What's Your Genre? Week: Sarah Ockler on Contemp!

Today, we have Sarah Ockler talking about reading Contemporary Realistic Fiction!


How do I love contemporary realistic fiction? Let me count the ways!


For me, as both a writer and a reader, contemporary fiction is very much about characters. Whatever the primary issue or plot in the book -- death, first love, teen pregnancy, addiction, best friendships, faith, divorce, sibling rivalry, crime, self esteem, and countless others -- it's not usually a broad commentary on how that issue affects the world, but an in-depth look at how a particular character experiences it. When I develop characters, my goal is to create someone that readers feel they know, or could know, in real life. Someone authentic and recognizable, someone in whom readers can see themselves or their own friends and family. I spend so much time with the characters that by the end of a book project, if I don't feel like they really *are* real people with real stories to tell, I haven't succeeded.


Another thing I love about writing contemporary fiction is that because the basic setting (somewhere on planet earth, present day) is already familiar, I don't have to spend a lot of time orienting readers to a strange new world with magical rules, mystifying history, or other special circumstances. Instead, I can focus on bringing the characters and their relationships to life, showing the setting primarily in terms of how the characters interact with and respond to it. I can also build fictional places based on real towns and cities, drawing from memory or even maps and pictures that already exist (thank you, Google!). The drawback in this approach is that if a setting is supposed to be a real place, say New York City or Disneyworld, then writers open ourselves up to lots of criticism if we don't get the details exactly right. I try to work around this by loosely disguising real places with fictional names and similar features, leaving myself some creative wiggle room. Again, my primary goal in creating a contemporary story is to let the characters shine through the backdrop of a realistic, believable setting.

Research & Authenticity

My research for contemp stories is generally limited to very specific elements and doesn't require a lot of time, allowing me to focus more on the storytelling itself. For example, in Twenty Boy Summer, I only needed to research the geography of Northern California and the location of certain sights in San Francisco. In Fixing Delilah, I researched a bit about Vermont geography, maple syrup production, and seasonal flowers, all of which contributed more to the background of the story than to the plot and characters. In my current project, the main character is an ice skater, so I researched technical ice skating, terminology, equipment, and the lifestyles of teen competitive skaters. In each book, I probably could've written the stories without doing such research, but for me, research -- however limited -- is a key component in creating authentic, believable tales. When someone picks up one of my books, I want that person to become immersed in the story, not distracted by little factual errors or flaws that yank her away from the characters and their struggles.

Memories & Shared Experiences

Because I write YA stories, I rely on memory a lot. I close my eyes and revisit things that happened in my own teen years, whether it's a specific event like graduation or summer break, or just the vast sea of emotions and feelings that come with things like best friendships and fights, first love and broken hearts, family dynamics, peer and parental pressure, sexuality, choices... so many amazing and frightening experiences! There were wonderful times as well as downright painful ones, but through contemporary stories and characters, writers and readers share those experiences together. Like we've said over at The Contemps, contemporary fiction lets us all know that we're not alone in this very real world. Contemporary, realistic stories connect people on a very human level, and that's something I've always loved about the power of books.

Thanks for hosting me today, Harmony! I hope everyone will check out more contemporary stories and join the ongoing discussion and celebration at The Contemps!


- Sarah Ockler, author of Fixing Delilah and Twenty Boy Summer and member of The Contemps, a group of YA authors putting realistic fiction in the spotlight.


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