Thursday, October 11, 2007

Faking It For Real

Having been complimented on my apparent knowledge of firearms and explosive devices (all gleefully faked with the aid of a little research) has made me think about the topic of how we acquire apparent authenticity. In my case, all of my facts were picked up through judicious reading plus a half-hour discussion with my brother-in-law, who is a genuine gun-nut. (The only thing I wanted to know was how far a 30.06 could be shot with accuracy given a good sniper scope, but he was so enthused it was hard to keep him on-topic.)

A next-door neighbor in my youth was a member of the Minutemen and the John Birch Society, and I've met other gun-toting right-wingers over the years. I've known a gun-toting left-wing lawyer. I've known more than a few criminal types. And I've known a whole slew of military and ex-military people.

The odd thing is, I think it's often easier for an outsider to write convincingly about technical matters. We are more likely to have an eye for the telling detail. We are less likely to take a reader's knowledge for granted. We are less likely to bury the reader under a dumpload of facts.

I think that what makes technical details work is how the POV character thinks about them, their emotional relationship with the technology. For example, I've never yet written a scene where a doctor uses a scalpel, but it's pretty easy for me to imagine that my fictitious doctor might have strong feelings about (probably against) disposable-blade scalpels, believing that they are less stable and reliable than solid scalpels. I imagine I'll toss in something about "drop-forged steel" (it says that on one of my wrenches) to make it sound as though I know what I'm talking about.

Often I swipe the attitudes and concerns of characters from listening to artists talk about brushes, or to guitarists talk about their instruments and strings...or even from our interminable writer-talk about pen versus pencil versus typewriter versus computer. Though the emotional relationship of human to object is often considered to be "a guy thing," just get a good cook of either gender going on the topic of kitchen hardware. It's not a guy thing, it's a craft thing, and craftspeople of all types share deep commonalities.

Nor is personal experience necessarily a prerequisite for authenticity--at least not in any direct way. As Flannery O'Connor said, anyone who survived childhood has enough experience for a lifetime of writing. It's true. What child hasn't experienced love, grief, fear, anger, delight, frustration? The only thing missing is lust, and that comes along soon enough.

Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage was widely acknowledged by US Civil War veterans as the most authentic description of what it felt like to be in combat. Although Crane was praised by men who had actually fought at the Battle of Chancellorsville, that battle took place eight years before Crane was born, and more than thirty years before he wrote the novel. What is more, Crane had never been in combat, and never served in the military.

The bestselling military writer of our own times is Tom Clancy. Like Crane, Clancy has never been in combat and has never served in the military. From his writerly addiction to military hardware, many assume that he had some inside track, perhaps as a Pentagon consultant. Nope. He was an English major (because he couldn't pass physics courses), and before selling The Hunt for Red October he made his living as an insurance agent. (Since Red October became a bestseller, Clancy has had special access to all manner of technical information through the good offices of many military admirers; but although there is a greater wealth of tech-geek material loaded into his later books, none of those books live up to the shorter, more human, and less-authenticated Hunt for Red October.)

To draw on examples from MNW: Roger Morris is young enough that I'm pretty darn certain he never visited St. Petersburg in the 19th century. Matt Curran may have had demons assault him for all I know, but I'm reasonably sure they didn't do so shortly after the Battle of Waterloo. I know for a fact that Aliya Whitely has never been to Allcombe, because Allcombe doesn't exist. (I asked.) And Michael Stephen Fuchs hasn't had running gunfights with cyber-oriented existentialist gangs--hmm. I could be wrong about Michael. From what I hear, he does have a real-life thing for guns, and computers, and philosophy.

But for most of us, I think, the joy of fiction is pouring ourselves into someone who isn't shaped like us. I'm not a serial killer, but if I were, here's the kind of serial killer I'd be. I'm not an unemployed single mother, but if I were, here's the kind of unemployed single mother I'd be. I'm not a werewolf, but...

Well, okay. I'll 'fess up: I am a werewolf. But I don't write about it.


Janet said...

Too late, you just did... ;o)

I think you have a good solid point. Experts have a hard time making a topic accessible to non-experts. Just look at the vast majority of technical writing...

Jeremy James said...

Great post. It's all about the emotional attachment to objects. Everyone has emotions.

Tim Stretton said...

I think the point about "telling detail" is key. You want to imply the whole without labouring it.

