Plausibility Versus Authenticity

Vicki Doudera here.

As you read this, I am traveling home to Camden from sunny Key West and the Key West Literary Seminar. I’ve been lucky enough to be an attendee at the conference, along with fellow Maine Crime Writer Barbara Ross, and we’ve enjoyed discussing the many revelations and insights we’ve gleaned over the week.

It’s tough to choose from all the ideas I have bouncing around in my head for this post, but I thought I’d discuss one topic that came up several times: research.

It was interesting to hear the range of responses given to the question of how much scholarly investigation goes into a work of crime fiction. Some of the writers featured at the seminar spend untold hours pouring over historical documents to set their mysteries in other time periods, while others rely less on research and more on imagination. Malla Nunn whose book, Let the Dead Lie takes place in South Africa during the 1950’s, falls into this latter camp. Family stories told around the dinner table were the basis for the novel,not strict historical accounts. (Side note — I was unfamiliar with this writer before the conference, and she was a pleasant surprise.)

Researching places for settings was a popular discussion item as well. Elizabeth George said she hits the pavement, doing what her editor calls “topographic gumshoeing,” strolling around and photographing the places she plans to write about. I followed that same process for my novels Killer Listing and Deadly Offer, set in Florida and California, finding that immersion in a new place gave me a wealth of tiny details that I might not have noticed otherwise:  the smell of ripened grapes on the fine in Sonoma, California, or the unique flora and fauna of Florida’s Gulf Coast. For a writer who loves to travel, it’s easy duty!

Tess Gerritsen, my friend and fellow Camdenite, spoke about the way some of her travels or interests ended up in books. She talked about having a fascination for mummies, which became the inspiration for The Keepsake, and how an African safari helped create the plot of her current novel. While some of her “topographic gumshoeing” may be not be planned, it’s clear Tess puts any ideas that arise to very good use.

The amount and type of research an author conducts is obviously a personal choice, and the varied comments regarding the topic kept driving that home. Author Lee Child made an interesting point that I’ve been pondering, because it seems to sum up the whole thing in a nice, neat, way. He said that with regard to research, it isn’t so much authenticity that’s needed in a novel, but plausibility.

I think he’s correct in drawing the distinction, but I’m not exactly sure why. Is it because being plausible is less bound up in facts that can weigh a novel down? Does “authentic” necessarily mean that a story becomes pedantic?

What do you think? Is plausibility what we should be aiming for, or do we strive for authenticity? And how much research is too much?

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13 Responses to Plausibility Versus Authenticity

  1. Gram says:

    A bit of both sounds like a good mix to me. Thanks for writing…Gram

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  2. John Clark says:

    Thanks for sharing these insights. I’m working on the geography, inhabitants and local history of fictional Sennebec, Maine and expect it will end up resembling a bit of Union and a bit of Hartland when I’m done. I like Lee Child’s take on this. If you want to get confused/annoyed, spend some time reading nitpicking reviews on Amazon.com. I swear people live to be hypercritical these days. Sounding ‘right’ in an online review seems to be more important than letting potential buyers know why the book is a fun read. There, I’ll get off the soapbox.

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  3. Interesting post, Vicki. And I agree the last thing the writer wants to do is sound pedantic. But I don’t think there’s any such thing as too much research. I know I have to have a deep understanding of what I’m writing about before I can write about it, especially when I’m writing historical novels. The trick is choosing which tiny bits of all that research actually make it into the book to give it the flavor of the times and, yes, plausibility. No information dumps allowed! With contemporary novels, the level of research often seems to depend on whether the setting is real or fictional. Fictional settings are a lot easier to get “right.” But other stuff, like the feel (and smell) of firing a gun or how to rig a “ghost” in a haunted house for Halloween, has to convince readers who have actually done those things. Some research (and sometimes, some assembly) required.

    Kathy/Kaitlyn

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    • Hi Kathy,

      when I was writing this post last night, I kept thinking… how will Kathy respond! I know you do extensive research, and judging by the popularity of your books, you must be doing it right!

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  4. Barb Ross says:

    Hi Vicki!

    It was so great to see you. I hope you had safe travels home.

    A lot of the take about research did seem to depend on the world the author created. Child’s Jack Reacher can go anywhere in the world and solve any crime, whereas Michael Connolly’s characters are deeply rooted in the LA criminal justice system and thus have to be more authentic as to culture, setting and procedure.

    Barb

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    • True… but doesn’t the “plausibility” approach apply there as well? I think it all boils down to personal preference and reader expectations. I was surprised that Malla didn’t seem to do that much research for her book, relying instead on family anecdotes, and others spend hours reading old news stories. I think I am a little of both. I like researching — especially the hands-on kind — but it’s so interesting to hear what everyone does.

      Am in D.C. — ready to head back to what my St. Croix Captain son calls “the terrible north.” Hope you are still soaking up the sun!

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  5. Jule Dupre says:

    good points all around – from my point of view, when I am writing, I enjoy researching – ‘being on the hunt’ so to say…..but when I am reading, it simply has to ‘feel’ right. Don’t ask me to define ‘feel’ because it is too illusive…..the closest I could come would be to say that it reads smoothly without my brain suddenly protesting with a loud and annoying WHAT!!! With a degree in history, I have always been strongly aware of the fact that more truth can be told in fiction than in non-fiction. And it can be told in a more interesting fashion. So as writers we should all just be comfortable with the ‘feel’ of putting the final period at the end of our final sentence. The other option would be to define ‘truth’ and there is no way I would want to wrestle that rattlesnake!

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  6. That one’s easy, right? Truth is beauty, beauty, truth….

    You make some good points, Jule, and I like what you say about the “feel” of well-written prose that also informs. But not in a heavy handed way!

    Thanks for commenting.

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  7. Michelle says:

    Interesting post, especially as I am venturing into the world of suspense. Normally, I write urban fantasy. Even without real world components for everything in those stories, they still need to be plausible.
    I think where an author falls on the spectrum of authenticity versus plausibility is also going to depend on how knowledgeable the audience is about a specific topic. I know next to nothing about police investigations, but I will definitely do enough research to make sure nothing happens in my novel that isn’t plausible. However, I don’t want the desire to be authentic to hamper the plot. For specific knowledge about drugs, I plan to tap a family expert because I know it would take her right out of the story if I made up or mis-used an existing medication.
    This distinction is probably because I feel my novel is more likely to be read by people with knowledge of certain medications rather than people with in-depth knowledge of police investigations.
    Everyone is going to be an expert in something and authors have limited time to become pseudo-experts. It’s a tricky balance.

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  8. Pingback: Key West Literary Seminar–Week Two | Maine Crime Writers

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