Tag Archives: Believability

Buying Credit

No, the title is not referring to money or cash cards, but writing.  Stick with me.  If you’ve made yourself at home here and nosed through my cupboards, you’ll know that I do a LOT of research.  I love it.  It adds spice to my character’s meals, salty spray that blackens the redcoats of marines aboard a royal navy ship, tells me that heated arsenic smells like garlic, and makes the ship creak so loudly you’ll swear you’re going down to Davy Jones’ locker.  But there are times when, as an author, I’m required to blur the lines between fact and fiction.

There are certain things that people erroneously assume (such as Viking helmets) that I may need to adapt in order not to lose a reader’s trust (though trust me, I will never add horns!):  The sentence structures of bygone days were far more complex, with vestiges of Germanic linguistic influences – for my current manuscript (set in 18th century England and mostly aboard a Royal Navy ship of the line) I need to modernize the syntax without losing the High English flavour, and without compromising on the linguistic purity of my story’s time-setting; modern sensibilities (in social ladders, issues such as slavery, war, etc.); laxer standards (in, say, relationships or politics or social ranks), and so on.  A modern reader will most likely not appreciate the complex social mores of a time when men and women were never alone in a room – even when the man wanted to propose to the woman, and the parents wanted it to take place; and so, such things need to be adapted at times, to a certain extent, to reach a modern audience without alienating the audience that revels in bygone literature.

If I, as an author, want my reader (who is perhaps a stickler for all things historical) to give me the permission to bend a few social rules of the 18th century, I must first buy credit with them – prove to them that I’ve done my homework – so that they won’t get ripped out of the story in disbelief when I contrive to leave a man and a woman alone in the same room without a chaperone.  In my current manuscript, the husband and wife come from opposite ends of the social ladder, and the husband becomes a captain in the royal navy at the tender age of 20 or 21.  Both of these situations have many historical precedents; I know that from countless hours of research.  But most people who read historical novels might think, “But Viking helmets always have horns” – or something to that effect.  If written well, these disparities in understanding can be smoothed over, so that when I really DO break historical moulds, I am allowed to do so without offending the reader “in the know”.

1761-joshua-reynolds-lady-elizabeth-keppel

1761, Lady Elizabeth Keppel, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

This portrait illustrates an important point:  Many people, when thinking of the British rule of India, perceive it through postmodern lenses; we see it from the hindsight of Gandhi and the independence of the country from the imperialistic rule of British paramountcy.  But the other aspects were the children and wives of British soldiers, diplomats, and tradesmen, and the loneliness faced, the friendships struck with Indian men and women… these are important aspects to weave into a story, too, and thus require research.  Notice the pearls adorning the Indian woman below?  The researcher in me wants to know her story far more than the story of Lady Keppel (who died of a broken heart at the age of 29, just months after her husband had died of injuries from a riding accident).  Some readers may get jolted out of the world you create by the pearls, though it is historically accurate – so you’d still need to buy credit by setting up that aspect well.

These same credit-buying rules apply to any genre, even science fiction:  If you create a world set on another planet, that world will have laws – physics laws, indigenous social mores, etc. – and you as a writer must know what they are, and if or how they can be broken if need be.  You can’t claim that all liquid on the planet is frozen, and then have your character drinking from a fountain or stream, unless you explain how that’s possible.  If you do, you’ve taxed your believability credits and pulled the reader out of the world they’ve agreed to follow you into.  The manuscript that I’ll work on next (after the current one is published!) is science fiction; the air of the planet is toxic to humans, so I need to create a way for facial expressions, dialogue, etc. to come through even when the characters are outside in their suits.  I have done a lot of preliminary research into geology (that told me about heated arsenic, among other things); I also need to explain how a planet with multiple suns can have a stable enough orbit not to be drawn into one of the stars and burn up – i.e. I need to follow known physics laws, or explain how they are suspended for my planet.  I think you get the idea!

So if, as a writer, you want readers to believe what you write about a fictional character set in British India, you first need to buy credit with your readers by doing your historical homework and sculpting the landscape and characters in the rich tapestry they deserve.  If you are writing science fiction, establish your world and stick to your rules so that, if you need to bend them for a plot development, the readers will be willing to follow you on the adventure.  Whatever you do, keep writing!

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Regarding Netiquette

netiquetteThe internet is the collective human expression of Self, in all its facets:  You can find ANYTHING on here, literally.  I for one am very grateful; historical, scientific, archaeological, medical, and general research available online enables writers such as myself to stand on the shoulders of generations gone before and view the wider world from that enriched perspective.   You can also find anything for sale or free, an endless knowledge base, or entertainment, or simply a trivial waste of time, available to the entire wireless planet 24/7.  It’s a place to express opinions (informed or not), ideas (thought-through or not), philosophies (ditto), creations from songs to videos, crafts, discoveries and more.  Wonders to behold, as well as just plain wondering what the heck someone was thinking when they uploaded that.

