The Devil’s in The Details

The Devil’s in The Details

Warning folks: I’m about to climb up on my soapbox and rant about one of my favorite writing pet peeves. Even worse, I’m going to end with some serious “Duh!” advice, but the truth is, sometimes I have to say (or blog) something out-loud to drive the point home to myself – Even points I’ve ranted and raved about and struggled with for years!!

Here it goes:  Real life doesn’t have to make sense. In fact, it quite often doesn’t. Everyday events often defy logic and statics. Ever run into a high school chum in a crowded airport far from where you grew up? I have – and there were only 257 people in my graduating class. Any idea what the odds are of the two of us being in the same place at the same time, not to mention recognizing each other in a crowd of thousands? Well, math isn’t my thing, so I don’t know the exact number, but my best guess? Like a zillion to one!

So why then must fiction make sense?

According to dictionary.com, fiction is something feigned, invented or imagined; a made-up story. (Notice there’s nothing there about making logical or statistical sense.)

Feigned, invented or imagined. That sounds great. Easy. If the story is made up of feigned, invented or imagined details, then the characters and events should exist outside the world of everyday science, history, law and behavior mores. If I, as the author and ruler of my story kingdom, decided, for example, that I wanted my teacher heroine to be waiting on her year-end bonus to pay for her upcoming divorce, then by golly, I should be able to grant said heroine a lucrative, divorce-purchasing year-end bonus, but NOOOOO. Teachers don’t get year-end bonuses. Oh, and even if they did, divorcing your criminal husband who’s skipped the country is an expensive, drawn-out ordeal.

But, but… it’s fiction, and I’m the author. The ultimate authority. Don’t I have the right to tweak the legal code in order to facilitate my plot? Yes, I do, but only if I want to write a book readers would throw against the wall in disgust and say, “that’s unbelievable!” (which I don’t). If I want to write a book readers will not only finish but love and recommend (which I do!), my fictitious tale must be constrained within believable, real-world parameters.

Certainly, there would be a contingent of readers who are not well versed in the intricacies of the Texas Divorce Code or the pay structure of an inner-city kindergarten teacher, but if I’m not willing to do the bare minimum amount of research, then I’m sure I’ll bungle other more universally known facts before I reach The End.

Contemporary authors are more bound by real-world rules than say Sci-Fi authors, but even in Sci-Fi books, where the guidelines are looser, those authors still have to create a set of rules and stand by them. For instance, you couldn’t write a story where a modern day hero becomes stranded on Mars and somehow miraculously can breathe the Martian air. Human bodies aren’t designed for that; therefore, your readers are going to expect you to address the situation. Good news, it’s Sci-Fi, so you can invent some magical vaccine or a nearly-invisible nose insert or whatever your imagination can dream up to allow your human hero to live in his new environment. Bad news, you’ll probably have to come up with a magic bullet for every aspect of sustaining his life. Bonus: these elements could really add to your tension and conflict, as just breathing becomes a huge factor in your hero’s life. But I digress….

Whether we like it or not, as fiction authors, our task is to create a fantasy bound in enough reality that our readers can believe in the action, understand the stakes, and picture themselves as the characters. We want a story based in reality with the right mixture of adventure and danger to transport our readers out of their world and into ours.

Now the adventure and danger, not to mention the foibles and baggage of our characters, that’s the fun part for us. We are, after all, FICTION WRITERS. We love to make things up, and all these elements are where our voice, our imagination and our underlying themes set us apart from our peers.

It’s the based-in-reality part that often bogs down our creative brains. When our juices are flowing and the words are practically flying onto the page/screen, who wants to stop and google something as mundane as the scientific name for yellow roses or the year in which the telephone was invented? I sure don’t.

But here’s what I’ve learned (and often forgotten) over the years: research time is always time well spent. Now, sure, getting the scientific name of the roses is important to the integrity of the story, but that one phrase likely won’t have a tremendous effect on your plot. You can easily type in a placeholder and look that one up after you’ve captured all those words flowing so beautifully out of your writer’s brain.

On the other hand, what if your hero used Rosa xanthina as a clue to the heroine? Well, then suddenly, the scientific name for yellow roses becomes a critical piece of research, doesn’t it? If you attempt to use a place holder (or worse yet, do like I’ve done and make up something that sounds reasonable, because you know, it’s fiction), you’ll run an inaccurate thread throughout your entire manuscript. Then when your critique partners hammer home the truth and you realize your credibility relies on getting the facts right, you’re going to have to unravel all those feigned, invented and imagined details and replace them with honest-to-goodness, well-researched facts. They say the devil’s in the details. Unfortunately, so is the truth.

Ready for the “Duh” advice? Take the time and do the research before committing words to paper.

Sounds simple, right? Well, I’m here to tell you it isn’t. Researching Texas divorce law is as fun and inspiring as watching paint dry. It’s so much easier, and quicker, just to cull together information gleaned from books and other people’s personal experience. Two major problems with that route: One, I don’t want to stake my credibility on the validity of another author’s research. Two, my goal is write a fresh story, so I’m striving to make my character’s case as unique as possible. Not likely my second cousin’s best friend’s divorce is going to be compelling enough to provide me with adequate details.

