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.
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!