Willing Suspension of Disbelief

richardIII (195x300)Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. The phrase “willing suspension of disbelief” was one I learned in college literature classes as a necessity if one was to enjoy fiction. I’ve been thinking about that lately. Certainly many classics, from Shakespeare’s Richard the Third to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe are far from historically accurate, but that never stopped readers from enjoying them. Why, then, is there so much emphasis on getting the details right when it comes to writing fiction today?

Yes, I’m playing devil’s advocate. I do think writers owe it to their readers to do their homework and avoid the most horrendous bloopers. On the other hand, there’s no way any writer can get every single nit-picky detail exactly right, especially if they write historical fiction. And for all writers, typos and continuity errors are bound to slip past even the most skilled proofreader. Yes, okay, a character put on a sports coat on page six and it somehow turned into a down jacket on page forty. Or maybe a character is called by the wrong name. It happens. A modern equivalent of the “willing suspension of disbelief” advice might be “don’t sweat the small stuff,” to which many would add “it’s all small stuff.”

cabotcovesheriff (208x300)When I read for pleasure, I have difficulty doing this with historical mysteries set in the sixteenth century, a period I know far too well. Getting British forms of address wrong will pull me out of a story, no matter what century it is set in. I also find it jarring when certain forensic details—the smell of cordite; dead bodies continuing to bleed; calling what would probably be a constable in a small town a sheriff—pop up. But overall, I find I am much more forgiving than I once was.

mesmer (266x300)In my own historical novels, where once I used contractions like ’tis and avoided it’s like the plague, I’ve learned to relax. No one really cares that it’s, don’t, doesn’t, and other contractions weren’t yet in use in England in fifteen-whatever. As for other anachronisms, by all means avoid those that come from someone’s name (like mesmerize, from Franz Mesmer, who lived from 1734-1815) but if you write a novel about Chaucer, you’re not going to write it in Chaucer’s English. Very few people would be able to read it. A novel set in France or Spain is essentially “translated” into modern English. Why not use the same logic with one set in the past in England or America?

bloopers (300x248)A well-written novel that tells an engaging story can make me overlook a great many minor flaws. I can forgive a lot if I’m caught up in the plot. If the author’s voice is powerful enough to keep my eyes glued to the page, I barely notice any errors that slip in. That’s true for fiction set in the past and the present, and also for paranormal, urban fantasy, and futuristic novels, too. Far more important is whether the characters and their actions are believable.

So, what do you think, fellow readers? How much are you willing to forgive if the story and characters are strong enough to make you want to keep reading?

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12 Responses to Willing Suspension of Disbelief

  1. Gram says:

    I think the sheriff/constable difference is decided by what state or even county you are in. I do not remember any constables in NH. I do notice constables in TX ( I watch Animal Cops). 🙂

    • Hi, Gram,
      You’re right about differences from state to state, but as far as I know a sheriff is always an elected county official and is usually more of an administrator than an investigator. Taking Cabot Cove, Maine as my pet peeve situation, it would, at most, have a small police department and a chief of police. The sheriff’s office wouldn’t be located there unless it was also the county seat. And I really have to stop sweating the small stuff!!! I’m getting better. Really.


  2. Heidi Wilson says:

    As a reader, I have the same criterion you do: does an error or anachronism pull me out of the story? In my writing group, the expression for this is “That stopped me.” The writer being critiqued may or may not agree, but s/he now has one more data point for deciding whether to make a change.

    Starting from the writer’s side of things, when I’m inventing a fictional situation, I find that the problem is figuring out how clear you need to make things in the first place. That’s going to be different for every reader, so all you can do, I guess, is aim for the average. The novel I’m working on revolves around a legal challenge to a proposed retirement home for a bunch of academic eccentrics. My writing group went crazy over the details of the purchase contract, the construction schedule, the apartment layout, the finances…. As you’ve guessed, we’re an older group.

    • Hi, Heidi,
      Love the premise of academic eccentrics. And while I have you, let me say again how nice it was to meet and chat with you in person at Maine Crime Wave.


  3. When I’m reading, if the story carries me along, I’m willing to forgive a lot of little stuff. Was a certain style of trousers fashionable in 1821 or not until 1825? Not important. Who was on the throne in 1821? Easy to check, so it matters. Obvious anachronisms like mesmerism drive me nuts. Ditto for sloppy research like sheriff vs constable, although if it’s consistent I can suspend disbelief. On the other hand, when I spot something I know for sure is wrong, I do get upset. I once watched a CSI episode set at an Indycar race; one of the car engines let go in a cloud of black smoke. Wrong wrong wrong. When racing engines go kablammo (that’s a technical term, BTW), the smoke is white. Spoiled the episode for me, and I never trusted CSI again.
    Bottom line is, get as much right as you can, especially the big stuff. That’s how you create a believable world. At the same time, beguile your readers into forgiving you for the little stuff.

  4. Lea Wait says:

    What bothers me the most in historical fiction (again – assuming no large obvious mistakes are made) is when one or more of the characters have 20th or 21st century beliefs or visions or aspirations. If that happens, it pulls me right out of the past.

    • Hi, Lea,
      And here’s me, being devil’s advocate again–unless a reader knows a heck of a lot about a particular historical period, how can they judge what’s too modern? Yes, sometimes it’s just too blatant, in language as well as in attitude, but there have always been people who were ahead of their time in their thinking and, by the very nature of mystery fiction, which requires conflict and suspense, writers are going to focus on characters who are out of the ordinary. Just saying.


  5. JT NICHOLS says:

    my father reads a lot of westerns, and if they don’t get the firearms right?! I’m writing something that takes place in Portland, and on a certain wharf–but I condensed 2 wharves, so if anyone checks….TOUGH. It’s on purpose. GET OVER IT. I’m also taking certain establishments from the past and using them like they’re still here (Raoul’s Roadside Attraction, for example. Why? because it was the best nightclub ever in Portland, THAT’S why…). If it’s not egregious….
    I would expect some readers to realize that some places are out of time, but also that it is NOT a mistake–after all it’s fiction!

    • All good points, JT, especially the fact that we are writing fiction. By definition, that’s stuff we make up. A few years ago, when I was trying to come up with a good definition of alternative historical novels–for example a series set in 1880s Virginia if the south had won the Civil War–a friend asked, in all seriousness, “doesn’t that include ALL historical fiction?” I had to concede that she might have a point.


  6. Agreed that if it takes me out of the story, it cannot be overlooked. Otherwise, I’m willing to let it go.

    And sloppy research on things that matter really frosts my cookies.

    I’m writing a mystery that takes place in a real town, so, as far as actual locations, I may go easy on specifics or even combine two things into something new if it will serve the story just as well, or if I think identifying a landmark may cause the owner distress. Hey, some people are cranky about having their business show up as a murder scene in a book. 😉

    • More good points. Unless there are details that are crucial to the plot, being a little vague about location or layout works just fine. As for using a real business, in some cases it may go beyond cranky. I’ve heard of a couple of instances where big corporations were prepared to sue to prevent being mentioned, even in a good way, in a novel.


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