Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Beneath the Surface


Blue Hole, Little Miami River,
Robert Duncanson,
o/c, 1851, Cincinnati Art Museum.


I stole the title of Suzanne's latest release for this post.

While cruising yesterday came upon a link from Virgina Lady about the middle-class reality failure of some writers of urban fantasy et ux when describing the mean streets and street life -- particularly in regards to such items as weapons and money. As the author of the two-part essay came to realize, the applications are broader than the original target genre and suitable for extrapolation. The essays are well worth a close read no matter what you write, especially in connection with character/environment reactions.

As a significant example, a survival character from the streets -- even when off them -- will automatically examine any setting for exits. Incidentally, this applies to certain other occupations/training/experience as well.

For the writer, there's a dirty little sub-text to all this: how much reality/accuracy is necessary to satisfy those reflexive wall-bangers with in-depth experience in certain milieux and cultures; and how does the writer avoid distracting/disturbing those readers content with superficial interpretation and often inaccurate generalizations. Readers, who, I might add, may be focused more on character or excitement/adventure, ie. the story, rather than critical details and who may gloss over/ignore/don't care whether champagne flutes were in use in 1760.

I know I've blogged about this before. The prime solution, it seems, is to get the flavour right -- even if the details are subject to indignation from those quarters who forget that not all courts/PF's/laboratories or any other societal group operate exactly and uniformly the same.

It's our job to create characters and societies so realistic that any deviations can be accepted and dismissed by the specialists. Sometimes that means making a point of noting our particular deviation. To apply this in broad terms, it's a rare male who doesn't register a car make -- particularly one he is driving.

As always, the writer is balanced on the sharp edge of a fine line and must make their dispositions knowingly and accordingly.


Tongue-in-Cheek Department:
From Peter Bowler's The Superior Person's Book of Words:

lexiphanic: Given to the use of pretentious terminology, such as the word lexiphanic.


32 comments:

BernardL said...

Editing limits my need for painting word pictures so detailed they can be hung on a wall in a frame. The prospect of reading over every scene in a WIP described in the intricate detail required to call it a 'finished' project would put me in a coma. :)

December/Stacia said...

Wow! Those are great posts you linked to. (I'm very pleased to see I got it right. :-) Now let's just hope other people get to see it too.)

Thanks!

Demon Hunter said...

I know people of all races, cultures, and socio-economic backgrounds, which is why I probably feel the need for accuracy.

Sure, it's a fictional tale, but I want it to ring true because you never know who your readers are. I'm a stickler for details. I love this post, Bernita. :-)

Bernita said...

Editing is an exercise to determine what to leave in as much as what to take out, Bernard.

Thought you did, December, from an excerpt I read!It had that "feel."

Tyhitia, I thought those essays were excellent. Valuable psychology points.

Charles Gramlich said...

I need the "flavor" myself as a reader but I'm aware that it's fiction and don't require absolute realism. Besides, the world is so complicated that one person's realism is not always another's. I've had people who grew up on farms tell me "precisely" what it's like on the farm, and they're wrong. I know because "I" grew up on a farm. The truth is, we're both right.

Bernita said...

It has to be fairly flagrant for me to get truly annoyed, Charles, and you've hit my point exactly.

raine said...

As always, the writer is balanced on the sharp edge of a fine line...

Odd, I always thing of myself as UNbalanced on that sharp edge...

Agree. If the flavor is right, the fictional world developed well, I can overlook many things.
Thanks for the links, Bernita.

Bernita said...

"UNbalanced on that sharp edge" - you do have a point there, Raine!

A lot of food for thought in that essay.

laughingwolf said...

excellent links, bernita... and another great post

i try to be accurate in my writing, not always successfully, as was pointed out to me in one of my poems: wolves have 'pups', not 'cubs'

i KNOW that, but typed cubs anyway, and did not spot it in innumerable edits, til a reader corrected me....

Bernita said...

Thank you, Laughingwolf.
We all make those "duh" glitches.
Mine are too many to list...things like using "ma mere" when "maman" would be correct considering the location (and I knew that too.) Fortunately, some of them get caught (by other people) before exposure.

Gabriele C. said...

There are some pencil sharpeners who live to find tiny mistakes in other peoples' work, and you can't escape those. Best ignore them.

As long as the mistake is not as plot relevant as the will that gives the estate to the hero only if he marries the girl he doesn't like. Champagner flutes aren't that important, except maybe if the reason for the hero's dislike of the foisted upon him bride stems from her breaking his favourtie champagner flute while they were both teenagers. In that case the writer better make sure there were those flutes or find another important tankard, beaker, chalice, whatever.

Bernita said...

Gabriele, what must be most galling is to be taken to task for something claimed to be an error -- when it isn't.

Steve Malley said...

