Just enough fact

“It is not necessary to doubt this solution of the problem.  We have so little of this kind of romance in our history that it is best not to disturb the tradition, especially as there is just enough of solid fact to allow it.”
— Edward Griffin Porter, Rambles in Old Boston, New England (1887)

I’ve come down with a nasty head cold, possibly the result of the weather going all New England on us again (60 degrees one day, big fluffy snowflakes the next), so I’m not sure how much sense today’s entry will make.

I came across the above quote while writing a new draft — specifically, pursuing a puppies-and-donuts detour — and it seemed to sum up a lot of how I approach the second stage of research.  What I’ve been working on has had elements of “secret history” fiction to it: magic in the context of documented places and events. 

Tim Powers, when researching Declare and The Stress of Her Regard, both of which use historical figures and events as characters and catalysts, set a few rules for himself: he could not change dates or recorded events. If a certain person was reported as being in Venice on a particular date, he could not just dismiss it and have the character running around Normandy.  As a result, the novels have a kind of grounding to them that supports the rest of the story.  If the setting, the details of history, the actions characters take, all seem in keeping with what I know of, say, Romantic poets, then I’m happy to accept lamiae and djinn.  (Of course, after that the characters and the internal plausibility of the plot have to keep me going.)

So that’s the main goal I have when I’m doing historical research: just enough solid fact to allow the fantasy to stand atop it.  In a general sense, this is true for any kind of research to flesh out your world; a character making an offhand erroneous comment about Gnosticism or particle physics will knock certain readers out of the story.  But what the quote from Porter above reminds me is that readers want to be convinced; if the story has its own power, there’s no need to doubt the structure beneath.  (It also tells me that I’ll have to be careful in using Porter as a reliable source for building my own histories, but that’s another matter.)

What kind of details kick you out of a story if they’re done wrong?  History, science, personal interactions, geographical impossibilities?


7 Responses to “Just enough fact”

  1. 1 Auntie Lou
    March 11, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    I read a book called “The Gardens of Kyoto” which wasn’t really about gardens or Kyoto, but the main character kept going back in her thoughts to a book SHE had read called “The Gardens of Kyoto.” What’s weird is that the book (the book within the book, I mean) was full of errors and the main character never figured that out, but I was so fascinated with her thoughts based on those errors that I didn’t care.

    What I don’t know is if the author knew that the book within the book contained errors. That bothered me while I was reading. After I finished, though, I found I kind of liked not knowing.

    So even factual errors can work IF they are used effectively. Curiouser and curiouser.

    Take care of yourself. Remember Vaporub.

  2. March 11, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    Scientific implausibilities will sometimes kick me out of a story, but I’m not as rigid about that as, say, the Mundane SF people. That lack of rigidity isn’t because I’m talking about fantasy, note — it’s because I don’t think we know everything about the universe yet, and some things (not evolution, but, say, quantum mechanics) are still open to interpretation. That said, if a character jumps out of a 1000-foot tree and lives to tell of it, I’m willing to let it slide if she uses magic to slow her descent. (Hopefully my readers will do the same, ’cause I just wrote that into book 2. =P)

    Interpersonal implausibilities bug me more, possibly because I’m a counselor and interpersonal stuff is kind of my specialty — but mostly, I think, because it’s so much easier to verify how real people react in certain situations that we should all get this right most of the time. The problem is that a lot of us resort to stereotypes or common misperceptions rather than looking at actual people. So for example, when I see a story in which a character is raped, who then falls in love with his/her rapist or gets over it in 0.25 seconds, I don’t buy it, because that smacks of Serious Cluelessness to me. Or one in which all young characters are depicted as hip and smart while all older characters are uniformly depicted as cranky, resistant to change, and borderline senile. That’s just not how real groups of people work.

    But y’know… the thing that bugs me the most these days is actually too much research, or too much effort to establish plausibility, in a novel. I recently read one of the new “hard fantasy” novels by an up-and-coming author, in which the magic system was so meticulously detailed that I could’ve put together a roleplaying game based on it, complete with prerolled stats. I like RPGs, and I like it when the magic makes intuitive sense, but I don’t read fantasy as a substitute for reality; I don’t need that much detail. It actually slowed down the story’s pace and made the characters less engaging for me.

