Friday, March 12, 2010

Authenticity in Fiction

Last weekend was my RWA chapter’s monthly meeting. The husband of one of our members gave a presentation on handguns. One of the things he mentioned more than once was giving any character you have using a gun credibility. For those of us who write suspense or other fiction where a character may handle a weapon, some of what he shared with us was eye opening and proof that movies and TV rarely get it “right”. Enough people own or handle handguns that they are going to know when you have your character not doing things correctly.

Not all of our readers are going to know the ins and outs of different subjects we put in our writing from setting to time period to occupation. But there will be those who do. You can recognize when a writer has just researched about a place. Those writers that spend time in a place infuse the setting as another character. Not only does that add more flavor to the story, but those who are intimately familiar with a place will know when an author has done their homework and when they’ve just googled.

As a historical writer, I have the tough but fun job of making sure that every detail from clothing to kitchen utensils to slang is historically accurate for the time and place. Part of my job is taking the reader into that time period and accuracy counts. Maybe not every one is going to know what underclothes the hero is going to be removing from the heroine during a love scene set in the fall in Montana Territory during the year 1870, but the person who does who sees that it’s wrong is more than likely going to toss my book across the room and never read me again. Worse, she might tell her friends that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Even if you aren’t someone who knows a lot about the subject at the heart of the story or the character’s occupation, not being authentic can pull a reader out of the story all the same. My best example of this is a short story I read a couple of years ago. It was a historical set in Argentina before 1900. That alone caught my attention. The heroine was a woman who was on the run from someone who thought she stole something. The hero was helping her. During an amazingly written action scene they are running through the streets of a city, ducking in and out of alleys and stores. Then they come to a bar that the hero frequents. The heroine notices a man standing guard outside the bar and in her thought bubble refers to him as the bouncer.

And I was out.

Now I’m not up on my origin of words but I had a hunch that “bouncer” wasn’t the occupation we think of today in Argentina before the turn of the 20th century. It just threw me right out of the story.

As writers we have to not only tell an entertaining and compelling story, but we also have to make sure we get things right.

I’d like to know if you’ve ever “caught” an author not having done their homework or how you, as a writer, make sure you make your work authentic.


Anonymous said...

I don't remember any time I caught out a published author when it comes to historical accuracy (although I'm terrible at history, so people can get away with just about anything around me), but a deal-breaker for me is completely unrealistic depictions of pregnancy, like having someone start to 'show' when she's two weeks along. I've never actually been pregnant, so if I can figure out that something is ridiculous, the author is in big trouble. :)

I've actually done a lot of internet research into pregnancy for my current book (which is fun because all of the websites on pregnancy are designed for people who are actually expecting a baby, so I feel like I'm sneaking in). There's a lot of good material out there and I think I've been pretty meticulous about my timeline, but I still don't plan to let my manuscript get into an agent or editor's hand without having someone who has actually been pregnant read it. I sure hope lots of people who have had children want to buy my books someday and I wouldn't want them to experience that jolt of wrongness.

I guess the advantage to writing historical fiction would be that fewer people will know if you screw up, but the disadvantage is that you can't actually get someone from 1870 to check your work...

Sheila said...

... although if anyone knows someone from 1870, I'd sure as heck let them have a stab at my current work-in-progress...

I'm a historical foodie, so I'll often get pitched out of a story when someone has Vikings eating potatoes, for example.

Keith said...

A trickier, higher level problem is getting it right, but the reader doesn't believe it, or at least stops to think about it. If the reader stops to wonder if the story got it right, they aren't in the story any more!
For example, if the character is described as wearing polka-dot colored robes in 12th century Muslim north Africa, many readers might stop and say "oh really?" Even though this *is* documentable to the time and place (and therefore "right"), you probably don't want your readers to stop and question it. What is described, and how it is described, may be as important as being right.