I can't remember who said it (a mystery author, I believe), but the advice rings true:

"If your WIP *depends* on the price of hansom cab-fare in Victorian London, you're already in trouble."

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I think you needn't beat the reader to death with it, but I have a character who is hyper-aware of his surroundings. He is forever checking exits and people around him. It's just a part of his mindset, so it comes up. Of course, I torture him by regularly limiting exits and throwing dangerous people at him, so it really is necessary...

have you ever been around someone who is hyper-aware of their surroundings--an actual black ops soldier? I have. Movies make it look like they're subtle, but they're generally not. It's obvious they're watching their proximity, and that's part of their defense mechanism. (Especially when they're huge, like the one I used to see at my gym.)

Rick said...

Flavor (as we 'Murricans spell it) is indeed crucial, probably much more than technical authenticity.

A wonderful visual example, for me, is the movie "Ever After." Having seen it in the theater when it came out, my memory was that the costuming was remarkably authentic. When I got to watch it again on TV a couple of years ago, I found that that was not quite true - the costumes in the film were not, in fact, strictly accurate to early 16th century French court costume. But it caught the flavor so well that my memory was fooled. (No surprise that historical costumers are great fans of the film, though perfectly aware of the liberties it takes.)

Sometimes it is more important to be convincing than to be technically precise.

Bernita said...

So true, Steve!

Yep, SS, have been in association with various of the nefarious. And if they are just off a deploy their eyes all have a certain peeled-back look too. Not the sort one is wise to startle.

"Sometimes it is more important to be convincing than to be technically precise."
Rick, I agree entirely.

While I am careful to use "'Merican" spelling in anything I submit ( aided by my Word program), I allow myself the indulgence of using my natural form in my blog posts.

Sam said...

Thanks for the links - I'll go check them out.
The devil is in the details, as the saying goes. If you get it wrong, it's a wall banger. If they're right, they add quite a bit, and if you leave them out, the story feels flat.

spyscribbler said...

Such a difficult line to tread. While true, the thriller protagonist who seats himself in the back corner of the room is getting SO cliche, I can't help but roll my eyes every time.

Bernita said...

Some people are easier on walls than others, Sam, fortunately.

A pity, Natasha,because certain types of training/experience does influence where a character positions him/herself - "cliche" or not.

StarvingWriteNow said...

As always, fine posting! I got a chuckle out of your "males and car makes" comment... interestingly, my new friend is in car sales--a career that you definitely would think would bend his mind in that direction; however when we first began talking again and I asked him what he drove he just said "A big truck."

laughingwolf said...

funny thing, it was years before someone caught my blunder... :(

i've made other goofs, this was the most recent to be pointed out to me

writtenwyrdd said...

Good point, Bernita: Getting the FLAVOR right, indeed. Detail layered on with a trowel is writing an encyclopedia. Leave that to the encyclopedia publishers. Just enough appropriate detail is required. Too much: boring; too little: a world that feels flat and not alive.

I'll have to check out those posts.

writtenwyrdd said...

"a certain peeled-back look" That's a great way to describe it. A certain twitchiness from combat vets isn't unusual, either.

Eyes that scan the room without the head moving is another big clue. It's awkward and unnatural, and thus learned by the surruptitious.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Beth. Possibly he was just being careful. Some people's eyes quickly glaze over if one mentions make and model.

Many people may not know and more might not care, Laughingwolf.

Thank you, Written. Lot of meat in that essay.

Shauna Roberts said...

I agree that getting the flavor right is the most important—some people get the details right but the flavor all wrong—but I prefer to get both flavor and accurate details. I research even picky details in my novels extensively, and it annoys me when an author doesn't respect me as a reader enough to fact check.

Bernita said...

Shauna, I've decided that even if an author is right and the reader mistaken ( as I believe was the case involving the champagne flutes), it accomplishes nothing for a writer to argue with a reader.

Shauna Roberts said...

I agree entirely, Bernita. If the reader doesn't bother to do some research before writing and include citations supporting their opinion, disagreeing with them is just going to annoy them into becoming even nastier.

I found as a magazine writer, people who wanted to thank me for a useful article usually went to the trouble to find my home address, whereas those who wanted to dispute some fact usually wrote to the magazine itself, usually in a supercilious and insulting tone. Luckily, the complainers were almost always wrong.

Suzanne Perazzini said...

Thanks, Bernita, for the link.
A few years back an editor rejected a full based on the fact she didn't believe something I had researched meticulously including reading a university thesis on the subject. I did respond to her - politely - but I never heard back. That was soooo frustrating.

Bernita said...

Makes one realize there is such a thing as entrenched ignorance after all, Shauna!

"That was soooo frustrating."

I think though, Suzanne, you are better off without that editor in the long run.

Virginia Lady said...

Thanks for the link, Bernita. Excellent post.

Bernita said...

Virginia, thank you for the link!

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