Reality vs. verisimilitude

In one of my writing groups recently, there was a discussion how fast and loose writers can play with reality before snapping a reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. We were talking specifically about local geography, and one writer said she disapproved of islands off the coast of Oregon because we don’t have those here. I read that and thought, “Uh oh…”, because guess where I just set my new Jenna Dales sexy contemporary series? Yeah, an island off the coast of Oregon!

Did I know Oregon doesn’t have any privately owned islands of significant size off its coast? Yes. Did I change my setting? No. And here is my criteria for kow-towing to reality:

1. Does it bother me if my version of reality is wrong? No? Carry on.

2. Do I think a significant number of my readers will be bothered? (Note: My readers might not be your readers.) No? Carry on.

3. Is the story better served by verisimilitude (or Stephen Colbert’s coined term “truthiness”) vs. reality? Yes? By all means, carry on!

I have changed stories when my preferred version of reality couldn’t be properly reconciled with real reality. For example, in my Steel Born series of supernatural beings, I wrote the first book with a rather major fudge on the chemical properties of steel and iron. But when I read through it again, I decided the blurring of reality was too much. Yes, I have werewolves and fairies and six-pack abs in my stories, but the unassailable facts of the Periodic Table of Elements must be maintained! So while point #3 was still a go, points #1 and #2 were hopelessly compromised. Not that I thought a whole lot of lady metallurgists were going to be reading my sexy books and storming my office in outrage, but I couldn’t let that twist stand.

Which brings us to the topic of this month’s Jane posts: research.

research spider web

All right, I’ll just confess now: I loathe research. You might have guessed that since I make up imaginary geography even when I’m not writing paranormal romances and I was willing to try changing atomic structure. But I feel my reasons for avoiding research are sound:

  • Any time put toward research is time I’m not writing, and it’s hard enough to find time to write without “wasting” it on learning about what I’m going to write about.
  • Research readily becomes a loose thread that you can pull on and find your story unraveling. Truth often is stranger than fiction, but sometimes that doesn’t play nicely with the story. (Curse you, iron impurities!)
  • Too often,  I see research become info dumps in a story. It’s hard not to show off all the cool stuff I’ve learned. Plus, if I “wasted” all that time learning it, by god, the readers are going to learn it too!

However, I’m not oblivious to the fact that good research can improve verisimilitude and make a story come alive, so I make some concessions, trying to find the balance.

1. No research until I need it.

Unless I really need something for a major plot point, I save my research until after the first draft. Then I know what I need and can go looking for it specifically, rather than adding a subplot about how to identify metal by the sparks it gives off when struck against a grinder. (Yeah, I almost went there.)

2. Research expeditions are timed.

When possible, I do research during the day job, heh heh. Daily words come first, last, and always. Dammit, Jim, I’m a writer, not a scientist! Research is done not for its own sake (although the newest findings on how the Great Red Spot storm on Jupiter has managed to survive 400 years is really fascinating AND I can ALMOST justify it in my current work-in-progress) but only in service to the story.

3. Remember, most stories are about people.

And mostly we already know what we need to know about people to tell a good story. So just write it already!

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About Jessa Slade

Jessa Slade is the author of the Marked Souls urban fantasy romance series (NAL Signet Eclipse), the Steel Born paranormal romance series (Harlequin Nocturne Cravings), and award-winning self-published science fiction romance with Hotter on the Edge. You can find her online at all the usual haunts.

Posted on May 22, 2014, in Auth: Jessa Slade and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Everything you just said totally resonates with me!

    I told my husband the first Superman movie really bothers me because the hero turns back time to save his love. Why did he bother rushing around saving all those kittens and people if all he had to do was fly around the earth for a few times to set back time? He could have a totally leisurely life and didn’t have to deal with all that stress of being responsible for people’s lives all the time. My husband’s answer: “You’re okay with the guy being from a different planet, knowing how to fly, wearing his underwear outside his spandex suit, but him turning back time bothers you?”

    My answer: “Yes.”

    I’m totally okay with suspending my belief about everything about a setting, characters’ abilities, plot twists, etc. as long as the writer delivers on the truth of the story, But when something happens in the book that feels forced or breaks the rules that were established in the beginning of the book, then I’m bothered and annoyed.

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    • If the explosions are big enough, you can usually distract me from plot holes. (Looking at you, Star Trek reboot!) They’re going to be rebooting the Terminator franchise too, or so I hear, and I hope they address this “go aaaaaaalllllll the way back” problem. Cuz yeah, the T in FTL stands for truth!

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  2. I actually do like research, but when it comes to my story I do it only when I need it. I don’t do a lot of advance research. However, many of my stories are generated from research or an article I read originally.

    Funny about your truthiness. My husband has complained when I write a scene that is too truthful. For example, in my first Sweetwater Canyon novel the cabin and location I described was pretty much the cabin and location where we lived. DH thought it was “cheating” to write what I know instead of making it up. Of course, I immediately pointed out lots of people (like Steven King) who write about locations where they live. It held no water for him. In his mind, a fiction writer should make stuff up all the time. 🙂

    A good reminder of what we do and how we make decisions is in your article and echoed by Neil Gaiman, who is no slouch of a writer himself. 🙂 He said: “The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like… So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”

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  3. Don’t worry about the lack of islands off the Oregon coast. Global warming, rising ocean, and time will change that. Think of yourself as being ahead of the curve. Japan recently “discovered” a new island off their coast 🙂 … of course, China might lay claim to it… rambling here… good post on research. Agree on the time limit!

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    • Right, think of all those poor Neanderthals with ocean-front property on Gwandonaland. Now they’ll have to ride their dinosaurs the long way around the glaciers. (See, this is what happens when you don’t do research!)

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