Monday, December 21, 2015

The Perils of Precision

By Lisabet Sarai

As I’ve discussed in other blog posts, I almost always set my stories in some specific, real location. Frequently my settings strongly influence the plot and the characters. Even when they don’t, I like to be precise. I can more easily imagine the action as it unfolds when I know where it’s occurring. (Indeed, I sometimes confuse my mental images with actual memories.) I believe that anchoring my tales in space (and time) makes them more concrete, more involving and ultimately more believable.

However, this tendency to be specific introduces some risks not experienced by authors who stay vague about their settings. I need to include convincing detailsand there’s always the chance I’ll get something wrong.

If I’m lucky, a beta reader or editor will pick up on my mistake. My paranormal cat shifter romance The Eyes of Bast is set Manhattan. When my husband read the manuscript, he pointed out that my heroine was taking the wrong subway line going uptown to her apartment west of Central Park. I found this annoying, since I’d actually researched this bit of informationobviously I’d interpreted the subway map incorrectly. (DH lived in New York City for more than a decade. I tend to believe him.)

Alas, DH doesn’t like BDSM stories, so often I don’t get the benefit of his sharp eyes!

Most though not all of the places I write about are places I have at least visited. On the other hand, there may be a significant time lag before I use the location in a story. I wrote Raw Silk, which was set in Bangkok, more than a decade after I’d lived there. In my recent revision of that novel (coming out in a new, expanded version in February 2016!), I fixed a number of geographic and cultural errors I didn’t notice in the first three editions. (I also provided some cues to anchor the book in an earlier time. Someone reading it now, thinking it was contemporary, would be baffled as to why none of the characters have mobile phones!)

One of the worst mistakes I’ve made (that I know about!) occurred in my second novel, Incognito, which unfolds in a historic district of Boston called Beacon Hill. I lived in Beacon Hill for a year and a half, but that was nearly five years before I wrote the book. There’s a steamy exhibitionist scene that takes place in a late night subway car. I was quite specific about the stations where the heroine gets on and off the train. Caught up in the action, though (at least, that’s my excuse), I completely forgot that a transfer is required between those two stops! Anyone familiar with the “T”, as they call it in Boston, would realize this immediately. (I was able to fix this in a recent re-edit, too.)

You may ask why any of this matters. It may be that most readers won’t notice this sort of error. However, those who do are likely to form a very negative impression of the author, as sloppy and ignorant. People tend to feel proprietary about places they know.

These days if one individual takes offense at your book, the rest of the world can find out pretty quickly. I haven’t even read FSOG, for instance, but I know from reviews and blog posts that it’s full of geographic errors (not all that surprising since it’s set in the U.S. state of Washington while the author is British).

So I do careful research when I canbut I’m not a research slut like some authors I know. I’m likely to check the Internet or the library when I’m not sure about something, but I don’t spend days immersed in my sources. Problems are most likely to arise in situations where I really believe I know some detail that’s actually wrong (or out of date).

Of course, geographically related mistakes aren’t the only sort that can occur in writing. Erotica authors, in particular, need to worry about errors in describing sexual practices. It’s a bit dangerous to write about BDSM without some serious research. I’ve read some scenes that made me want to throw the book at the wall (metaphorically) due to inaccuraciesespecially, the unrealistic extremes Doms were inflicting on their subs. When it comes to sex, though, I think readers are more willing to accept distortions of realityfirst because they’re looking for fantasy anyway, and second, because many of them have no experience at all with the activities described.

There’s one particularly egregious error in Raw Silk that I couldn’t figure out how to fix. My heroine Kate is “forced” by her master to perform nude in a live show in a Bangkok sex bar. She’s disguised as Asian, wearing a black wig to cover her auburn curls and make-up that hides the freckles associated with her Irish background. Everyone agrees she looks Thai. When she sheds her G-string, though, her masquerade should have been obviousshe has, after all, bright red pubic hair!

I was terribly embarrassed when my own Master pointed this out to me, many years ago, though nobody else has ever mentioned it. (Like many masters, mine is a stickler for detail.) In my recent round of edits, I decided not to mess with the problem. Any mention of the issue would distract from the intensity of the scene. And aside from having Kate be shaved (which wouldn’t fit the time period, her personality, or my personal preferences), I couldn’t think of a good solution anyway.

