Tips for achieving realism in your fiction writing
One of the first pieces of advice new authors hear is to write what you know. And there’s strong logic behind the saying. When you know a setting or occupation already, it makes writing about the topic easy and creates a grounding realism for the reader. Your writing is quick and confident, and you aren’t constantly stopping to do research on a firefighter’s routine, or if the streets of Paris are quiet or busy at 3 a.m.
But what if you don’t know very much? After all, if we only wrote what we already knew, our stories would be very limited in scope. Most writers have had only a handful of jobs, and often not in a plot-rich area like law enforcement. And hey, most of us aren’t world travelers, but we’d like to create stories outside of our home state or our handful of vacation spots.
This is where extensive research comes in — and that’s what our recent First Draft Friday chat was focused on. Bestselling thriller author Fiona Quinn chatted with me about her research methods and how you can jump out of a plane without ever strapping on a parachute.
Dive into our conversation and see what you think:
Tips to help with your research
Some tips that Fiona mentions in our chat …
- FEMA offers free training in first aid, fire fighting, trauma assistance and emergency protocols. Visit https://training.fema.gov for more information.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Writing a fight scene? Visit a local martial arts studio and ask them to help you plot it out.
- Facebook can be your friend. Post requests for experts on Facebook, join groups that focus on a specific topic, or ask a research question directly on your feed.
- If you can travel to your location – do! But if not, Google Earth, travel bloggers, and YouTube videos can help to capture the feel and culture of a place.
Click above to watch our conversation, or keep reading for the full transcript. Don’t miss out on our next First Draft Friday chat! They happen twice a month in our Authors A.I. Facebook group. You can view upcoming shows and RSVP at our First Draft Friday page.
Transcript of our talk with Fiona Quinn
Alessandra Torre: We are live. It’s First Draft Friday, and we’re so excited to be here today with Fiona Quinn. We’re going to be talking all about writing believable scenes. And if you’re going a little outside your comfort zone, how to make sure that your scenes come across as authentic and realistic to the reader. So without further ado, we’re going to jump right in. I’m your host Alessandra, I’m with authors AI. If you have not experienced our fantastic developmental editor, Marlowe, she’s available at authors.ai. And let me have Fiona introduce herself. You want to tell everybody a little bit about yourself?
Fiona Quinn: I am I’m an author. I have about 40 titles out now, close to that, and I write action adventure for women. My background is varied. I’ve traveled all over the world. I have a bunch of degrees. The one that I use the most is my master’s in counseling and psychology because I like to manipulate my characters a lot. But I also do some things in our community, which helped me in my role as an author. I do them because I have some expertise that I can give to my community, but it’s a win-win for me. One of them is the community emergency response team. I’m also on the medical response team for psychology. So if we had a major event, I would go in and help debrief people and make them comfortable. And I’m also on the Virginia search and rescue team. So, search and rescue teams are volunteer organizations, but they are highly trained, and highly regulated.
So we get a lot of training and I find that when something inspires me, for example, they were teaching how to train a chicken, which is a clicker course to teach you how to work with your dogs, with your working dogs. So we have a lot of working dogs in search and rescue, but they also teach police officers and armies and people like that too. How to click or train a chicken, and how that then becomes how you train a dog. But little pieces like this, being out in community and doing volunteer work and meeting a bunch of people really helps me not only for my writing, but also gives me a big black book of people I can call, and say, “Hey, I met you with this thing. You talked about this. I’m writing a scene in my book,” and that is always the magic words. “I’m an author and I’m writing a book and I need your expertise. And people love that. And I love that too. I love for people to share what they know best. And I’ll give you an example of that.
Boy Scouts – my son was a Boy Scout and my husband was Boy Scout leader. And one of the gentlemen who was one of the leaders, was a security professional at the airport. And I called him up and I said, “Hey, you know, my son, and I’m an author and I’m writing this scene where I need to steal a plane. Could you talk to me about it?” He says… and I don’t even know what plane, I need to figure out what plane and I need to steal it. And he goes, yes, come on down. So there, I went to the airport and we went onto – like, we just started climbing on all these jets were, I’m like, no, this is too big. Can I pull the chairs out of this one? And I kept telling – he kept saying, what are you going to do when your character steals the plane?
