Fiction IS Real Life
by Debra Borys
Sometimes real life creeps into fiction even when the writer isnít
expecting it. Our opinions and experiences and biases show in ways
we may not recognize until years later, when we look back on our
We also weave reality into fantasy as a deliberate choice. My work
as a volunteer with homeless youth and adults completely changed the
way I view that guy on the corner with a paper cup and a sign. It
opened my eyes to the humanity of these societal outcasts and also,
more importantly, to the way so many people treat them as less than
human. I wanted to influence that view, to give everyone a chance
to see life though my eyes and the lives of the homeless.
Iím not good at soapbox rhetoric or political activism. I am a
writer, a fiction writer. So I chose to achieve my goal through my
Jo Sullivan novels. The series strives to entertain the reader with
a main suspense storyline while subtly and painlessly teaching the
real life message Iím trying to convey.
For my first book, Painted Black, I developed a juicy
suspense plot about a missing teen and a funeral home cranking out
special order freeze-dried corpses like they were take-out pizzas.
Then I made the teen a 15-year-old homeless prostitute who was a
composite character of kids I actually met on the streets of
Chicago. I added another homeless character and took the reader
inside his head. Through Chris, the readers experience a homeless
kidís struggle to survive the stigma and trauma of homelessness
without losing their humanity.
could have written an entire literary novel from Chrisís point of
view. The trick, however, would have been how to do that without
veering into soporific sentimentality. I also wanted to reach people
who wouldnít necessarily be drawn to a serious book geared toward
social change, and to influence people who might not already be
inclined to agree with my point of view.
Some readers will hear the message directly, such as one person who
shared with me that she had never before thought about what street
kids had to go through. Others are affected more subliminally.
Twice people have commented, ďThis is a mystery story. I thought
you were writing about homeless kids.Ē
Upon reflection, however, they realized they did indeed learn a lot
about those kids. In Chapter One, for instance, they learn how far
a street kid will go to survive, even engaging in activities he
doesnít really want to do. When they read about Chris telling his
girlfriend he will call her when he finds a job and a place to live,
they learn that those kids have the same dreams as any other kid.
In Chapter Two, the reader finds out that some kids turn to
prostitution and drug addiction to try to cope with the reality of
the life they live. The missing young girl Lexie is homeless
her mother kicked her out, seeing her as a rival for the motherís
boyfriend. Stories similar to Lexieís are common when you talk
to kids on the street. It also shows that often these kids
donít feel they have any other option but to stay on the streets.
Lexie doesnít feel she can go home, and tells Jo that having an aunt
in Rockford feels as far away as Africaóimpossible to get to in her
In Chapter Seven, you learn that there are resources available to
kids on the street and that these kids respect the rules the
organizations have in placeóChris goes to take a drink of rum but
stops because he knows the Night Moves doesnít approve of drinking
near the van.
Setting and the way itís described can also serve a slice of reality
to the reader. Not just in the geographical sense, like making sure
LaSalle and Clark Streets are shown as parallel rather than
perpendicular. Chicago is like another character in Painted Black.
An underworld character, showing a darker level of the city that
most people never get to experience. The city looks entirely
different to the homeless than it does to young suburbanites out
There are subtle ways the reader learns about what it is like to
live on the streets while they are caught up in the suspense
storyline. They wonder if Chris and Lexie will get caught
trying to steal formaldehyde, not realizing they are learning that
street kids form small families and support and defend each other.
They should be so wrapped up with Chrisís planning some way to get
into the funeral home where Lexie disappeared, they stop thinking
that this person theyíre rooting for is homeless. They should
just see him as a brave kid with a big heart.
If Iíve done my job right, by the end of the book, the next time
they see a homeless kid or adult, they might look a little
differently at that person. Not everyone can have the experience I
did firsthand. By sharing this reality, maybe change can
happen to others, even if only to a small degree.
Debra R. Borys is the author of the suspense novel
Painted Black, released by
New Libri Press in e-book and trade paperback. She is also a
freelance writer specializing in fiction ghostwriting and editing,
and has published several short stories in print and online
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is the first in a series starring Jo Sullivan. Borys calls upon her
eight years of volunteering in Chicago and Seattle to mingle the
reality of homelessness with fiction, exposing the darker side of
the human experience in ways that are both important and meaningful.
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