Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Authenticity: How Much Is Too Much?

Have you ever gotten bogged down in research? Or gotten stuck while inventing an entire language for a fictional race in your novel? Yeah, me either, but I do still wonder sometimes how truly accurate you have to be to sell you ideas to your reader.

Today I'm going to write about authenticity in written fiction, and how important it is to be accurate, without bogging your novel down in any way. When I read, I love to see the details, and know that the author has done their due diligence to make sure that they are correct. Sometimes this is less important than others.

For example when I just read Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men, he went into occasional detail about the caliber and functioning of certain types of guns and their ammunitions. Because of the type of story he was telling it felt important that he get those details right. Now I'm no gun nut, so he certainly could have fooled me, but I get the feeling that a man like Cormac with the success of the novels he writes, probably got it right.

If he hadn't gotten those details right, or had he gone too deeply into their nuances McCarthy could have ruined his novel. The thing about authentic details is that there is a fine line between too little and too much. Too much detail can ruin pacing, or even bog the entire plot down by worrying about things that don't really matter. It's all about balance.

In a novel like Beth Revis' Across The Universe, or Alex J. Cavanaugh's CassaStar, things work a little differently. Being Science-Fiction novels these books don't necessarily have to have details which are authentic to the real world, but the rules and technology they set forth must be consistent within the narrative.

If a Cosbolt is capable of certain physics in the beginning, it must be capable of the same maneuvers at the end. If the Solar Lamp aboard the Godspeed is great for hydroponic tomatoes but not so much for corn grown in actual soil, that can't suddenly change without a plausible explanation that allows the reader's suspension of disbelief to remain intact.

* * *

I'm still working through an unpredictable schedule here at work, but I hope to be able to put up some real world examples from my own writing tomorrow.

In the meantime how have you all been and where do you stand on authenticity?

47 comments:

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great post. I agree the details need to be accurate. To be honest, I've been researching for a new project and then maybe wasting a bit of time doing it because even looking at blank index cards to outline is freaking me out a bit. It's been a LONG time since I've seen a blank page. But I must attack it.

Hope work is getting less crazy. Mine isn't. Sigh.

Em-Musing said...

My world is so unbelievable right now, I'd believe anything.

Jessica Bell said...

I'm a big believer in authenticity. I strive to make my writing realistic, especially as it's all set in the real world. I can even get a bit too nitpicky. Such as: Girl has a bag with a cartoon cat on it that is NOT Hello Kitty. Do they exsit? Really, so what? The mother could have made it herself. See, that's where I catch myself getting a little over-enthusiastic ;o)

DL Hammons said...

Keeping it real is important to me. One of the reasons I love read Tom Clancy is because of his pention for authenticity. I need to have a certain measure of trust in the writer. :)

Ted Cross said...

I want absolute authenticity but without bogging things down by going overboard with details. Like you said, just give us what is needed for the story being told.

Candyland said...

It's a fine line. I'm in the process of researching and I'm not sure what's TOO much, ut I think even if you don't use all the info, it's good to know how your character works, for YOU.

salarsenッ said...

This is something I've thought about many times. I'm actually starting a new WIP and playing with the dystopian idea. My concern is how much freedom do I have within the magick/witchcraft realm? Where to I stop 'creating' and plug in actual research?

Yeah, I'm not all too sure. I do have to say: if something works. Use it.

Tracy said...

Great points. I think the real trick as a writer is to research enough (unless you're writing sci-fi in which that would be freaky) so that YOU are an expert of sorts, but only pass on what your reader needs to understand. Tricky line sometimes.

aspiring_x said...

i'm with you, a balance is important! but just because you research and know all about something, doesn't mean that information makes it into the novel! :) have a good one!

Jess said...

I'm with you too--authenticity with balance. You're never gonna please everyone. I heard a speech where the author let us know that, after her book was published, she received a letter from an angry fan who was upset that she slipped up on a little board figurine's name in the game Candyland. A tiny detail. You can't win them all, but you can try your best to get most of the details right/consistent.

Amparo Ortiz said...

LOVE what Jess said--authenticity with balance. World-building is probably the most stressful element in writing for me. At times, I research and research to stall the actual writing, and say it's just me getting more info so I won't mess things up *blushes*

Trying your hardest is always the answer :D

Old Kitty said...

Research is always good!! :-) Or at least basic research - or enough to be able to give you confidence to write. I think knowledge beforehand will make you write more confidently.

Take care
x

Laura Campbell said...

Can't wait to read some of your reading. I enjoyed the pieces you posted already. My 200 Proof 4-wk intensive course with Craig Clevenger started today. I'm excited. I'm positive I will find myself improved on the other side, and maybe a bit more macabre.

Authenticity...it's a must. Readers need to trust you or they will put your book down and never finish it. I just finished the first draft of my mystery novel. I will need to head to a police station to do research to incorporate proper details about crime scene investigation, interrogation and the milieu of the police station.

C. N. Nevets said...

The trick to authenticity is that you don't need to be accurate per se. You need to be accurate enough that the readers walk away feeling as if you were accurate.

Kelly said...

