Realistic Writing

(Before I start this post, I’d just like to say that WordPress is driving me nuts this week.  It’s taken me three tries to log in every single day.  Annoying!!)

So, this is something I think about often.  How realistic does a book really need to be?

I can’t remember the book or who was reviewing it (useful, I know), but I remember reading a review where the reviewer really enjoyed a book and later came back and amended the review because other reviews of the book had criticized its authenticity.

And, sure, if you’re reading a book set in 5th century Spain and you’re a Spanish history enthusiast, it’d probably drive you absolutely batty to read a book that isn’t true to that time period.  But if you’re someone like me who just wants a good story, I doubt you’ll even notice that the book isn’t realistic.  (Unless, of course, the main character pulls up in front of the castle in a Rolls Royce or something.)

This happens in TV shows all the time.  My friends who live in DC were talking about a scene from a show where someone is buying coffee right in front of the White House.  Turns out, not so realistic.  But who cares?  Does it make the TV episode less enjoyable if you know that the person couldn’t have bought a coffee with that view in the background?

(If so…Hint: It’s make-believe.  None of it is real.  Even if it’s based on a real city.  Even if some of the characters are modeled on real people who once existed, it’s still not real.  It’s all made up.)

I respect those authors who really know their subject matter and incorporate those details into their stories.  (As long as they do it without shoving it down my throat.)  I just don’t think I have that much of a problem with the ones who don’t get every single last detail right.  (And, quite frankly, maybe it’s because I don’t know when they get it wrong.)

Which leads me to the second half of what I think about when I think about this issue.  Which is that there are a lot of misconceptions out there.  Tons of people think they know about things and have no clue.  Take up any sort of well-known but not often pursued hobby and you’ll soon understand how very different the popular view is from reality.

(I’ve heard lots of discussion about how unrealistic the skydiving scenes in Point Break were.  But, guess what?  People loved those scenes and the movie brought a lot of folks to the sport.  Realistic scenes wouldn’t have been near as entertaining.  And that’s what a movie is for, right?  To entertain.  It wasn’t a documentary.)

So, then, who do you write for?  Do you write for the masses who don’t actually know how things work or do you write for the small group of people who do know?  Do you have 10,000 people (we could all be so lucky to be that widely read) think you’re an idiot when you’re not?  Or do you have 100 people know you’re an idiot, but 10,000 think you got it right?

I don’t know.  I think if I knew for a certainty that something worked one way that I’d have to write it that way.  But, I wouldn’t tear my hair out if I had a character use a bronze sword two hundred years before bronze was discovered.  Especially not in a world I made up that was just loosely modeled on some prior time period.

Maybe that cavalier attitude will doom me to never being a published author. (I suspect my writing ability will doom me first, but you never know…)  I’ll take that risk, though.

This is also less of an issue with speculative fiction (at least the type I write).  Part of the beauty of making up the world I write in is that I can make up the rules.  (I won’t digress into how that’s not quite true – that’s a whole other post.  But I will acknowledge it.)

To me, it’s far more important that character reactions are authentic and that cause and effect line up.  I could read the most well-researched, technically correct book and hate it if the characters were flat or if I just couldn’t believe the sequence of events.

To me, realistic writing – getting all those little details correct – is like putting the decorations on the cake.  (It’s not even the icing.  It’s the stuff you put on top of the icing that makes it all look pretty.)  I want the cake to taste good first and foremost.  If you can’t bake a good-tasting cake, I don’t care how good you are at the decorations.  Of course, if you can do both, you’re a rock star.

(And with that bad analogy…I swear, my day job just kills my writing.  It’s like some whack-a-mole game being played by a five-year old sadistic bully.  Creative thought?  Whap!  Coherent sentence?  Whap!  Cool idea?  Whap!  Whap!  Whap!)

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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5 Responses to Realistic Writing

  1. lynxchild says:

    My writing professor talked about the difference between “realistic writing” and “believable writing.” Those realism details are nice, but you only need enough to keep maintain the suspension of disbelief. Truly believable writing is more about internal consistency than anything else. That explanation really helped me understand it.

    However, I personally love those little details that show the author did his/her research. I agree, though, that they’re like decorations on the cake. Nice, but necessary? Probably not, but it also depends on the cake.

    • mhleewriter says:

      I like that explanation. And you’re right – it does depend on the cake (book). Wedding cake? Better be decorated to the hilt. Cake you bake on a random Tuesday out of boredom? Not so much.

      I suspect when it comes to books that different genres expect a different level of realism. I read some of those Shopaholic books and I’d think that all the fashion bits would have to be spot on, but no one is going to question the realism of the mountain rescue scene.

  2. Keri Peardon says:

    As a history major and medieval re-enactor, I held myself to a high standard when I wrote my historic romance. I made my husband show me how to fight with a poleax and I made him read the story when I was finished to check my accuracy. (I learned from him that if you get your wool clothes wet when it’s freezing cold, you should keep them on, because they actually keep you warm, even when wet. I have to go back now and change a scene where the characters strip down to keep from freezing.)

    When I started my vampire trilogy (debuting August 31! I’m excited!), I spent a lot of time pouring over medical books and asking my mother (a nurse) questions. I have my vampire’s physiology all mapped out and I tried to make it as biologically-believable as possible.

    During all three novels, the main characters go to Jerusalem. I’ve never been to Israel, but I watched documentaries, and looked at pictures, and tried to be as correct as possible in my descriptions of the city.

    Neil deGrasse Tyson made me paranoid with his critiques of “Titanic” and the incorrect star field over the North Atlantic, so I looked up the moon phases and made them accurate to the days in my book.

    Yeah, I’m that anal. Which doesn’t mean that there won’t be mistakes, but I think you’ll really have to hunt for them. But, personally, I find the research fun. Of course, that brings us back around to the fact that I was a history major: I like research.

    • mhleewriter says:

      Keri – Congrats on the upcoming trilogy!

      I think that’s great that you did such detailed research for your novels, because it’s clear that you enjoy it and I’m sure that shows through in your writing. And it’s not keeping you from writing your books, which I suspect can happen to certain authors who don’t enjoy the research aspect or who use research to avoid actually having to sit down and write.

      The more I think about it, I did do some research for my novel. But it was more centered around writing down the lessons learned from the Milgram experiments and Zimbardo’s recent book on the psychology of evil. (Psychology major – what can I say? I guess we all default to our area of interest.)

      • Keri Peardon says:

        I think I’m kind of backwards to the way I research. I spend a few hours getting a brief overview, then I start writing. When I need to know something (map, coinage, clothing, etc.) I look it up. I find I waste less time that way, only looking up the information I really need.

        I placed my knight in “Flames of Prague” in a no-name village about 1/2 day’s ride from Prague. I described the woods and hills and everything. It was only after I was finished with the story that I printed a map of Prague, drew a circle the appropriate distance around Prague, then started looking up the towns listed on the map. I actually found a small town that existed in the 14th century and has terrain like I described, so that’s where Jakub now lives.

        Totally backwards to the way most people would do it. But I’ve found I have good instincts when it comes to medieval things, so I often just write what I think ought to be true, then find out later, when I start fact-checking, that I was right.

        Majoring in psychology, you probably have the same sort of instinctual feel for the way people will act in any given situation.

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