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 http://tabithablake.blogspot.com 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,