One of the worst phases of the writing process is unwriting, those times where you have to erase chunks of text, watching your word count drop significantly with one touch of the delete key. Improper research is a major contributing fact to unwriting.

Like painting a room. The outcome is transformative, but if you don’t take the time to clean the walls, sand the baseboards, pick the proper paint, and tape off the borders, your results will be sloppy and dissatisfying, and the experience won’t be one you’ll be in a hurry to repeat.

So let’s all save ourselves tons of grief and do the prep work ahead of time. Then we can create unique, compelling, authentic stories our readers will be dying to recommend and re-read!

 

 

Dawn Temple

Back when her twin sons were young enough for daily naps, Dawn Temple took advantage of those quiet moments to pursue her dream of becoming a published romance writer. Sneaking in an hour here and there paid off in 2005 when she sold her first book, To Have And To Hold, to Silhouette Special Edition. She managed to secret away enough time to write and sell the second book in her Land’s Cross series, Moonlight And Mistletoe, but alas, her boys outgrew naps and Dawn let go of those stolen moments with her laptop to enjoy life with her two little guys and her big guy, hubby of 21 years.
But now, as an officially retired stay-at-home mom, Dawn has once again found the time and the creative drive to return to writing, and this time around, she’s set her sights on independent publishing. Her first self-published book, Peace of Heart, is scheduled for release in 2017.

7 thoughts on “The Devil’s in The Details

  1. But Mommy, I don’t want to do my homework!

    It does seem like we have a running theme going here in the last few weeks of rediscovering the basics. Imagine doing prep work before you begin a project? Why, what a novel concept – hee hee! But I guess, given you’re latest itinerary, it could be viewed as going on vacation without packing a bag and then bitching when you don’t have the right wardrobe.

    Damn, I hate it when you’re right.

    1. Just listened to a tutorial on Scrivener, and one of the points the coach made was the importance of having your research on hand AS YOU WRITE. It seems even the outside world is working on hammering this point home for me!

  2. I agree, in theory, with what you’ve said here. The devil IS in the details. But those details do not need to rob you of the joy of telling the story. They are simply the DETAILS that you MADE UP – if they don’t quiet fit the state law or the salary structure of a teacher – IT DOESN’T CHANGE THE STORY! It’s a freaking, nitty little detail – it can be changed without changing the essence of the story. Details – by and large – do not impact the plot. XXX place holders can mark a place where those devilish details need to eventually reside. THAT IS THE BEAUTY OF FIRST DRAFT! You can figure out the DETAILS and get all that ‘junk’ right in subsequent drafts. You have a very engaging, sound first draft. SO WHAT if Texas doesn’t recognize a legal separation! So what if Kindergarten teachers don’t get bonuses! IT IS STILL A VERY ENJOYABLE, ENGAGING, VALID FIRST DRAFT! Very MINOR changes will fix those nitty little details!
    That’s my .02.

    1. They may be minor changes, but correcting them is going to entail several detailed conversations. And it will impact the plot line because my intention was to have the divorce progress through the book — making their relationship less adulterous, sort of.

      Regardless of the work needed to fix this manuscript, the lesson is valid, and moving forward, I hope I learn to take my own advice and investigate the real-world answers rather than “feigning, inventing or imaging” all the pertinent details!

  3. I find I do best when I have an idea of the facts I need to have ready before I start writing the scene.

    When I wrote The Orchid Hunter, I knew I wanted this first-person story to have a protagonist who owned the information she’d need to have at her fingertips. I wanted those details to flow naturally through her thoughts and actions, so I read first-person accounts of people who’d traveled through and lived in the Amazon (an ethnobotanist, an anthropologist, a conservationist). I wasn’t writing a botanical guide, but the research gave me enough detail to drop here and there to give the reader a strong impression of what it would be like to tramp through the Amazon.

    In the Promise House series, when I sit down to write a scene, I ask first, “What do I need to know about 1957 for this particular scene?” It could be clothing choices, hairstyles, cars, a map of the Houston Heights, turns of phrase, or something more arcane. Then I spend a half-hour or hour researching those details before I ever start writing the scene. Sometimes it’s a simple as, “the coffee maker would have been a percolator and here’s how that works,” and sometimes as complex as, “Hurricane Audrey caused White Oak Bayou to flood on June 27.”

    And I’m glad I do things that way, because if I’d written one particular scene before doing the research, I would have written entirely the wrong scene based on an erroneous assumption.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m with you, Dawn: I prefer not to waste on that type of effort… Or the “unwriting” that has to come afterward.

    1. Preach, sister!

      I honestly thought my made up facts were going to fly. I was flabbergasted that y’all didn’t just by into my version of reality. Correcting these mistakes will make the story better in the long run, but re-writing a chunk of a book I’ve already re-written twice is a bit depressing and un-motivating.

      1. To be honest, I didn’t bat an eye at either the Texas divorce or teacher bonus stuff, mostly because I know nothing about those technicalities.

        The teacher bonus thing might be really simple — Becca has a CD that’s going to mature on such-and-such a date, or she has a check coming to her as a stipend for some summer teaching project she’s committed to.

        As for the divorce thing, could she have filed the previous year and is now in the last few weeks before it’s final?

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