Oh, definitely your details need to be accurate. You may fool some people if they are not, but you may not be taken seriously later on if it is not accurate.
Even though I've played a million softball games, I'm still researching baseball right now for a picture book. I don't want to get America's Favorite Pasttime wrong!

storyqueen said...

I think it is a gifted author who can walk that fine line...but something we should all aspire to.

For me, I need to know a LOT of things about my subject, but that doesn't mean I should put them all in the story.

Shelley

Chris Phillips said...

I agree with C.N. The important thing is no one notice your inaccuracies. Because if they do then they get distracted from the story. If I write about character who likes baseball, and talk about how many points pujols scores in a game, every baseball fan in America who reads my book will notice I used the word points instead of runs and be unnecessarily distracted, even though a lot of people might not notice or care.

Carolyn Abiad said...

Research is very important and the hardest decisions are what to leave out, not what to put in. I think the key is in what you're describing. It must be important to the story somehow, or it's a tangent.

Pk Hrezo said...

I love the research aspect of writing a story. It's a chance to learn something and create faction. I wrote a political thriller a year ago that took a great deal of reserach on American history. It was a mystery story, so I had to be careful not to give too much info too soon... just enough to tease the reader.
My most recent story involved a romance with conflicting faiths and I had to research Islam. I've found that having trusted beta readers indicate areas where they feel like they're in a lecture, helps. Otherwise, it's very hard to tell as the writer, how much is too much.
So my best suggestion is to have crit partners who aren't afraid to be honest.

Paul Joseph said...

One of my biggest struggles in my current W.I.P. is that authenticity and following the guidelines of good writing are a real P.I.T.A. to mesh together. For example - a significant portion of the novel takes place in a mental health facility. I've researched and interviewed and researched more. The truth? That character is interacting with a zillion people - his psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, one-on-one aide, teacher (cause they still have to attend school in the clinic), roomate, group leader, nurse, escort, allied therapist, etc. That's what, realistically, his life would be like. BUT, can I REALLY have ALL these characters represented? Doubtful. It's confusing, and many of them perform the same role. I try to group characters by function; however, a part of me feels like I'm not portraying the situation accurately. It's tough.

Summer Ross said...

Authenticity is a struggle sometimes. Nonfiction, even in creative nonfiction, has to be able to realistically reach the reader. Just because someone remembers something s certain way does not make it truth. It still must have credibility and authenticity with the reader.

In fiction its really important with smaller details, and more important in historical fiction. I see a reason for it to be in almost every fiction piece, but balancing it out is difficult.

This was a great post. Thanks for making me think.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

i usually do enough research to have a firm understanding of the topic. Then i put, maybe, 10% of that in the novel. Maybe.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

This is a great topic to discuss. I remember before I actually started writing seriously and read a book by Tamora Peirce. In the credits she thanked someone who helped her learn all about bats. And right then, I wondered how much research I would have to do to write a novel. I really didnt' want to go through the effort at the time, but since then I have realized how important it is and actually love doing it. You suddenly have a reason to learn more about the world and its guts. And that's fun, worthwhile and important for your writing.

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

Authenticity is very important to me, but I appreciate an author who conveys knowledge of a subject or place without bogging my mind with details that pull me out of, rather than into, a story.

Best of luck with the heavy schedule!

Susan R. Mills said...

Authenticity is important, but I also don't want to read through a bunch of neverending details that really don't matter.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

No bogging the reader down with details here! But the rules of the Cosbolt, and the main character's abilities, caused me to rewrite the finale several times to maintain consistency.
And thanks for the mention!

Melissa Gill said...

Wow, this is a great topic, it'll be hard to keep my opninon short.

I go bonkers when I read about something I know well (like zoos and animals) but the author got it wrong. But there are exceptions. For instance I just read a GREAT BOOK called The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise. Set in present day Tower of London the Queen's exhibit animals have been transferred to the Tower to improve attendance... This would never happen in real life, and the complexities of making it happen if it did, would have been BORING. The author just skipped all that and wrote a very engaging story. She sold the idea that they would just pick up a bunch of endangered animals and move them to the Tower, and I didn't really care that it was so absurd.

On the other hand, I read a book by a well known writer about a child who had a disease who caused her to break bones frequently. I threw the expensive, hard bound book across the room when she used the wrong names for the bones. I mean really, how hard is it?

I also had a critique group partner who was writing about a subject that he loves. In an effort to educate people he described sailing, and sailing terms to the point that it was impossible to find his story.

So again, great topic Matt. I'll shut up now.

Matthew Rush said...

You may feel free to leave long comments any time you like, I love them. And I think you make my point perfectly here. It really can go either way. No detail can work, wrong detail can ruin, and too much detail can just bore you to death. Well said, thanks Melissa!

Hannah Kincade said...

Also, I don't think it's always about how much but what you describe in detail. For instance, if you don't know much about one subject but know a ton in another, talk a good game about one and people will think you know your shit. Even in otherworldly novels though, there needs to be an air of authenticity because most of us will be none the wiser if it sounds real.

Talli Roland said...

If it's vital to the storyline, then I think it needs to be accurate. If it's not, then I'm not really fussed!

