Who is this man? Why is he standing there? What is he feeling? Where are his family and friends, and why aren't they with him? These are some of the simple questions that a book tells a story about, but...
How can an author write something that engages the reader into the world you create in your novel? Authenticity. Write what you know, and if you don't know it, learn as much as you can about it.
Webster defines authentic as:
1. worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact
2. conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features
3. made or done the same way as an original
4. not false or imitation
5. true to one's own personality, spirit, or character; sincere, with no pretention
In order to bring your reader into the world you are creating, whether it is an actual place or a fictional place, you have to know about that place. You have to be able to describe not only what it looks like to your reader, but what it feels like, how it smells, what sounds they can expect to hear. If you haven't been there, talk in detail to someone who has. If you are able, go to that place yourself.
In order to make your reader fall into your story and not want to leave, no matter what time era it takes place in (past, present, or future), you need to make them feel the time. If it's a historical fiction, do your research. Talk to someone who lived in that time if you can. If you can't, read as much as you can about it so you can accurately put your readers wherever your story takes place so they feel like they are actually there as they read.
There's also a piece of authenticity that includes pieces of yourself. In my opinion, it is the pieces of myself and the uniqueness of my relationships and experiences that also give shape to my novels. Though only those who know me extremely well would be able to pick apart the pieces of my characters that are a little like myself or someone I know, it's the genuine moments between characters that tend to draw readers in.
One of my favorite things to do is put myself in the time period I'm writing about. For my Civil War era novel, Shadow of the Rockies, I listened to songs that slaves used to sing while they worked. For my dystopian society novel, Defiant, I watched various programs and did research on what the world would look like if there was a catastrophic event and people no longer maintained cities so that I could begin to imagine the world of Defiant and bring my readers there with me. For my latest novel, Dandelions in the Wind, I've been listening to the top songs from the 1930's and 40's, as well as watching news reels of aerial battles and listening to recordings of a B-17 engine.
However, as I talk about the importance of researching places and times, I have to bring up something I feel is equally important. When I was teaching in Asia, before I arrived, I somehow expected it to be so different from where I was from. I had never traveled much before that summer of teaching. The thing that surprised me the most was despite the unique cultural differences between myself and the people I came to know, the people were the same. I saw similar family roles. I experienced the same high-energy/trouble-making boys in my class, as well as the same shy little girls. The moment that solidified this for me still stands out in my mind. I was eating dinner with a friend, and I witnessed two young boys racing shopping carts through a crowded walkway, mother chasing after and yelling at the boys. I couldn't help but smile, and I try to always remember this when I write.
No matter where or when you are writing, people are people. Though we may be from different places in the world, speak differently, and have different customs/traditions/beliefs, there is always humor, joy, fear, sadness, envy, greed, anger, gentleness, love...
In my opinion, to write well is to capture humanity as it is. Not as we wish it might be or think it may have been, but simply what it is.
This is authenticity, and this is what I strive for.