The Devil May or May Not be in the Details

Back in the days when I was the World’s Oldest Living Graduate Student, I submitted a story to a fiction workshop that featured an old woman fly-fishing in an Alaskan river and the things that happened to her. What surprised me most about the reaction to the story was the deep certainty of most of my seminar mates that I had spent some large amount of my time in Alaska doing exactly what the woman was doing. JOan WulffApparently I had captured both the landscape and the details of fly-fishing for salmon in a bear-infested countryside convincingly. Why surprised me was that the closest I’d been to Alaska at that point in my life was a train ride West that stopped in Nebraska. As it turned out, none of my peers had been there, either. But they believed I had.

Which leads me to thinking about research and about getting things right in fiction. I know long tons of writers who labor mightily to include the correct details of equipment, procedure, geography, any kind of fact that can be challenged or verified. The tendency is most notable in police procedurals and thrillers involving Federal agencies and high technology. Tom Clancy is probably the most notable practitioner in the weaponry line. But let me take the devil’s advocate view for a minute and ask: do we care more about the model number of the missile that’s going to take out Air Force One? Or the fact that the President might go down with the plane?

John Gardner talks about writing fiction as creating a dream for the reader, allowing nothing in technique, word choice, or style to interrupt the dream. John GardnerI’d guess there are readers for whom a technical detail or a procedural gaffe would break the dream, but how many are there and why do they read? To keep us honest? To prove they’re smarter than we are?

Aside from the occasional reader with an axe to grind (read: gun nut or other obsessive),  most people are not going to know something esoteric you didn’t get right, something in the furniture of your story that has a mechanical function but isn’t central to the story or characters. Fiction is as much about verisimilitude as it is about a complete consistency between the fictional world and the outside—real—world.

Every published writer I know has a story of an email debating the spelling of a certain item (Dopp kit vs. dopp kit, anyone?) or insisting that a Glock 42 has a six-round capacity and you’ve allowed your hero to fire seven without reloading. But these readers are often not satisfied even with a correction or an acknowledgement—they’re more interested in being right about something—anything—than about whether you’ve broken the fictional dream. They would argue that you, the writer, broke the dream by getting a fact wrong but I’d submit that most readers like this are looking for a reason, something to complain about.

If you can make it believable, isn’t it enough? Does every detail also have to be verifiably accurate? Well, yes, but maybe not for the first reason you’d think.

Authenticity is as much, if not more, a service to the writer as a courtesy to the reader. When a writer knows he or she has the details right, that authenticity breeds authority, which is very subtle and very difficult to fake. It’s partly that every detail is correct and partly choosing the right details but getting them right gives the writer confidence. I think of Peter Robinson, the consummate Yorkshireman, writing an L.A. novel that no less a writer than Michael Connelly found pitch-perfect. I don’t know L. A. well enough to know whether everything was accurate but it was all believable. Robinson’s command of the details exuded authority.

There’s also the issue of specificity in details, which is difficult to fake if you don’t know what you’re talking about. If you call a gun by its brand name and describe its characteristics in description and action, you carry an immediacy into the story that saying “a pistol” doesn’t own. HD-150If I tell you Sam Franji picked me up in downtown Dubai in a black Harley-Davidson F-150,
doesn’t that tell you quite a bit more about Sam than if I’d said he picked me up in his truck?

 

Which brings me to circle around and say this is probably yet another one of those things that my writer laziness fights with. It’s more work to research your characters’ guns, their equipment, their modes of operation, procedures, etc. Uncivil SeasonsYou may get away with faking some of it but you have to ask yourself if you aren’t cheating the story somehow, not making the tale as compelling a dream as it could be. You also have to ask yourself if you’re forfeiting some authority in your work. I admit to cutting a corner here and there but I have to confess, I once threw a book (->) across the room when a character was shot—center mass—with a twenty gauge shotgun and was out of the emergency room the next morning. If you’re not going to go in for all the gory details, I’d say, at least make the ones you do get believable.

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9 Responses to The Devil May or May Not be in the Details

  1. Karen says:

    I had no idea there was a Harley Davidson F-150 truck!! I even googled it to make certain it wasn’t a motorcycle. Details can educate and astound…now I’ve learned something that I can include in my writing.

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  2. Brian Thiem says:

    Great post, Dick. And I couldn’t agree with you more. As you noted with your Alaska fishing story, a crime-fiction author does not need to spend years working as a homicide detective to write about a homicide detective character, but they need to do more research than watching a few TV shows or movies. I just quit a book halfway through (I should’ve stopped after the first chapter) because the author’s police characters didn’t talk like cops, think like cops, dress like cops, or investigate a murder case like cops.

    I don’t know what’s worst, the authors who don’t get their facts right because they’re too lazy to do the research or those who don’t think it’s important. But either way, when the story doesn’t ring with some degree of authenticity, the “dream” is shattered, at least for this reader.

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  3. Kate Flora says:

    Oh, yeah. I’m with Karen…had to google that F-150 to see if it was real, esp. since it appeared to have a Ford logo on the front.. That, Brother Cass, is the response of the picky reader, and you just ran the risk of breaking the frame/disturbing the dream, etc. I read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction when I was starting out, and concluded that, given my process, he didn’t think I was writer. Five years in, he spoke to me more clearly. And I reread about every five years to see how we’re getting along. I also use some of his exercises when I teach.

    Such an interesting post!.

    Kate

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  4. Chris Holm says:

    DO NOT POKE THE DOPP KIT GUY, DICK. HE IS VERY, VERY PASSIONATE ABOUT THIS ISSUE.

    This is something I go ’round and ’round on in my own writing. I’m brazen when it comes to writing about places I’ve never been and things I’ve never done, but I love to feather in a surprising detail or two to build verisimilitude. I find the best way for me to strike a balance (and avoid falling down a research rabbit hole) is to research on the fly. I write with Google street view, Wikipedia, and an image search tab open at all times (in an incognito window so I’m not tempted to pop in on Twitter or Facebook).

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  5. Lea Wait says:

    I’m a research nut I guess. Especially in my historicals, I check EVERYTHING – including word usage in specific years. But sometimes an over-the-top plot will work. Lots to think about.

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  6. Amber Foxx says:

    I figure the best research is that which goes unnoticed. It blends into the story with authenticity. I am satisfied when no one questions or pay any attention at all to something I had to dig into deeply. I feel that way as a reader, too. I don’t want to see the author showing off or notice something that breaks the dream.

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  7. Skye says:

    This is a wonderful post, and I think that your ideas are really helpful for those of us who feel the need to research excessively and ascertain that all sources are accurate. I enjoyed reading this. I don’t believe writers need to become authorities, just careful, enough.

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  8. Dick says:

    Thanks, all. Thought this might, uh, provoke . . .

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