One of many things I have gleaned from successful writers is to make sure my fictional stories are believable. Experienced sci-fi and fantasy writers are adept at weaving a made-up world and filling it with characters and situations that a reader can believe and invest in. Legal thrillers play out according to real laws with believable scenarios. Historical fiction writers make sure their story is based on accurate period details. The reader understands that it’s fiction, but everything still needs to be relatable and plausible. We want them to suspend their disbelief and invest themselves in the story.
It’s just as difficult to make a story set in real life believable, even when it’s completely fabricated. You’re writing mostly about familiar things that the reader might know something about. We want our possibly skeptical reader to be able to say, “Okay, that could happen.” And this not only includes believable characters and situations. We also want to strive for realism in the details.
I’ve been working for months on a picture book story that at one point, involved growing a banana tree from a seed. I thought it was brilliant (you’d have to read the story and I can’t reveal that yet). Then I realized I needed to make sure that one COULD grow a banana tree from a seed. Nearly all plants grow from seeds, but it’s not always that easy to get them to sprout and flourish, especially in a climate not really right for a tropical tree.
So, I researched what kind of banana tree would grow from seed in western Oregon, which is Zone 8, and found Chini Champa – Darjeeling, aka Helen’s Hybrid. It’s a “cross between two varieties of high altitude bananas from the foothills of the Himalayas in the Sikkim region of India. The report is that Helen’s Hybrid could possibly be the closest thing to a cold-tolerant, edible banana that has been developed. The fruit is claimed to be sweet.” Helen’s Hybrid, whoever Helen is, would be perfect for my story.
But when the eight seeds arrived in a tiny packet, the instructions explained that they could take three to six months to germinate, maybe longer! Well that news pretty much blew a giant hole in my story. I needed something that sprouted in a few weeks.
I planted the seeds anyway, in two glass terrarium style pots. I would hang them in a window where they would get plenty of morning sun and be out of reach of the two cats, who love to nose into and destroy anything that I hold precious.
Seeds planted, I hung up the first terrarium, using the twine supplied. When I turned my back, there was a loud crash and tinkling of thin glass and I had a mess to clean up. The twine wasn’t adequate for the job (note to self: inspect twine before trusting). There were too many glass shards to try to locate and pick out the seeds from the soil, so I just tossed all of it in the trash. I didn’t hang the second terrarium. I just set it on a table and begged the cats to leave it alone. I watered it once a week. The cats ignored it and I didn’t get around to hanging it up.
Surprise surprise, three weeks after planting, a sprout appeared! And it’s growing. It doesn’t appear to grow fast enough to work in the story, but we’ll see. Which is okay, because during the continuing revision process, I changed the plant to a watermelon. I already knew how fast they grow, and how wonderful they smell, which is also important to the story. Here’s my watermelon plant from this year’s garden. It’s a mini-watermelon that doesn’t need the warm nights and long growing season that the watermelons from more southern climates require.
It’s important to me to research extensively and even try out things that happen in my story. I don’t want a reader to be immersed in my book and then stop and say, “No way!” I’ve put books down and moved on for that reason and don’t blame a young reader for doing the same thing. So I try to keep it real.