And I said, “Well, she’s going to die.” And he goes, “What, no, I’m the safety, I’m the security guy, we cannot let her die.” And so I’d be asking him questions about you know, if it’s coming in like this and it’s landing like that, you know, he is, yes, that would kill her, but if she just did this, she would survive. It I’m like, “Well, she can’t, she’s got to die.” He was by the end in tears. I mean, this man was in tears. “You have to save her.” I’m like, “Honestly, it’s a fictional character in a book. Okay, I swear to you, sir, I will save my character.” So, she wasn’t really going to die. It was just, I don’t know why I kept saying that to him. But he took me in and he taught me how to steal a plane if I had the ability to fly, I would know exactly how to go in and steal a plane, and I’m just going to tell you, it’s fairly simple. He gave up hours of his time and he was just very generous and it’s what I have found consistently and constantly.
Alessandra: Let me just circle the audience back. So when we’re talking about writing believable scenes, the kind of rule of thumb that you always hear when you start writing is write what you know. And today we’re going to be talking about… and that is certainly true. If you can write something that you know, or something that you have personal experience with, that’s fantastic, but a lot of us haven’t stolen planes.
Fiona: Or go to jail, or want to.
Alessandra: We have not experienced some of the traumatic event that some of our characters might be going through. So what we’re going to be talking about in the next 23 minutes is really resources that you can use and ways that you can have these experiences, oftentimes just from your couch or from whatever limited resource well you have in your current spot in life
Fiona: Within your physical capacity also because, you know, there are a lot of times, I’ll give you an example. I am not going to climb a cliff, but I can go to the local place that has climbing lessons. And they teach me how to belay and how to put on like straps, and I can climb a couple of feet up the wall. That’s far enough, I’m good, you know, and how to slide down. And I was never at risk. I have a whole bunch of mats underneath me, I have a professional standing there, but I know how the rope feels in my hand. I know how my weight feels sitting into the straps. I know how it feels to try to get my toes into that little crevice and how much effort it takes me to grip my fingers. So, all of those are little pieces of reality that I wouldn’t have imagined. I’m not going to jump out of a plane.
I have friends who do and have friends who have, they’ve talked to me about it, but it’s nothing like actually experiencing it. And again, I’m not going to jump out of a plane, but there are places where you can go for inside wind tunnels and safely, and with the help of a professional, you can go in and be on top of basically a big fan and the big fan holds you up and you can feel how the wind gets underneath your lips and flaps your face around to like an idiot and how it pulls at your shoulders, and how it arcs you back. And it’s a kind of uncomfortable, not painful, but really uncomfortable. And so, just having those little pieces of truth when you can’t get the whole perfect picture for yourself, because you’re not willing to put yourself into harm’s.
Well, I’m not going to dash into a zone, but I can do X, Y, Z. So local classes – I think that we’re going to put in my blog, which I developed called thrill writing. It was there to assist other authors, people who are, because of their location or because of their physical abilities, or because of monetary constraints, cannot go out and do. And so, I went out and did, and try to write about the little things like, for example, is community emergency response team is open to almost everybody? Almost every community has it, where you can be trained by FEMA to do these specific things. For example, they train you how to do first aid and they take you through basic psychology, the trauma, and they take you through how to put a fire, what the fire looks like. They’ll take you into burn houses, depending on where you are. All that’s free, and then you’re prepared to help your community in an emergency, so win-win. But they also will ask us to go and help.
So for example, the fire department wanted to train on putting out fires at the airport, so I was in a mock airline crash, and I was out, they gave me a moulage so they’ll make you up to look like you’ve been damaged badly. So I had like my leg was broken – was disappeared, so I had no leg, and they asked me not to speak any English. So they want to meet only talk to people in French because they wanted the first responders to understand that not everybody is an American English speaker and could communicate, right. So, they would come up to me, and I’m like, “I can’t find my leg and I can’t find my husband” in French. And they’re like, “Okay.” I couldn’t tell them anything else. I couldn’t explain. I was trying to be, you know, dramatic enough.
But I know having watched that, have watched how they interact, what happened, and I’m just going to tell you, you’re going to want some words in whatever language your plane falls down, because they were like, yeah, we’re going to go speak to the English speaker and see, you know, because it was easier, obviously, but I learned a lot. I learned that when in another… we did a shooting scenario for the local police. So, they said that I had been shot and I was to be somewhat conscious, somewhat fighting them. They put me on a – it was like a piece of cloth with handles because we were going up and down the stairs. So these people were carrying me and I’m thinking, holy moly, I’m going on a diet tomorrow, because you know, I could just see the strain on their faces as we’re going down these three flights of stairs. Here’s the thing I have long hair. And they did not scoop my hair up. It fell over the back of the cloth. So every few steps the guy would step on my hair and it would pull as the guy below is pulling down and he would keep pulling until he lifted up to his foot.
