Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Literal Truth

The Letter,
Jef Leempoels ( 1867-1935)
oil on canvas.

Research has been known to generate more stacked paper than multiple revisions of a novel.

In addition to that seductive teaching/informing impulse to share all that really neat information one has uncovered in the course thereof, there co-exists the fear that unless the air speed (in km, in mph and in kts), maximum fuel range (in nautical miles), the hover ceiling and the load capacity for the helicopter used to transport the hero/ine from point A to point B is casually inserted somewhere in the narrative, the reader will make dents in the bedroom drywall.

How much detail is necessary to prevent that innocent helicopter ( Bell 206 BIII) from a crash and burn in the cross-winds of the average reader's general knowledge or, in some cases, ignorance? If he needs to mention time/distance/refuel or can dispense with those details all together.

The fact that helicopters are noisy makes a writer sweat over whether he should specify how far from the rotor cacophony a conversation takes place.

The suspension of disbelief is an undeployed parachute if fact runs contrary to a reader's perception of it.

Translating research into a WIP requires more than an avoidance of info dump. It requires an acute understanding of how far you can trust the reader to "get it" without a 2x4 upside of the head.


Ric said...

Interesting topic. Seems like our shared experiences is the key to how much needs to be explained. What we know, (and presumbably our readers as well) or think we know, verified by our own researce, should be good.

How close to the helicopter does the security man need to be so he can't hear the shot that just misses the Prime Minister?

Don't think you need to explain how you came up with the answer - but it does need to be correct.

Carla said...

"if fact runs contrary to a reader's perception of it"

Perception is the key word here, I think, and will vary from reader to reader. I've just finished a novel set in Ancient Egypt where the hero tells his wife "Today [name of town] fell to the enemy." The town in question is hundreds of miles away, so how did he know so soon? Boy, they had fast pigeons in 3000 BC. But I shrugged and skipped past it, mentally altering it to "Today I heard that [name of town] had fallen..." which would do much the same job in story terms, and I wonder how many other people would even notice.

Bernita said...

In that sort of scene, Ric, it definitely has to be correct - if the would-be assassin wasn't using a silencer.
But the writer worries also if the reader understands that sound is not spread evenly in a circumference.

I think I too would do a Data nod and skip over it, Carla, and assume the "heard," based on how people tend to condense their speech.
Might trigger a minor alert though.

Dave said...

Things can't be obviously wrong. But as a Chemical Engineer with a good knowledge of Thermodynamics, I can disprove most Sci-Fi premises. It's not like I can turn the ability on and off, I read a car wreck and do conservation of momentum calculations. I see a space ship and calculate orbits and speeds.
The current movie with Bruce Willis is going to be fun because it is (sight unseen) scientifically impossible. It was like that silly movie with snakes on airplanes - entertaining but not believable.

And there is the point. Technology need only be plausible. Technology is a slave to the story. Make the story engaging & exciting and the reader won't care that the science is akin to magic or that it violates basic physics by creating matter from nothing.

Please note that the success of Shrek and Spiderman is based on the story, not the magic or psuedo-science.

spyscribbler said...

Man, research freaks me out, especially in this spy thriller I'm working on. Sometimes I have to give myself a stern talking-to. Am I trying to write fiction or non-fiction? At some point, I have to make stuff up, LOL. Everything can't be based on fact, or it'd be non-fiction!

Bernita said...

What concerns me most, Dave, is the disconnect that may accrue - the "throws me out of the story" reflex - if general readers (not specialists) assumes something is "obvious wrong" when it isn't. As you say, one hopes the story is so fascinating, they won't care.

Invoke the "Horatio" defense, Natasha!

raine said...

Authors always seem to be walking these tightropes...too much of this, not enough of that...

Just enough information to make the reader suspend disbelief, but not so much that their eyes begin to glaze over would mean knowing your targeted audience, yes, but there'll always be some that don't think you've done enough, and some who find it an annoyance. But there IS that temptation to use all that information we've sweated over, lol.

Kate Thornton said...

I always give the reader the benefit of the doubt, expecting them to know at least as much as I do about everything.

This helps to avoid taking them out of the story to explain stuff. Even when I am *desperate* to show off some arcane knowledge I have that would be perfect in a scene, I think twice. Is it really necessary, or is it just me, bragging about my fab research or my inside scoop? Sometimes I put it in, feel the glow, then take it out.

Bernita said...

That's an excellent summation of the problem, Raine. Thank you.

"I always give the reader the benefit of the doubt, expecting them to know at least as much as I do about everything."
That might well be the best approach, Kate. In my case, the readers could hardly know less about many things.

Jon M said...

I spent ages researching Victorian London funerals and then thought, 'sod it' and just carried on writing but I think my research kind of sank in and leached into my work without too much 'dumping.'
Sometimes the research feels easier than the writing! :-)

Bernita said...

I do believe that immersion/absorption does work, Jon!

LadyBronco said...

I have the bad habit of not only providing the 2x4 with which to bash the reader upside the head, but also provide the detailed map, audio directions, and a first-aid kit if they still manage to lose their way.

It would be the reason I cut the word count of WiP one by about 10k words.

ORION said...

Aloha Bernita!!
I do SO love info dumps...NOT!
I am so gullible I believe ANYTHING.
Time travel?
You betcha.
In other words...
the perfect reader!!

Bernita said...

Hoot, Lady B!
I remember dumping 13 pages in a first chapter.

Odd, isn't it Pat? It's not the major premise that inspires disbelief, but the minor things.
BTW, I had trouble believing that picture on your blog - the one that implies you didn't eat all that NY cheesecake!

writtenwyrdd said...

Getting the details right can be incredibly stressful. Too much of a faux pas and you can lose the reader's trust.

Here's a recent example I ran across. I read, in the second sentence of a book, that someone had opened an account in the heroine's name and then dumped a bunch of embezzled money into it. I couldn't read on. That account was what the entire plot hinged on, and it's been impossible for five years to open an account that easily! You can't even get an account without ssn, id, and having the bank verify it. So that killed the book for me.

But if you plot doesn't hinge on a bad factual error or you miss on a technical detail no one but an explosives or electronics expert would know, it's probably not so bad. There will always be errors. The trick is to make them details that will not really affect the plot's credibility.

The issue of the shot and the helicopter noise is a good one. Last time I was in a helicopter, we had to yell to hear each other.

Bernita said...

Sounds like a little information on identity theft should have been included, Written.
Yup, very noisy, but some have earphones.

writtenwyrdd said...

We did have earphones. Pilot speaks: Bzzztbwabwabwabzzzt, etc. It takes practice to understand when people speak over radios, particular with the high background noise. Of course, they probably have improved the headphone tech in the past 25 years!

Bernita said...

Think I'll have a surly pilot who only grunts.

archer said...

I love Stephen King's rule of research: "Just enough to enable me to lie colorfully."

Bernita said...

The "bullshit baffles brains" rule, Archer!