Fiction IS Real Life

by Debra Borys

Sometimes real life creeps into fiction even when the writer isn’t expecting it.  Our opinions and experiences and biases show in ways we may not recognize until years later, when we look back on our work.

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.

I’m 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 I’m 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 kid’s struggle to survive the stigma and trauma of homelessness without losing their humanity.

I could have written an entire literary novel from Chris’s 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 wouldn’t 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, “This is a mystery story.  I thought you were writing about homeless kids.”  

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 doesn’t 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 because her mother kicked her out, seeing her as a rival for the mother’s boyfriend.  Stories similar to Lexie’s are common when you talk to kids on the street.  It also shows that often these kids don’t feel they have any other option but to stay on the streets.  Lexie doesn’t feel she can go home, and tells Jo that having an aunt in Rockford feels as far away as Africa—impossible to get to in her mind.

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 place—Chris goes to take a drink of rum but stops because he knows the Night Moves doesn’t approve of drinking near the van.

Setting and the way it’s 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 club-hopping.

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 Chris’s planning some way to get into the funeral home where Lexie disappeared, they stop thinking that this person they’re rooting for is homeless.  They should just see him as a brave kid with a big heart.

If I’ve 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 Libre 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 magazines.  

Painted Black 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.
More information can be found on and

Debra BorysComment