So, you know, if you want a strange little detail in your writing, it’s like she had long hair, great. Let it drape over the stretcher and let the guy step on it, unbeknownst to him because this is a catastrophe and they’re just trying clean that up. So, you know how they got me down the stairs was kind of awful. They would like kind of burrito me and then lift me, and they would kind of scoot me in like a weird angle. So I was going down the stairs and I wasn’t bopping my head, which is what would happen if they just kind of went straight down. So again, just little details like that. If you have a shoot scene and you’re not someone who uses a gun; go to the gun shop and say, this is what my characters like, what would you suggest for my character? Let me hold it. Can you show me how to load it? Can you show me how to position my hands? Can you show me what it’s like? You can go and hire someone to take you through a brief lesson.
Even if you don’t want to, you could just watch them, right? You don’t have to touch it. Or if you have a fight scene, you can go to a martial arts studio and tell them what you’re doing. And could you have a couple of you know, a white belt who knows nothing about fighting? Could you fight this black belt who knows everything about fighting and I can just really slowly or would you… if I bought you a pizza, would you help me stage a fight? Can I videotape it so I can go home and try to work it out? I’m a second degree black belt, and I will still stage fights with my children who were also black belt or my husband. I’ll have my husband do things I’m like, you know, “Throw me up against the wall, honey.” And he’s like, “Are you sure?” I have to see what happens.
Alessandra: Like, if you can capture as many of those for social media and other things, because readers find that really interesting, and that can be a great tease of what is to come. I’m from Florida, guns are everywhere, you know? And the number one thing that I see is, especially female characters who are in oftentimes psychological thrillers; they’ve never handled a gun, they’ve never been around a gun, and the author has given them this humongous gun that would take their hand off if they tried to shoot it. They would have their entire body ripped apart by the recoil on this thing.
Fiona: If I had guns I won’t shoot because I’m not going to shoot an eagle. I’m not going to shoot, you know, something that’s going to put my shoulder out, I’m going to pick something that’s going to fit get my little hand.
Alessandra: It needs to be believable. And especially if you’re writing action, a lot of those readers really know their stuff, but we can move into that too. So you’ve got the research side, but then is it important to have someone read your book that’s familiar with the scenario that you’re describing?
Fiona: So, very quickly, when I’m facing something brand new is sometimes like I won’t have a clue. I won’t have a connection, so I’ll put out on Facebook, “Hey, does anybody know an army helicopter pilot?” Or do you have someone who might know someone who knows an army helicopter pilot who might be willing to chat with me and make sure? I’ll get I’ll get someone and I’ll tell them, you know, I really appreciate this, if you would like me to mention you in my acknowledgements, I’ll be happy to. Always ask before you put someone’s name in a book. And I always put, at the end of my books, I spoke to professionals. The professionals had it right. Sometimes as an author, I can’t write it right, I have to take some liberties because otherwise, I couldn’t get from point A to point B. So, you know, sometimes I will finagle it.
So, I will contact them and I will maybe do a little interview with them half hour, 45 minutes, where I asked him, like, I don’t know what I’m doing, so here’s just the kinds of things I’m thinking about, can you give me some information? I’ve actually had people go out before, I’m like, “Here’s the scene.” And I read the scene, I’m like, ‘What would you say there?” And I just write down what they would say. And I was like, okay, now we’re going to keep going. And what would you say here? And I just fix my dialogue by what they say. And then they might say, “Oh, but you didn’t say, ‘Well, the cop would say while I passed by the car, I put my thumbprint on the light’.” Because it’s here, the police officer will tap their thumb on your back light as they go up to talk to you so that if they shoot you and drive away, they can prove that that cop had contact with that car.
Alessandra: Oh really? That’s interesting.
Fiona: Those tiny little details are always so much fun to put in. So I call and I make I talk to them, and then what I’ll do is I’ll say, “Okay, what can I figure out to do to do something hands-on? Can I go to the climbing course and do a zip tie zip line? Or can I go to the medical helipad place and look inside and sit in the seat, put on the safety belt, see how that clasps, you know, would you put me onto your gurney?” One they will not let me do, I went to the fire station and asked them if I could slide down there pole and they said no. They said no, I mean, they did let me do all kinds of really strange things, and they loved that I was there, entertaining them with my stupid questions. They thought that was awesome, and I brought them brownies.