Fiction isn’t required to be realistic of course. Readers know this. At the same time, concrete details can increase reader involvement. Mistakes in those details, on the other hand, can yank the reader out of the narrative and generate negative emotions.

Just one more thing we authors need to worry about!

28 comments:

  1. Problems are most likely to arise in situations where I really believe I know some detail that’s actually wrong (or out of date).

    I know what you mean! Checking things is easy, compared to the challenge of always knowing what to check. Sometimes, as you say, it's a wrong notion or faulty memory we've acquired somewhere along the line and never questioned. Other times, it's something it just might not occur to us to check. For period stories, for instance, I was always diligent about researching vocabulary that I thought might be anachronistic (as I once talked about in a guest post on your blog)—but there may have been other pieces of vocabulary that warranted checking that I simply didn't think to check.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Actually, I was thinking about you when I wrote this, Jeremy. I remember the fantastic post you did on my blog, about your research for The Pleasure Dial. It made me feel so lazy!

      Delete
  2. This is a really interesting discussion, Lisabet.

    I think one of the deadly pitfalls is the difference between what research will tell you and what it's like to know and participate in something. For example, I read one book that involved alternate-reality games as a plot point. The book was obviously really well-researched. It referred to games I've heard of and writers who are well-respected in the field, and it understood the heart of what these sorts of games are about. But I was irritated because the characters all kept saying alternative-reality games, which I've never heard anyone say. I've also never known anyone who actually plays these games who doesn't, at least some of the time, say ARG instead. So that's a tiny detail, but it gave away to me that the author had researched but wasn't actually in the ARG community.

    A lot of the geographical errors you're talking about are like that, too. They'll feel right to someone who's just visited, but a native may pick up something off.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's such a good point about how insiders do or don't use a particular bit of terminology, Annabeth. It can be so arbitrary and so trivial—and yet such a giveaway that a speaker or writer is an outsider. And, of course, the geographical and the terminological can easily intersect: thus, a protagonist saying, "I love living in Nyack because I can easily get to New York City" would give the author away as an outsider to the NYC region, where people would say just "New York" or, even more likely, "the city" in such a sentence, and be very unlikely to say "New York City."

      Delete
    2. It's the difference between immersion and learning from afar. Lately, I've been noticing how much immersion is a factor in our lives.

      Delete
    3. Oh dear! My new novel (The Gazillionaire and the Virgin) has several scenes in a Second-Life-like virtual world. I spent a lot of time chatting with Charlotte Gatto about that experience, but I'm sure I got things wrong... Although since this is NOT SL but another virtual universe, maybe readers will cut me some slack.

      I did pick up that denizens use a lot of acronyms. My heroine does (she's CEO of the company that created the world) but my hero, who's new to online RP, doesn't.

      Hope I didn't screw things up too badly!

      Delete
    4. Oh, this is a technique worth pointing out! Invent your own slightly different version of a thing, so if the language seems wonky to aficionados, it's because your thing isn't SL, it's your thing.

      I am looking forward to reading The Gazillionaire and the Virgin. :) And the characterization difference (savvy heroine, who uses acronyms, versus hero new to the experience, who doesn't) sounds interesting.

      ARGs are a different thing than SL and such, so don't worry if you didn't use language like what I referred to above. Virtual worlds involve inhabiting a computer-generated space. ARGs involve a game overlay on the real world. Different stuff!

      Anyway, I'm excited to see what you wound up with!

      Delete
    5. Annabeth, you're one of the people I thank at the front of the book, for encouraging me to pursue the story. Also Fiona, who first came up with the title.

      I know (intellectually) that ARGs are different from SL, but I think they share some commonalities in the fact that these games/environments breed subcultures with their own language.

      Delete
    6. Oh wow, thank you. Definitely let me know when it is out! :)

      Delete
  3. Mistakes... I've made a few but then again too few to mention - I wish! Hey, just wanted to drop in and wish you all a very Merry Christmas and the Happiest of New Years. I miss you guys - keep up the good work!
    Cheers, JP

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Happy Holidays to you, JP! We miss you too! Drop by anytime!

