Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Diving Into The World

The goal of any writer is to create veracity in their story. This extends to both veracity in character and veracity in setting. For someone setting a story in a real place, say Salem, Mass. (The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry), the need to include accurate detail increases beyond what's required in a fantasy world or in off-Earth science fiction. The prime reason for this is that people can actually visit your destinations, and will find out if you include a landmark in the wrong place. Had Brunonia Barry placed the statue of Roger Conant anywhere in Salem except at the Common, people who read her book would find out and immediately discount her as a good writer. Why? Because she didn't do her research.

However, that doesn't mean the writer of off-Earth science fiction or traditional fantasy is completely off the proverbial hook. K.M. Weiland, the proprietress of Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors, did her weekly Sunday post on the problem of using too many settings in fiction. She quotes John Truby, author of The Anatomy of Story (reproduced here):
Many writers… mistakenly believe that since you can go anywhere, you should. This is a serious mistake, because if you break the single arena of your story, the drama will literally dissipate. Having too many arenas results in fragmented, inorganic stories.
I would add that having not enough detail, or too much detail, in the world of your story can have a similar effect. For example, I'm currently researching common professions of the 19th century. The reason I'm doing this is so I know what occupations the residents of the city of Callarion might have, and by extension what kind of people my MC might run into as she travels around the city.

These background details are useful to have as you dive into the world of your story, but are almost immaterial to the course of the story itself. In one portion of the story, my MC happens upon a group of dockworkers. I researched common clothing for a 19th Century dockworker so I could be certain of describing them correctly. Does this mean I spend two whole pages describing the buttons of a man's coat? Of course not. What it does mean is that I can now be certain I'm describing things accurately.

The same goes for details in the setting of the story. Say I placed a fifteen-story glass skyscraper smack in the center of Victorian London. Now, the modern skyscraper didn't really come about until the 1930s, but we did see some steel construction in the 1860s. However, my point is that the modern skyscraper would look tremendously out of place if I say it existed prior to when it historically came about. I'd better have a darn good reason for putting an out-of-history building in an earlier time period (think 1632 by Eric Flint, or Boneshaker by Cherie Priest).

Attention to time period and attention to detail is important in creating veracity in your setting. For my thus-far aborted fantasy series, I spent a lot of time reading about the 1490s (Leonardo da Vinci's time period), because that was when the inventions I included in that story existed, at least in a theoretical sense. I also did a lot of reading on select world cultures, but that's another post.

A warning, however, about attention to detail. There's the possibility that you can contract what's called Research Paralysis -- a condition where you stop writing because you think you need to find everything out before you can write your story. This isn't true. I've yet to meet the writer who can churn out publishable material on the first draft, so my suggestion to avoid this is to write the draft by making notes where you need to research such as parenthetical statements (i.e. (RESEARCH CLOTHING) or (Is this accurate?)) and then move on.

Do not let diving into your world to tease out all the details become your goal. Your goal is to write an engaging story. Nothing more. If that means leaving out certain parts of your meticulously crafted city, then that means leaving them out. Story trumps pretty much everything.


Gary Corby said...

Personally, I'd rename research paralysis to research procrastination. As in, "OMG, I have no idea what happens next...I'll research the plumbing system for a few hours and maybe this scene will write itself."

Matthew Delman said...

Gary --

The funny thing is I've actually had that happen. But it's usually for specific description of how machinery operates/the number of bullets in a specific gun.

Also because I'm weird. But again, that's beside the point.

Gary Corby said...

I hear you. The results generate most of my more detailed blog posts.

I once stopped for a few minutes to prove there were apples in Ephesus in 460BC, all so the character could take a bite. Hours later, I had enough info for small dissertation.

Joshua McCune said...

That's a great point by Truby, and a trap I know I've fallen into before -- then again, I wish Ms. Rowling had explored more arenas in book 7...

Susan R. Mills said...

Amen! Story trumps all. I have gotten stuck in certain chapters for days because I needed to do some research (and you know how little of that I tend to do). I like the idea of just noting it in the manuscript and moving on. You can always come back to it later. Thanks for the tip for us not-so-keen-on-research folks!

L. T. Host said...

My current project-- and my third book-- is the first one to take place in a real city (Chicago). The other two were set in places based on real spots, but wholly made up (even though I'd plotted them on real maps).

I could change this, but I think I'll leave it and just watch some videos of Chicago and study some maps. I like the idea of having it grounded in a real place. It takes some of the work off the world-building, and I can concentrate more on the story, which is a doozy.

Either way, I'll need to do a bit more research than I've done for my other books. I will try not to fall into Research Paralysis though.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

What an excellent post! Yes, I think this phrase of yours is so true.

Do not let diving into your world to tease out all the details become your goal. Your goal is to write an engaging story. Nothing more.

It's something I keep reminding myself as I write a story set in the late 16th century.

Unknown said...

Research is a hard thing to balance. Sometimes it can inspire new twists or plot threads and sometimes a detail that seems small could put major holes in your story once you realize you have to change it but you're never going to know everything. Eventually you have to write. I'm currently trying to switch from a vaguely fifteenth century like setting of my own creation to a story set in an actual place in an actual time with some characters who actually existed. it is intimidating.

dolorah said...

I've started research on Irish folk tales and Gaelic deities. It's totally interesting, but takes a lot of time to get through everything to find one or two I can use. But I'm not sure if my MC (a female) should be a Paladin, Druid, sorceress or magician.

Right now, all I know is it has an old Gaelic feel, so I'm starting there.

This is good info on research. I quite agree. Thanks for the timely post.


Stephanie Thornton said...

Oh man, I've totally let research derail my writing. I spent weeks researching a tiny funerary complex from the Old Kingdom. Two weeks and three pages later...

Yeah, and most of those three pages will get cut.

Valerie Geary said...

What a timely post for me!! I just started in on some additional research/world building before I begin draft #2 and I realized that I had set my story the same year the Civil War started, but didn't mention anything about it. So I should probably go ahead and change that..... :D

notesfromnadir said...

That term Research Paralysis is so accurate! I think it's happened to all of us at some point. But just recognize it and move on because it is all about the story.