Nancy Rue

Nancy Rue is the author of over 100 books for ‘tween, teen, and adult women, and travels the country speaking and teaching at schools, churches, home school groups, and for groups of ‘tween girls and their moms. She lives in Lebanon, Tennessee with her husband, Jim. Their daughter, Marijean, and son-in-law, Brian, live in nearby Nashville. The Rues’ two Lab puppies share (and eat) Jim and Nancy’s home. Visit her website at:

Getting Some of It on You:
Breathe Life into Fiction

Ulysses gave instructions for starting our motorcycles, using the terms we learned the night before for all the switches and doohickeys. None of them looked like they did on the diagram in the workbook. By the time I actually got mine started, I was ready to throw up. All the other bikes were growling and snarling. I rolled the throttle like Ulysses told me to, and the sound actually did bring some reflux up my throat. It was like being on the back of a bear. A starving bear—a just-out-of-hibernation bear.

Those words are from my novel The Reluctant Prophet (David C Cook, 2010). Before that, they were part of my experience as I sat on the back of a Buell the first hour of Harley Davidson’s Rider’s Edge class. My instructor’s name wasn’t Ulysses, but everything else about that paragraph was lifted straight from that humiliating day. Okay, hour. I counseled myself out after I fell twice in a sixty-minute period. I didn’t need to be told that I was a danger to myself and others.

But they let me stay for the rest of the day to observe and take notes. (May I just go on record and say that I scored 100 percent on the written exam? I had to save face somehow.) What I learned filled the pages of Allison Chamberlain’s story with real stuff. The expressions Harley people use, like “If it’s only big enough to eat in one sitting, don’t serve to miss it.” The smells: leather, exhaust fumes, testosterone—seriously, it has an aroma all its own . . . no wonder I didn’t pass. Most of all, the possibilities. I could never have thought this up on my own:

“. . . you have to maintain momentum in order to remain upright. Slowing down is not always the answer.” I had a feeling she wasn’t just talking about riding a motorcycle.

Okay, so yeah, I came out of that research experience with more bruises on my legs than I had plain skin, and an even more bruised ego. However, most of what I call “getting some of it on me,” hasn’t been quite that harrowing, and has definitely left fewer scars.

When the local fire department suited me up and let me experience a fire in the training tower for Healing Stones, I was scared spitless, but I was wearing full firefighter regalia, including a breathing apparatus, and I was surrounded by professionals. They only messed with me once, when they handed me the hose so I could get the feel of putting the fire out. Do you have any idea what kind of kick those things have?

My surfing instructor—for Boyfriends, Burritos, and an Ocean of Trouble—was adorable enough to make all the water I swallowed worthwhile. Besides, falling off a surfboard is a far cry from dumping a Harley.

I loved volunteering with recovering prostitutes/drug dealers, and although I can’t say I “loved” watching the debridement of a victim in a burn unit, I felt something close to the anxiety of a loved one that brought Healing Waters to life.

That is why I, and many authors like me, try to get some of it on us when we’re creating a story. That kind of research does several things to make a piece of fiction breathe.

First, in the outline stage, when the plot is struggling to give itself shape, firsthand research acts like a pair of hands, coaxing it along. After spending weeks in St. Augustine and volunteering at Thistle Farms (the project that inspired Sacrament House) and riding hundreds of miles on the back of my husband’s Harley, the outline for The Reluctant Prophet took on a life of its own. Even the virtual tour of Allison’s house that I found on a real estate Website didn’t tell me how her neighbors were going to complicate her life. I got that from standing in front of that house until said neighbors came out onto their porches to glare at me.

The act of immersing yourself in the fictive dream also heightens the imagery you’re able to use. I had seen literally thousands of photos of White Sands, New Mexico, but until I stood on one of her dunes at dawn and let the silence surround me, I didn’t know it the way it needed to be known for the readers of Healing Sands to be there as well. It’s the same reason I consume the food my characters eat. It was a tough job consuming sushi several times a week while I was writing Motorcycles, Sushi, and One Strange Book, but somebody had to do it. I think sweet tea for Healing Waters and sopapillas for Lucy Doesn’t Wear Pink also qualify as suffering for the Lord.

Most important—and here’s where it gets a little woo-woo for some people—when I’ve come up from my thirtieth spill from a surfboard or I’m frozen to the marrow from riding on a motorcycle in the middle of January, those are the times when God whispers the messages to me. I’m talking about the truths it seems to me God wants woven into the story. I didn’t think up the poignancy of a homeless man curled up with his dog beside a Dumpster. God nudged me with that as I drove down, at my peril, West King Street in St. Augustine. In fact I was given every spiritual piece of The Reluctant Prophet while I rode with a carriage tour guide and pumped her for the inside scoop; when I sat in a meditation circle with recovering women-from-the-streets and heard myself say that I had issues, too; even as I limped away from that fallen motorcycle with a case of road rash I could be proud of.

The bottom line is if your fiction doesn’t breathe, doesn’t have a pulse and a heartbeat and a smell all its own, it won’t live on in the reader’s mind and soul. Even if you aren’t inclined to hop onto a surfboard or a Harley, you can still give your stories life, as long as you follow what I see as the minimum requirements.

(1) As writers we have a responsibility to make fiction as realistic as possible (even in fantasy, where the world created is its own “real”). The surgeon who took me on a two-hour tour of the Vanderbilt Burn Center said he did that so I would “get it right” and not represent burn units as chambers of horror, which, up close and personal, they clearly are not. I have used that as my mantra ever since: Get it right.

(2) Get as close as YOU can to the real thing without undue risk or hindrance to anyone. Note that I didn’t continue with the motorcycle lessons once I started to fall apart. Nor did I get out of my car at midnight on West King Street in St. Augustine and start interviewing hookers. Don’t get too far out of your comfort zone or you’ll be too freaked out to remember anything anyway. Do consider the possibilities and perhaps go a step farther than you normally would.

(3) Approach experts with an attitude of respect. We aren’t obnoxious reporters, we’re artists. And if we show an appreciation for what the pros know, it is not only our books that will benefit. I have grown as a person by learning from a sculptor, a trial lawyer, an ER nurse, a physical therapist; from abused women and adults with ADD and ladies struggling with their weight; from a former Navy SEAL. Okay, so that one’s my husband—don’t overlook the possibilities right in your own home.

My most vital, get-some-of-it-on-you research is spiritual. I’m in the trenches with God daily, journaling, praying, begging, struggling, reading Scripture, struggling some more, until the answers become part of who I am. Then they become part of who my characters are. That’s sometimes the most dangerous research, but it is always the most fulfilling. And it beats a tumble from a Harley hands down.


Reluctant Prophet