Angie said...

"It's all about balance." That is the truth of it right there!

Holly Ruggiero said...

You are right when it comes to the actually writing, but I have gotten deep into research. In fact, I spent a lot of time there yesterday. I go overboard on the research so when I write I can choose the right details to add. The more I know before I start help me build the scene in my head even if I don’t write it.

Hart Johnson said...

It's such a tricky line! I think it depends on the detail--I am reading a book that shall go nameless that includes a cop who keeps explaining to his partner WHY they are doing things. Now it' s nice the writer bothered to find out, but it is totally unrealistic as dialog--in the moment, they just ACT... maybe a debrief later if it's a rookie, but it is REALLY distracting.

Whereas last summer I read Bad Things Happen, and I know for a fact Harry Dolan went to a course put on by the Ann Arbor PD to teach writers about how they investigate (yeah... the PD in Ann Arbor has time on its hands and an over abundance of writers who might otherwise be committing crimes... or something)--and HIS investigation in the book was PERFECT.

MOST details I wait to research until after--I am too tempted to overtell otherwise, but then, i don't write fantasy or Sci-Fi, and my mysteries have amateur sleuths so I can get away with them not knowing specifics on forensics.

Christina Lee said...

I agree, Matt. And it has to be the right delicate balance, even in a novel based in this reality!

Simon C. Larter said...

Research can be paralyzing. I've read advice that says do all your research before starting a book, but often I don't know what information I'll need until I start writing. I look it up as I go, mostly.

That said, it's sometimes good just to mark spots in the MS that need extra background info, then come back to them later. Says I, anyway.

Melissa Bradley said...

Accuracy is important just as it is important not to get bogged down in details. It's fine balance to strike. Great post.

maine character said...

Great topic. When you're reading and you see a mistake, you get thrown out of the story and lose trust in the author.

One thriller writer is actually proud to get things wrong, 'cause he says it keeps his readers awake. No. I'll go with David Morrell, who trains with specialists and gets his collarbone broken while knife fighting.

As said above, use about 10 percent of your research, and people will feel you know the rest.

The best thing about research is it opens up so many new ideas, like how a gun's sights can shift when they're cold. You think, really? Maybe that's why he missed. He wasn't just trying to scare him after all.

DEZMOND said...

ah, I'm a linguist, but I don't think I'd ever go inventing an entire language for a fictional race in my novel :) Just too much work ... although I can't say I didn't try it as a kid ...

Elana Johnson said...

I think authenticity is important, and I hate research. Thus why I create my own worlds. Great post!

jbchicoine said...

I think it's easy to get bogged down with detail in the name of authenticity, but we need to make sure we get our details right. There is a difference between a boatshed and a boathouse, between a boatyard and a marina. Inaccuracy could cause a shipwright to hurl my book overboard!

Marsha Sigman said...

I think this is totally accurate! You have to strike the right balance.
And if you get it wrong, you've lost the reader. Or at least me.

I am researching trains and specifically train whistles. It's actually pretty cool.

Shari said...

I research until my brain is mush and I have to take a break because I can't even think to write my story. By this time, I can't even remember what my story is about. Perhaps I should rethink my researching process.

BTW, you totally made me laugh out loud.

K. M. Walton said...

Big proponent of research in the spirit of "getting it right" - I've done research for every book I've written - from picture book to novel. I think the small details go a long way.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Yeah, it's that damned tricky thing, putting in just enough, but not too much...

ali said...

I totally agree! For me, the plausibility of a story is KEY. The more believable a story is--if it makes me google something to see if it's real--the more freakin' awesome I'll think it is.

Creative A said...

Just to weigh in on authenticity in SF--I've been writing a YA SF that I wanted to read like contemporary fiction and is set on Earth in present time, so I needed my SF worldbuilding to feel just as real and authentic as things we would encounter in life. The way my story is structured, this means a huge hunk of worldbuilding in the first 2-3 chapters. It was a very intricate balance between telling to little, and coming off as an infodump.

Part of what makes authenticity work, I think, is really establishing your character and figuring out the natural way they think in light of these details. In the gun example, it worked for the type of character.

For my main character, who comes from a SF world that is similar to ours with a couple important distinctions, this meant using culture comparisons.

Example. We're all familiar with how easy it can be to miscommunicate. In my character's world, they often communicate using electrical stimulus that often translates straight to an emotion or concept.

So when my MC comes to earth and encounters a communication impasse, instead of ignoring the issue (unauthentic) or pausing to explain (infodump) I allow my character to pour her frustration into a brief thought about how hard people have to work at communication on earth, where it's easy at home.

The resulting conversation is much more thoughtful and impactful as a result. At the same time, we get a small detail about the MC's life back home, authentically through her reaction to the conversation. Anyway, I hope it's authentic.

Thought-provoking post!
-Mandy

Kelly Dexter said...

This is one of the reasons I love writing epic fantasy. More freedom to make things up and decide what rings true in your world.

That being said, I agree that there is a fine line between just enough authenticity to buy a story and so much that the story gets bogged down in unnecessary detail.