  3. 3 Matt
    March 11, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    Honestly, the geographic impossibilities/inaccuracies really put me off from books the most. For instance, in Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code,” there were just so many small mistakes here and there about his travels through Europe and different locals that I got too irritated to enjoy it. (The whole Christian mythology re-writing was interesting enough though, I suppose.)

    I also hate when fantasy worlds disregard actual geography… you know, deserts on the windward side of a mountain, really goofy biomes, and goofy weather. I guess I’m just OCD about it, but it makes me question the author too much for me to suspend disbelief in instances where it’s more permissible.

  4. March 11, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    I had to stop reading the Stephanie Plum books (Janet Evanovich) because the main character kept calling a locksmith every time she got handcuffed to something (which was at least once a book.) Handcuff keys are–with very very few exceptions–universal, i.e. any handcuff key will open any pair of handcuffs, and I had a viciously hard time believing that a bounty hunter didn’t have a spare handcuff key. By the fifth or so book I was so annoyed with that one small detail that I had to stop reading the series!

  5. 5 Jeremy
    March 11, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    In traditional fantasy, I mostly just expect internal consistency and believable characters. If the author tells me that magic works one way, and then doesn’t follow her own rules (without a very good justification), that’s going to create a disconnect for me. Unless it’s extremely goofy, weather and geography I’m less likely to notice (just not something I know a great deal about).

    In anything with a historical or contemporary setting, though, I definitely expect a reasonable amount of research. I haven’t read Da Vinci Code, but I’ve read Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress, which was a prime example of a novel that caused a great deal of disconnect. Not only did he not research the little stuff (the director of NSA is a military general officer, not a civilian), which I could have tolerated, he didn’t research the big stuff either (like basic principles of networking / computer operation), which made me want to throw the book across the room. If your major conflict is entirely dependent on people who supposedly aren’t being complete and total morons, I’m not getting over that. I don’t expect perfection, but I do need a story to generally ring true (within the confines of its genre and individual feel) if I’m going to be able to suspend disbelief.

    I’m particularly grateful to authors (Daniel Silva being a prime example) who take the time and effort to tell the reader in their author’s notes some of the main things they changed for their story as well as some of the key sources they used in their research.

  6. 6 mlronald
    March 12, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    Auntie Lou, that’s an interesting point — using the errors to draw someone in. It sounds like it could be tricky, though, since you’d have to balance the errors that will knock someone out versus the errors that are intriguing enough to pull someone in.

    Nora, yes, the whole “impossible physics” will get me too. I had to stop mid-draft of a short story to remember that it wasn’t really possible to have one character jump from a dirigible after another gets knocked out and have either time or momentum to catch the first character. This is what happens when I watch too many movies.

    For personal interactions, I’m usually willing to give the author some doubt, up to a point. I can see a case where a person would fall in love with zir rapist, but it’d have to be pretty clearly established that 1) this person was suffering some severe issues beforehand and 2) this relationship is still very, very messed up. There’s no way it can go from there to happiness and fluffy bunnies. Assigning a broad stereotype to characters is an easy way to fail at this.

    And I’ve had similar problems with too much data in a story. I think it’s partly from enthusiasm — the author has just found this really neat thing and wants to share it! — and partly from getting lost in the details themselves. With magic it’s even more tricky, at least for me; I prefer magic to have some kind of numinous, ineffable quality to it.

    Matt, you should see some of the fantasy maps I drew when I was a kid. Those ecosystems would probably have lasted about two hours before catastrophic change hit.

    Diana, good point. (Makes note about handcuffs in case I write them into a story at some point.) How does she call the locksmith if she’s handcuffed to something, though?

    Jeremy, that plays into one rule I’ve heard about fantasy: you can make up your own rules, but you better stick to them. Also, those authors’ notes have on occasion led me further into research or just other reading — I ended up reading older spy fiction after reading The Atrocity Archives, for example, based just on Stross’ notes at the end.

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