Thursday, October 20, 2011

Keeping It Real By J.S. Wayne

One of the biggest challenges to a writer is authenticity. Writing a story set in modern times or our own hometown should be cake: we live there. But when you want to write about a different plane of existence or another time, you have to be able to put yourself in the moment.

Some people do this by performing exhaustive research. 

The upside: They can tell you every fact, figure, and statistic you'd ever want to know about ______. They've made it their business to know everything relevant there is to know about their topics of interest, and are determined to keep their stories accurate and true-to-life.
The downside: Hard-core researchers can get so tied up in keeping the story factually accurate that they forget to put in the nuances of character and setting that separate a good story from a great one. We've all read at least one: that novel that was technically solid and factually flawless, but read more like a history book with dialogue than the escape from reality it's supposed to be.

Some people do this by putting themselves into the scene.

The upside: These are the people who are most likely to be able to put you fully into a scene and help you suspend disbelief. They have a great imagination and a sense for the immediacy of any scene they happen to be writing.
The downside: These authors tend to get extremely wordy. Stephen King and Anne Rice, I'm looking at you. Thirteen pages on the pleats in a pair of corduroy pants or a page and a half about the exact color of Spanish moss. Really?!

Some people blend the two.

The upside: A solid factual command of the subject matter. The timeframe, vocabulary, dress and cultural mores are all faithfully rendered, but you also get the feeling of being there.
The downside: Creative license and anachronism run rife in these works. The clothing may be meticulously and accurately described, but that hauberk might actually have been plate mail at the time in question. Similarly, the weapons and language may be precisely rendered, but the singlet the main character's wearing probably should have been a jerkin.

Some people say "The hell with it" and just write whatever sounds good.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this. Particularly in the fantasy and sci-fi realms, readers tend to be willing to forgive a lot that would never fly in a contemporary or historical context without a lot of extraneous explanation about whys and wherefores. So anachronistic language or behaviors tend to be less noticeable in these stories, especially when the author intends them to be anachronistic in nature (ie, a fantasy spoof a la Monte Python). The downside is that if it's not done right, the result can be completely unreadable.

With "Ancient Magic," my novella releasing on Monday, I combined elements of all these. I covered a great deal of factual ground to lay the groundwork and set the proper historical context. At the same time, I had to imagine the feel of a crude blacksmith's hammer or a beaked battle-axe, the smell of mutton roasting over a spit, or the kinds of perfumes that might have been worn in a quasi-medieval setting by ladies. And, perhaps most important of all, I had to be able to channel an air of suspicion and mistrust, where every word and gesture has layers of meanings and even an innocent glance can appear sinister.

Keeping it real is important, but so is telling a good story. So my question today is, Which is more important to you as a reader? Factual accuracy, or a story that draws you in to the point you don't notice if some of the dialogue or the weapons seem out of place?

To celebrate the impending release of "Ancient Magic," I made a trailer for your viewing pleasure!

In the meantime, I'm over at today. I'll be guesting at Black Velvet Seductions on Tuesday, talking about putting the visceral elements of a story together. And I'll be there again a week from Saturday, sharing one of my favorite recipes! I hope you'll come by and say hi. In the meantime, happy reading!

Until next time,


J.S. Wayne


kbcutter said...

Well done, JS. It takes a deft hand to weave all the elements to make a engrossing tale.

Which you do quite well my friend!

Margie Church said...

I've said a million times that I'm research-phobic. It takes me forever to find information that proves I won't write an obvious mistake (an actual highway mentioned doesn't even go through that city). My hard and fast rule for my books is this: if it doesn't add to the plot, then it doesn't belong. Diatribes on dinner scenes drive me crazy (that's what the cooking channel is for). In my mind, I need to just convince the reader that what I'm saying is plausible. Give them enough detail so they "get it" not be able to wander the room blindfolded or teach a class on the subject. This is where I think an author has literary license. Just don't ignore basic facts because people will call you lazy.

Good luck with Ancient Magic, Js. I absolutely love the cover, BTW.

Sarah Ballance said...

Great post! You always make me laugh. :c) To answer your question, as a reader I won't stop and research. Therefore as long as the obvious is factual, I won't go digging on the finer details -- I'll just enjoy the story. That said, there are some elements I've seen writers chalk up to "it's just a story" that drive me NUTS. Do not drive a freaking Hummer through the 15th century and expect me to stay in the story. (That was a ridiculous example because I don't want anyone to think I'm talking about them, lol.)

As an author, I try to keep everything I write factual. That said, I try to not get too specific in areas of which I have no firsthand experience because I think it would be pretty easy to put my careful research to ignorant, improper use. (I've met me. It could happen!)

Congrats on the release! I hope it's another best seller for you. :c)

J.S. Wayne said...

@ KB: Why, thank you, suh! I DO try :)

@ Margie: I spent three solid weeks researching when I wrote "Wail." And I was still having to check facts right up to the moment I wrote "The End...?" I had to learn everything there was to know about mid-16th century Ireland, and try to learn a few words of Gaelic into the bargain! Generally, I don't put that level of research in, simply because my stories don't demand it. As a rule of thumb, I don't dip into the historical well too often. (This policy has gotten me in trouble once or twice, as in the location of the ACTUAL Apollo Theater in Harlem when I wrote Angels Cry. On that one, I plead artistic license and hope that native New Yorkers won't dismiss me as a complete moron!)
Thank you! I hope "Ancient Magic" draws in more readers :-D

@ Sarah: Well, how about a Sherman tank in front of Independence Hall ca. 1777? No? Well, there's one plot bunny shot. ;)
Gee, I have NO idea what you're talking about regarding improper use of research. I'm almost certain that if I run back through some of my early work, I gooned up something somewhere. (Theseus was actually the Minotaur's son, or something equally WTF-worthy.)
Thanks for commenting! Don't forget to grab a biscuit on the way out! ;-D

Anonymous said...

LOL! No worries, JS. Wasn't talking about anyone in the room. *grin*