Before I get into my rant du jour, I’d like to remind you that my second book, Merlin’s Weft, is available for pre-order at a dollar off until Friday, November 18, 2016.
What, Me Research?
Have you heard this comment before?
“Oh, it must be easy to write fiction. You get to just make stuff up.”
Those who say this really don’t know how much thought and work goes into “making stuff up.” Unfortunately, I’ve also heard that assertion from a few people who are trying to write their first book. After reading their work, I realize they have no clue about what it takes to tell a believable story.
In one case of a manuscript I saw, a character living in 1991 walked into a storefront parcel outlet to ship biological material across the Atlantic, which the corner shop happily packed in dry ice they kept in the back for just that purpose.
International shipping from a neighborhood storefront is common now, but not so much in 1991. I didn’t know whether the town of the story had such businesses, but what I found bothersome was that the concern hadn’t occurred to the author. And the idea that, even today, I could find a Fedex or UPS or DHL representative that kept dry ice in their back room astounded me. Not to mention questions over international protocols regarding the shipment of biomaterials, which I make no claim to knowing about, but then, neither did that author.
The author shrugged. “It’s fiction. I can make up anything I want.”
No, you can’t.
Readers are willing to suspend their disbelief about a wide variety of things. They accept the existence of fantastical beasts, superhuman capabilities, faster-than-light-speed travel, and delicious Brussels sprouts. OK, maybe not that last.
However, the author has to build a world in which those things make sense. That’s hard work. Are feathered sentient beings present? What are their grooming habits? Are they otherwise birdlike, or something else entirely? How did they evolve? Or … perhaps they were created, and if so, why? Where are they in the social and political hierarchy? Are they genetically predator or prey? If they are a space traveling race, how do they keep from shedding feathers that might gunk up the Krapowski drive that powers their ship, regenerates their oxygen, and buffs their toenails.
Were you yanked from my narrative by that last bit because I just made up a pile of crap out of context?
When I’m writing, I almost always have a window open to the Web. It’s great for checking facts, so long as you’re careful with your source. For example, when did the word swashbuckler appear? A number of sources indicate its origination in the sixteenth century—Merriam-Webster places its first known use in 1560. It’s a combination of two terms: swash, an imitative word meaning to make a noise like a sword beating on a shield, plus buckler, a small round shield. I had to look this up, because I wanted to give an early seventeenth century character a nickname of Swash. It would have been embarrassing to discover the word originated in the late nineteenth century, which is when the verb swashbuckle appeared. Not only did I confirm that I could use the name, but I had an origin for the word to work into the story.
For larger issues, reference books become necessary. I have about ten feet of bookshelf space of works relating to Arthurian times or sixth century Europe. I had a question about the use of carriages in France in 1625, so I bought a couple of books about the history of wagons.
May we waltz?
While most readers won’t have a clue about the number of carriages available for hire in Paris in 1625, its better to try to for historical verisimilitude rather than not. I read a book a few days ago that talked about a woman dancing a waltz at her wedding in the late 1620s. That throwaway detail completely pulled me out of the story. I didn’t know when the waltz was developed (Wikipedia: probably more than a hundred years later), but I knew it wasn’t that early.
Of course, occasionally facts or history have to be … bent … to conform to the story an author wants to tell. The degree to which knowledgeable readers let an author get away with it depends on how well the story is told—how well the world is built—and how far reality is distorted. I’ve knowingly departed from the world as it is for various reasons related to storytelling, but I don’t do it because I don’t care about the truth. Nor do I claim that I never inadvertently make a factual error. My own biases keep me from seeing some anachronisms. I just hope I keep them to a minimum, and keep the reader in the story.
Boners you’ve seen
Have you seen a huge boner in something you’ve read? Please don’t trash authors by name or books by title, but I’d like to hear what you’ve read that brought you out of a story because of anachronism or factual error.
Merlin’s Weft will be released Friday, November 18. The eBook is available for pre-order on Amazon.com for a 25% discount until the release.
Merlin’s Knot is available on Amazon.com.
Go to my Web site to obtain a copy of the prequel, Merlin’s Shuttle. He doesn’t battle evil in that story, but he does face off against Mother Nature.