Wednesday, May 4, 2016


by Daddy X

Is ‘scope’ even a tool? Whatever. It’s a quality I look for in a read. When I engage with a book, I want more than just the story. I want to know what the story implies in a larger sense, how it relates to fundamental cause and effect.

When our mind wanders, one thought follows another, establishing a kind of sense to us, a logical progression incorporating our own knowledge and ideas. Problem is, to someone else our so-called logical progressions may not make sense. Plotting a path of logical thought can be a quite personal thing. If our reader knows something about a subject, it is perfectly possible for them to fill in connective blanks by supplying their own knowledge. But how do we supply just enough correct information to lead the reader to his/her own conclusions?

Perhaps a few examples will more effectively explain this tie-in of scope and logic:

When I read Simon Winchester’s “Krakatoa”, a non-fiction work, not only did I learn how big the explosion was in 1883, how it reckoned to be the loudest noise humans have ever experienced. I also learned that blast was heard in Australia, all the way from Indonesia. It affected the skies for years, creating lower worldwide temperatures. The eruption launched eleven cubic miles of the planet into the atmosphere. I learned that there was no dawn in the area for three days

I also learned the workings of the geological structure of the inner earth, below the crust we live on. How currents of molten metamorphic rock constantly flow in predictable patterns over millions of years. How these destructive vents we call volcanoes, though devastating in violence, are actually relief valves, periodically releasing pressure that if not checked, would result in much bigger cataclysms.

I learned that the eruption of Krakatoa could have been connected to the first known act of Islamic extremism. The notion that the world was ending made earthly matters no longer relevant.  How it all fits together. Logical cause and effect—backed by history and research.

Winchester does his due diligence. Research, research, research. In this case, research is certainly an indispensible tool.

Another book, this one fiction, “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” was a mixed read for me. Popular back in the 90’s, they made a film (which I didn’t see) of the screenplay. Although I read it at least twenty years ago, the conflicting impressions are still clear.

“Smilla” by Peter Hoeg began as an all-encompassing read. The first person MC, an immigrant female investigator, is working a murder in Denmark. While relating her story, the history of her mother’s native land and people comes alive with facts and anecdotes about the Greenland culture and how they fare socially when transported to Europe. Her people are described to fit within the sturdy genetic and cultural stock of our far northern Inuit tribes.

(See the village in “The Highbottom Affair”, available in “The Gonzo Collection” for a fuller, more fanciful description of these people.)

Those tangential drifts didn’t detract from either the flow of the story or a reader’s attention. Hell, it was one of those books that one resents any time not spent reading. The book had scope. Everything happening on the ground coincided with the MC’s drifts of whimsy. In the first half.

Unfortunately, at one point, the story turned around on its face. It was as though another writer (a not-too-bright one) had pushed the author away from the word processor and took over, turning the story into cheap sci-fi deep-core earth bullshit run-of-the-mill pap.

 If it sounds like I’m angry about that—I was. Although I got over it—at the time I felt as though something had been stolen from me. A stellar read had been bastardized and I still don’t know why. Maybe they ran out of info? Not enough research to get through the book? So they piled it all up front and filled in the rest with crap for readers with a double-digit IQ? Man, was I pissed!

Donna Tartt’s “Goldfinch” really did deserve its Pulitzer. Not only was the story wondrously compelling, her research seemed faultless. Being in the antiques trade, I saw that her impeccable references to art history and enlightened attention to aesthetics appeared to represent a tremendous amount of knowledge.

But did it really? Can authors, using selected and sometimes subtle facts and hints, fake that knowledge? Can we give ‘em a little that seems like a lot? Give the reader enough so their own logical thought progressions will provide veracity? This is fiction, after all.

The idea of research is daunting, and for me, not much fun. Writing is fun. But what constitutes the correct level of inside info to convince a reader? Yet not get weakened by inaccuracies or omissions? How to work those subtleties to our advantage as a writer? I know there’s no substitute for knowledge, but can we fake it in fiction? Is there some fine line that can be walked? Anybody have a process?

What would one even name that skill?

Maybe it’s a tool.


  1. I generally feel that it's safer to know more than you turn out to include in a story, rather than try to make a little go a longer way, but I'm sure there are some writers skillful enough to know just how much is enough. There are other factors, though, such as whether your setting would already be so familiar to readers that they could picture it with very few cues from the writer (or whether it would be very familiar to some readers who would already know more about it than the writer.)

