isn’t surprising. A fiction writer needs to create a believable world, just as a reporter must capture the complexities of real life. These strategies can help your fiction.
- Do background research. Almost every novel has a subject or issue that requires research to get right, whether science or history, farming or bird watching, presidential politics or French cuisine. While I generally avoid reading novels too similar to the one I’m working on—for fear I will inadvertently imitate them—nonfiction books provide all sorts of fascinating information. Facts are your friends. They provide the objects, information, and history—what Ron Carlson calls an “inventory”—that gives your story context and texture.
Example: For my thriller about Mexican masks, I consulted books and newspaper articles about masks, the repatriation of cultural artifacts, Aztec history, smuggling, and drug lords. Instead of dropping a fact bomb into the story, I often wove this information into dialogue.
- Visit your setting: When in doubt, go! Even if you’re writing about a setting you know well, it’s valuable to revisit it with pen and notebook in hand. See the landscape with fresh eyes. Look. Listen. Smell.
For my novel, I needed to describe the masked dances performed during Carnival, so I went. This wasn’t easy or cheap. From Indiana, I flew to the Oaxacan coast, took a bus to the small city of Pinotepa Nacional, and then rode in the back of truck shuttles to various towns. We’re talking remote. I videotaped the dances, listened to the mayor make his windy introduction, drank tepache (a fermented alcoholic drink), and imagined how a murder might take place amid the chaos. This trip allowed me to write sentences like this one:
Example: The brass band coddled their silent instruments beneath tissue paper bunting that hung limp, everyone, everything, hoping for a breeze.
- Take careful notes: Weather, plants, shop signs, smells, people, animals, food, music. All these details create verisimilitude. I have pages of images that I consulted whenever I felt stuck. Not all of them made it in, of course, but they provided continual inspiration. Use sensory details as they are or tweak them to serve your purposes. Images can often be used metaphorically or to add tension.
Example: On the corner, a shopkeeper hung stuffed animals from his awning. Bug-eyed Bart Simpson dangled from a hook.
- Conduct interviews. Are there experts in a subject you’re writing about? Find these people. Pick their brains. I interviewed Mexican mask carvers, listening for striking quotes. When I asked a carver how he decided what to make next, he replied: “God gives you the inspiration.” This quote went right into my story.
- Use Google maps. Though I wrote my novel in a cubicle in Indiana, I often strolled down the streets of Mexico City via Google Earth to put myself in my character’s shoes. I also consulted maps for street names. Your goal is to create a world you can believe in.
Example: Streets in one section of Mexico City are named after professions, so one of my characters made this joke: “Mamá, I moved into a nice new apartment on Prostitutas.”
- Be fair. As a reporter, you are taught to show your subjects in their most sympathetic light, whether you agree with them or not. This is good advice for fictional characters as well and helps you avoid caricatures. Even the worst villains were born good. What happened? Weave in their backstory. Or include action that shows his or her vulnerability. Likewise, just as a nuanced profile reveals a subject’s weaknesses, your protagonist must have failings in order to be likeable and believable.
- Don’t be bound by your preconceived expectations or agenda. Reporters often think they understand their story before they begin, but after a little digging, they realize they had it all wrong. Likewise, fiction writers have to be agile, open-minded, and ready to change gears. Be willing to find what you weren’t looking for, as good reporters do.
When I traveled to Real de Catorce, a Mexican ghost town, I imagined using its dramatic desert landscape for a chase scene, but the village was so beautiful that it became a symbol of paradise, the oasis one of my characters dreams of escaping to.
Example: Those mountains felt like heaven and every fallen candy wrapper was a jewel from a queen’s crown.
Lili Wright is the author of Dancing with the Tiger, a literary thriller set in Mexico. She teaches at DePauw University in Indiana. You can learn more about her work and see her Mexican mask collection at her website: www.liliwright.com.