But with the good come the bad.  I’ve gotten spam sidelined; it’s obviously spam when the text is something like, “I think you people just need to lighten up.  The writer of this article is just trying to…  (blah, blah, blah)”; there are no comments on that particular article yet, which tells me the spam’s originator is just out to stir up dissention if it happens to land on a live and already-active blog.  Why?  Are people so directionless in their lives that they have nothing better to do than stir up trouble?  Apparently.

The anonymity of the internet often brings out the worst side of people; they seem to think that, because they don’t know the person they are responding / reacting to and will probably never meet, that somehow gives them the license to be rude, belligerent, aggressive, offensive, and sloppy with everything from spelling to sentence structure.  Whatever happened to Netiquette?  Remember that quaint word (I was about to say old, but wait – internet has only been on the scene since 1993) that was an updated version of its predecessor, etiquette?  The definition (according to Wikipedia) of netiquette is, “Conduct while online that is appropriate and courteous to other Internet users.”  Ironically, the word is exactly as old as the internet itself; the need was quickly seen of reminding people to be courteous within such an anonymous setting.  In that most famous of books, the Bible, one guideline is found in Colossians 4:6:  “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”  That’s what’s missing in a lot of the communication online:  Graciousness.  Salt is mentioned because it is a preservative, and something that adds flavour.  Graciousness not only preserves your own dignity, but guards the dignity of the person being responded to, and those that will end up reading it.  The danger in unguarded remarks is that they will bite back; it’s all too easy to wear blinders, thinking everyone will agree with our viewpoint while forgetting that we live on a planet of diversity.  Rudeness isolates; graciousness invites.  It’s the old adage about honey drawing more bees than vinegar.

There seem to be a lot of people out there who have either never learned, or have forgotten the basic rules of Netiquette.  On one hand it’s easiest and most comfortable to say that it’s not our place to educate them; after all, they’re strangers, and to each his own, right?  I say wrong:  Why do I write, if not to communicate what’s important to me?  Why do I interact with others online if not to learn something new, or be encouraged by a great story or news item or event in the life of a friend on Facebook?  And if I interact, that means addressing issues, comfortable or not.  If someone is rude, the challenge is to point it out with graciousness, not reacting to fire with fire, but with water – putting out the brush fires that have potential to do damage… taking the wind out of their sails in a gentle way.  And try to use the sandwich technique:  A compliment first, the meat of the matter (graciously put, the correction, or rebuke, or however you want to label it), and then ending on another positive note.  If they continue a barrage of crudeness, there’s always that “delete” or “block” possibility.  Peer pressure is the most effective way of making changes, for good and bad.  Let’s become peers for good in this vast cyberworld, one step at a time.   And the next time you’re tempted to fight fire with fire, remember the salt of Grace.

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Thoughts on Writing from a Reader’s Perspective

Card - InsomniaFor me, reading a book is about escaping to a new world, diving into that world through the medium of the senses that are stimulated by well-chosen words, precision instruments that play a symphony of emotions, smells, sights, sounds, touches, tastes, balance and harmony.  I’ve never really appreciated books that are written with gratuitous scenes of violence or sex; sometimes it seems to me (as a reader) that writers throw in scenes willy-nilly to spice things up or to patch over the fact that they haven’t researched and developed their characters thoroughly, or because they run out of plot ideas and just spin their wheels.  Such scenes grate against my senses just as much as random punctuation or bad spelling does.  If such elements are not organic, logical, and a natural development of the plot, they do not belong there.  Period.  It’s an insult to my intelligence and a brazen demand on my “believability credits” that is frankly not the author’s to demand… those credits are something that I as a reader give gladly to a good writer, but a writer has to earn them, and has no right to demand that I suspend disbelief to dive into their story when they haven’t bothered to make it believable.  The writer’s job is to earn those credits through good writing, good writing, and good writing, i.e. plot, character development, grammar, syntax, orthography, and structure.

Don’t misunderstand me:  There are times when the darker scenes are organic; they are necessary to portray the character, or are a natural outflow of the character’s flaws or decision process, or lack of positive input earlier on in life.  Sexual scenes can be sexy without being vulgar, sensual without being slutty.  Sometimes I read books that deal with such issues, but more as a writer than a reader, to see how they are structured.  I read part of a book recently (I gave up quite early, which not a good sign for the writer) where the author had seemingly tried to cram as many vulgar terms as they could into one chapter, or one page, or one dialogue.  It got so ridiculous that I started reading as an editor, slicing out entire passages to improve the script.  As far as I’m concerned, there’s not really a point in publishing something that will likely offend half your demographic sector away from buying a second book.

Give me something to read that’s intelligent, entertaining, witty, smart, deep, and that I can come away from the experience wanting more – not just another book with those characters, but that I come away having learned something about myself or the world around me, having been positively changed, encouraged, enlightened or satisfied.

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