So anyway, I go and I try some things and then I write my scene as best I can, based on what tactile things I was able to come up with without doing it myself. So let’s take, for example, the jumping out of the plane. I talked to my friend who has a plane; he does that for a living. He escorts people out of the plane in a parachute and lands them safely. I talked to him, then I went to the air tunnel, and then I wrote the scene. And then I read the scene to him because he doesn’t like to read. So I read it to him, and he and his friends were all sitting there drinking their beer and listening to me. And they’re like, “No, no, you got to tell them this. No, no, you got to say that.” And then they add these really cool details where they’ll tell you a story and I’ll say, can I use your story? And they’re like, sure, go use that. And then you have this fascinating thing that you would never come up with on your own that you’re telling your readers, and if they go look it up, it’s spot on, and then you have credibility, and that’s a really big thing.
Quick story about a cat. When I first started writing, I had a 15 year old daughter and I could pay her $5 an hour to lay on the floor and listen to me read. And the reason why I did this was, she has like this brain that absorbs all this strange information, right. She says, you know, she just knows all this stuff. And I was reading along and I got to the part about the Calico cat. And she goes, “Mom, I bet you made it a boy cat.” And I was like, I did. And she goes, “You got to change the color because Calico cats are predominantly female cats. It’s very unusual to find a male Calico cat.” Well, I’m allergic to cats. I don’t know anything about cats. I just wanted to stick a cat in there. And she’s like, “Make him gray.” I was like, “Fine, gray cat.” I like Calico’s, but fine, gray cat. And I was telling this story to an audience of readers. And I said, and she told me, get Calico cats and everyone, like half the audience was all like, “Yes, yes, that’s right.”
And if I had written the Calico cat was a male, all my cat readers would have gone, “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” and I’ve lost their trust in the story. A whole three arc is blown because I said it was a Calico. This is silly little detail, but I can lose my readers trust in my story. And the characters journey if I do something blatantly wrong. And so, if I’m writing something medical, I have a doctor, my daughter’s a ER nurse. I have a doctor friend who I rely on heavily. Did I do this right? And she says, “Well, there will be a lot more blood, but sure.” I think for the scene that you wrote what really would happen, it would just ruin the scene. You can get away with it by saying this.
So, go back and take the time and interface with these experts because they can add so much. It makes for me as an author, if I just kept feeding you what’s in my brain, I would get very bored. And so, this keeps it so interesting to me. Yeah, I really love it. I was just going to say my blog which I think you’re going to put that in there, is really, I created simply to help authors make that an easier thing for you to do is you can kind of read one of those articles and then kind of figure out what you need and then go and try it. What were you going to ask?
Alessandra: I was going to say it says as important, so you’ve got the details and the technical details and how to, and that sort of thing. And then you also have the emotional side of things, and that can be really important too. I wrote a scene where the main character underwent a traumatic event like an assault of sorts, and I I’ve never been assaulted, you know, so I had her then out right away, you know, as if nothing. And thank fully for beta readers, beta readers are amazing, but my beta readers were like, there’s no way that she would allow someone to get so intimately close to her right after this happened.
So when it comes to the emotional and the psychology behind it, there’s also, yeah, when someone jumps out of a plane the first time, you have a lot of different characters that have experienced that in different ways, but some might be absolutely terrified, some might be gung-ho that’s one thing I always… We were chatting up a bartender once, and he goes over Niagara Falls in containers. He has like the world record for it. This random bartender at an oyster bar we were talking to. He was on the night show, and he was 21 for this. But he goes over and one of my first question was like, why? Like, what is it that you love about that and that causes you to do that thing, which costs tens of thousands of dollars. And you get arrested, they’re waiting for you at the bottom of Niagara Falls when you’re done, you know? And that was my first question. And it’s in understanding the motivation behind that, so I think that’s another thing.
Fiona: Motivation, exactly. I’m going to jump on that because, you know when you take drama classes, which if you’re a writer and you’ve never taken a drama class, go take a drama class because it teaches you how to position your character. There’s a whole another thing. But the whole point is, one of the things that they teach you is, what motivated your character to say that? Because you have to put that emotion in your eyes and in your gestures and your body language, so understanding the perfect… because what I would think was terrifying, that professional light coat, that’s what I love best. I can’t wait for that. And so you can hear them say that and see them light up and the enthusiasm in their muscles, and then you can try to describe that and translate what you’re seeing for your readers, so that they can experience what you did of going, “Oh, here, I felt kind of sorry for you because you have to do this horrible thing,” but you’re saying, “This is my life goal. I love to be in tight pipes reaching for strange wild animals; that’s my favorite. Pull a raccoon out and it’s stuck to my face and that’s so cool.” You know, you’re like, okay, you are a unique character, and now I can grasp you as a character in portray that in my book. It’s always so fun to meet them. I want to meet that bartender now who went over Niagara Falls.