      Hugs...

      Delete
    2. Yes. All best for the Holidays for you as well, JP.

      Delete
  4. Intriguing post, Lisabet. One reason I hesitate to write stories for location-themed anthologies (esp. those that have to be set in a certain city) is that I can be reasonably sure the city is far away from where I live! I have visited a few large cultural centres, but I'm well aware that research sources can't provide all the inside knowledge that might be needed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I seem unable to write generic, non-location-specific stories. That's partly because very often places inspire my stories.

      Delete
  5. I don't do much with precise locations. Afraid of the likelihood of ... huh... mistakes. As daunting (and fearsome) is the research I'd have to do. EEeeek!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't know... that old mill town with the polluted lake shows up in a bunch of your stories... Very vivid, too.

      Delete
    2. Thanx, Lisabet. I was brought up downwind of a steel mill near a funky Delaware River, so I was immersed in it. Both the town and the river. :>)

      Delete
    3. See, I could tell the details came from real experience.

      The carnival, too, I'll bet.

      Delete
  6. Hi Lisabet!

    I remember the mistakes I made with my first novella "Color of the Moon", setting an erotic ghost story in ancient Heian Japan. I was lucky i found a first reader in Miyazaki Japan who was an expert on the period, and boy, did she tear my stuff into tiny little bleeding pieces. I had it set in a tea house, and not only did they not have any tea houses then - they didn't have tea!

    Its true, nobody will know the difference, but I think one of the creative challenges we start out with is that we have to gain authority with the reader. We have to convince our audience that we sort of mostly know what we're talking about. But it can be fun too. Doing research gives you an excuse to talk to interesting people you otherwise wouldn't have any business talking to. That's fun.

    garce

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm no expert, but the final result in Colors really rang true.

      Delete
  7. Oh - and just imagine if we were rich and famous writers. You could set a story in, say, Tuscan Italy and tell your publisher you needed some cash to go over there and do location research. Maybe they'd do it for a big name. Ahhhhhhh . . . . .

    Garce

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No way. However, I've sometimes considered whether I could try to deduct the costs of my own travels from my taxes... Might raise some eyebrows.

      As an author, though, you should be aware that you CAN deduct the cost of all books you buy.

      Delete
  8. I'm a confessed research slut, especially when it comes to settings. Sometimes this means that I don't actually finish a story by the deadline I'm aiming for, because I'm so involved in the research. But there's always somewhere else to send it, eventually. It's actually just as well that I compulsively check on locations--mostly online, I admit, but not always--because I've found that even places I've been, years ago, don't look quite the way I remembered them, and not always because thy've changed in the interim. One example is a Stone Circle in England featuring a tall monolith called Long Meg; I had been enthralled when I first saw it, and thought I remembered the whole circle clearly, but pictures online proved that my memory wasn't as precise as I thought. I'm not absolutely sure that what I wrote in the story would have been different if I hadn't checked, or if anyone would have noticed mistakes, but I needed to have the place clearly in my mind to be in the mood to write the story at all.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Sacchi,

      I was actually thinking of you when I coined the term "research slut"... ;^) Hope you don't mind.

      I know what you mean about misremembering real places, though. It has definitely happened to me. A bit unnerving when you get the chance to go back and see how different things really are.

      I did have a very validating experience this year, though. My novel Exposure is set in Pittsburgh, where I lived for four years (decades ago). It has a lot of local color. One of my review street team lives there. She read the book and said it really captured the feeling of the place.

      Delete
  9. I'm also a fan of setting in the novel. I feel cheated when I can't ground myself in the book because the authors hasn't bothered to describe much of anything, leading to what a friend of mine calls the "talking head in the empty room" syndrome.

    But if you get something wrong, you will get called on it by an astute reader. So I will often set a story in a real place but rename it ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Definitely. Readers who spot a mistake can be really virulent in their scorn.

      A lot of romance I read has no real setting. I think that contributes to the sense of blandness it has for me.

      Delete
  10. You've saved me money in writer's therapy 'cuz now I know why I just tell character-driven stories! I'd for sure mess up the geographic details and I've lived in Boston and NYC, too!!! More great story-telling to you and all your followers for 2016!

    ReplyDelete