    I agree with you about Smilla's Sense of Snow, although I didn't hate the later parts quite as much as you did. I wonder whether he had something else in mind at first that a publisher didn't think would sell well.

    1. Agreed, Sacchi knowing more than your reader is the ideal, but?...

      And yes, something went wrong with "Smilla". Heh. Could be a title itself!

  2. Now *this* is an interesting conjecture, Daddy.

    I am one of those authors who'd rather write than do research. (I wonder if there's a true bimodal distribution, the way it sometimes seems.) Hence, I tend to write about places and topics with which I am already familiar. People have commented about the strong sense of place and detail in some of my stories, but that's almost always due to personal experience (though sometimes I augment my memory by looking things up).

    The most intensive research I've ever done was for my Mayan paranormal novel, Serpent's Kiss. I wanted some familiarity with Mayan mythology and world view, given that my hero and my villain were both incarnations of Mayan gods. Turned out to be fascinating, not to mention a bit scary! Their rituals tended to be quite bloody, it seems.

    Based on this post, I recommend Elizabeth Kostova's THE HISTORIAN. It's a scholarly scavenger hunt through the centuries, spanning medieval Europe and Turkey. I learned a great deal (in a pretty painless manner!)

    1. Thanks, Lisabet. It's a concept I've been pondering for a while. I really like scope in my reads, and I'd like to find the easiest way of incorporating it into my writing.

      And yes, those Mexican cultures were quite brutal.

      Will look up "The Historian". Is that non-fiction?

    2. The Historian is historically informed paranormal fiction. It's basically a chase through history, looking for the real Dracula. Sounds cheesy, I know, but it's beautifully written and paced. The author does an amazing job capturing the feeling of different places her characters visit--some of which I've seen myself.

  3. Daddy X, you've asked the questions I'm sure we've all asked ourselves. I agree with Lisabet that having more knowledge than you need is better than having too little. One of my pet peeves is shorthand descriptions (usually of settings in major U.S. cities) that the general reader is supposed to recognize. For example, if a story started with the line: "I was hanging out in the Haight in 1965, hoping to score a joint," or "Tim loved the Christopher Street scene in the early 1980s, so none of us were surprised when he seroconverted," we might all have a clear sense of the milieu, but if I were teaching this short story to a class full of students from China and Africa, would it be clear to them? Following from the first sentence, the story would probably be clear as mud, even if the students were all fairly fluent in English, so I would supply supplementary material. When I'm writing, I aim to enlighten the reader without being patronizing, but it's often hard to know where to draw the line.

    1. I knew a guy back in the day who, when he found out where someone came from, would mention a few hippie areas and hangouts, often enough to convince someone he'd lived there. When I told him I was from the Philadelphia area, he started talking about Rittenhouse Square, Alinger's pool hall, Roosevelt Blvd, and the "Second Fret", a coffee house that featured folk-singing. Fact of the matter was that he never even visited Philly. It was part of his BS, often helping him get laid.

  4. I worked as a journalist for a number of years, and doing so taught me about not over-researching. It's awful to write a story when your facts are too thin, but I found it equally awful to write a story with a thicket of facts I couldn't sort out in my head. It was like having to hack through the jungle before building a shelter.

    I don't know that I can quantify how I do this, but I get a feeling in the gut when I can tell I'm building up too much information about something, and I try to stop somewhere around that point.

    When I'm researching fiction, there's a steeping thing that can happen, where little details will come in as you write. Still, I try to avoid too much research. I often make lists of things I think I'll need to know, figure those things out, read one general book for flavor, and then mark places that actually come up while I'm writing. Probably not a foolproof method, though, and I'm not very into writing historicals. Most of my research has been for shorts.

    Anyway, you've brought up a lot of interesting stuff!

    I haven't read Smilla's Sense of Snow, but I always wanted to. :(

    1. I'll go to Google or other reference sites if necessary, or I want to add something more in-depth that doesn't come off the top of my head. Even if I do think I know something specific, I'll often make sure I don't embarrass myself with something that's just plain wrong.

      I'm sure Smilla is not too hard to get. It sold big time when released, so there must be lots of used copies out there. It's really a wonderful read. up to a point. But if you like Sci-fi, maybe you'll like the whole thing. It really is worth it, if only for the first part. it has 'scope'.


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