Alessandra: If you’re ever in Destin, Acme Oster Bar, I can’t remember his name right now, but he’s a great guy.
Fiona: I’m just making a road trip just to talk to him. Road trips and traveling, I was going to add that real quick. But like for example, I just went to Norway because I was writing it into my book and talk to your CPA. But those trips that you’re taking so that you can see and touch and eat the food and hear the music and look at the culture; those are part of your business expense. So, you can do some traveling to do some learning. A matter of fact, the thing that made it into my book about that was, I was flying home and it was terrible, terrible, terrible weather. And I’m not a great flyer to begin with because I had some bad experiences, but this was one of the worst because every time we hit a really bad patch, we were being pulled up from our safety belts and slammed back down. The pilot would come on and he would say, “This is a good time to take out your pamphlet and see how to do an over ocean exfil, and God rest her soul. God bless you. God bless your soul.” He kept saying over and over throughout the whole thing, like we’re coming in for a landing. We made it, but please kick out your thing and look for what you’d need to do in an emergency landing, and God rest all of our souls.” I was like, “I’m going to die. I’m going to die.” So I was like, all right, I have a whole book now that’s going to be about that feeling of, ‘Okay, I’m going to die, so I’m going to turn on Friends on my TV because I just want something nostalgic as I leave this world.
Alessandra: What a horrible thing to do.
Fiona: Pretty awful. It’s pretty awful because it was going on for like nine hours. Like, it wasn’t just like we had some bad weather – it was nine hours. So travel, go see, and if you can’t, there are other opportunities too. You know, talk to people of that culture in your community, let someone else read it and make sure that you’ve got the culture. I just paid for a lady who normally beta reads for me, but this time because I was using her expertise, I paid her for her time to go through and make sure that my Australian main character didn’t leave his correct form of communicating and the things he would know and not know, and things he would experience and not experience. And so she went through and made sure that he was good in terms of Australia.
Alessandra: And what you just said also what the characters should know and not know, it can also be easy as authors for us to slip into – we’ve researched, we know that that’s a carabiner and it hooks to the J strap or something, I don’t know because I’m inventing things. But if your character is doing something for the first time, they’re not going to know all the terminology.
Fiona: They don’t know. And if they’ve never fought before, they’re going to break their foot. And if they never fought before, it’s going to be awful. And if they never fired a gun before, it’s going to be awful. And so, there’s one article that I didn’t put up there and maybe we could add it, it’s called, “If your character is a monkey, he’s going to act like a monkey.” And it was basically like, if your character has never done this before, you need to have way back chapters before layered in why they have that in their purse or, you know, that thing she pulled out of her purse to save the day, you need to give a good explanation of that way back. You need to explain that she was a Girl Scout leader and that’s how she knows to make a debris hut, even though she’s New York socialite. I don’t know. You’ve got to explain at early on and remind people that this is true, so it’s not like she suddenly has a surprising skill that we never do about that. Here’s the skill, this is how she built the skill; this is how she continues to practice the skill because skills disappear. I mean, you may vaguely know, like I knew at one point had changed my oil, but my husband does it now and I don’t. So yeah, that’s a really good article that speaks to exactly that is, you may know, but your character know?
Alessandra: If you’re watching this after the fact, we will summarize this blog post and put the video in the transcript, but also all of these links that Fiona’s mentioning. And thank you to the team – I can see also who are posting in the chat. But sadly we’re already out of time, so we’re going to wrap up today’s broadcast. Thank you so much, Fiona, for joining us. Thank you for everyone for chatting. If we didn’t get to your question, I’m sorry, but thank you guys. If you’re watching us on YouTube, please subscribe or listening on a podcast, please subscribe. We’d love to see you in two weeks at our next First Draft Friday. Fiona, if they’re interested in reading your books, where can they find out more about you?
Alessandra: And if you’re interested in trying out Marlowe, her new 2.0 report is fantastic and will let you know what bestseller novels your book is just like. So, check out authors.ai to dive into that. We’re going to sign off. Thanks, guys. Thanks, Fiona. We’ll see you all in two weeks.