One of the reasons Jack Vance's sf has worn so well is that he recognises you don't need to do technical detail. If your viewpoint character gets on a spaceship, does he care how it goes faster than light? It's a mode of transport, like getting on a train. Most people's interest in technology is what it does, not how it does it. So why do so many writers (especially in sf) tell us at excruciating length how the bloody kit works?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet-

Yes, I've even perpetrated some of that technical writing myself!

Hey, Jeremy-

And that's one of the things writing does far better than movies. Poor screenwriters have to have characters engage in all sorts of physical manuevers or weird dialogue to get across how much somone loves his shotgun...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

"So why do so many writers (especially in sf) tell us at excruciating length how the bloody kit works?"

In the case of some sf writers, I think explaining how the stuff works is the only reason for the story.

In other cases, I think writers get trapped into thinking all of their research needs to show up on the page--to show we've done our homework, I guess. If you have 30 hours invested in studying some little topic, it's hard to to resist the urge to go beyond the one sentence the research needs in the story.

Sam Taylor said...

As a professional Technical Writer (who doesn't enjoy the Technical part of the writing), I've gotta say what I love about writing fiction is that I don't have to explain how to boot up your computer and "click" your mouse so you can install your software{*cough* hyperbole! *cough*). ;)

I notice that some of the necessary habits of over-detail and step-by-steps bleed over between into my writing, but I go to great lengths to ferret them out. I try to leave as much to the reader's imagination as is safe, and over-detailing anything is the quickest way to put them to sleep.

Sam Taylor said...

My last message butts up against the need to put the "one true detail" in (in practice, this is usually several details), to give gravitas and veritas to the story.

There is a balance to everything.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--

Yeah, experience rendering things in precise detail is a danger. But if reined in, it also allows you to get a reader through a complicated sequence with clarity. Like you say--balance.

I once applied for a job as a tech writer. They looked at my samples, which described how a refinery distillation tower worked, and they told me it was very clear, very readable, but "too conversational." Meaning, I guess, that I needed to tighten up my sphincter a bit to satisfy their standards of incomprehensibility. I took it as a compliment.

Jake Jesson said...

(Dammit, Blogger ate my post! Heh.)

As Tim pointed out, the 'burying reader under dumpload of facts' thing is the bane of sf/fantasy. It's a bit difficult to have an outsider's perspective when you're making up the world in your own head.

Then again, that doesn't take cliche into account. The Lord of the Rings Rip-Off No. [Insert Arbitrarily Large Number Here] may well count as being written with an 'outsider's perspective'. In fact, the parts of the regurgitate fantasy world the author invented themselves stick out because those are the only parts the author bothers to explain. Unfortunately, this can be extended to plot and character motivations just as much as setting...

And there's always things like vampires, where authors sometimes even start out by explaining which cliches are true, which are untrue, and which the narrator (read: author) thinks are utterly ridiculous (read: unkewl).

Annoying though this is, it does speak to a central problem of sf/fantasy, which, come to think of it, is merely an exaggerated version of the Setting Problem all stories have - how do you get all this info across to your reader without annoying them? Which is bad, which is good? Purely, I suppose, good info would be info relevant to the character, and bad info would be info relevant only to the author. But what about info irrelevant to the character, but relevant to the reader?

I guess that's why the Newbie Initiate character is so popular. Too bad they're usually boring as shit.

David Isaak said...

Hi Jake--

I'd never really thought about it in that way, but sure--the parts that ger described are the parts that vary from common knowledge/expectation.

And you're right--the Newbie is usually boring. But I can think of some wonderful exceptions. Stephen Maturin, in the Patrick O'Brian novels, is a Newbie with respect to seafaring matters (and therefore gets things explained to him all the time), but is also a wonderful, complex co-protagonist.

It may be that any character whose main reason for existing is to serve the author's program--often the Newbie, the Love Interest, the Really Together Best Friend, the Computer Guy--is inherently boring.

Janet said...

David, I would have taken that as a compliment too. I personally think that all technical writing, at least that which is intended for laymen, should be written by somebody who knows very little about the subject, who will see his/her job as translating the geek speak to the rest of the world... Sometimes they do get it right, and it's a joy when they do. I'm the kind of person who reads the instructions and the manuals and the help sections and some of them are almost totally incomprehensible. Like the stuff that came with my new router... ;o) They should have given you the job.

Sam, I bet you're writing the ones that actually help.

David Isaak said...

Hi Janet--

You make an interesting suggestion:

WRITER NEEDED. Mus know nothing about the following subjects...