The Flight of the Sorceress

The Flight of the Sorceress
Front and Back Covers

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Importance of Verisimilitude in Fiction


The other day, my eye was caught by a book promo. I am on many lists and perhaps 500 email promos show up on my computer screen every week. It takes something special to get my attention. (The more promos I get the more I begin to understand how easy it is for agents, editors and publishers to miss good stuff because they are swamped.) Anyway, this one particular promo got my attention…because I knew the facts in the promo excerpt were patently wrong.

What this author did was move the homeland of a particular ethnic group from one place to another that was three to four thousand miles away, in a distinctly different environment. It would be like placing the Oglala Sioux (Indians of the Great Plains of North America) in Tierra del Fuego. I emailed the author, asking whether this was a mistake or intentional. The author replied that it was intentional, and that it was within bounds because it was fiction. This response gave me pause. Just cause you can, don’t mean you should. I don’t think what this author did was a wise choice.

That an author should make a conscious decision to take a group or character from one era or location and place them/it in another, just because you can, I find, rather strange. Obviously, my thinking doesn’t apply to a plot point. It’s fair game to imagine what would happen to a particular person or say, ethnic group if they were plunked down in another place or have travelled in time. But if you are just in need of a protagonist or perhaps a victim, you ought to have a good reason to drag a real group or person into a story.

I spent years doing research for The Flight of the Sorceress. Authors, reviewers and historians all have commented on the thoroughness of the work. I have earned the confidence of my customers so that I can better make my point and accomplish my goal of using fiction to expand the reader’s knowledge.

I have a new work of fiction, Burning Questions, about to be released. Even though I lived for many years on location so to speak, I spent a lot of my time doing research. I wanted as much verisimilitude as I can get. I wanted my settings to be accurate both in time and place. I wanted the ocean conditions to be right for the time of year. I wanted the flowers to be blooming or the leaves to be falling as one who knows the location might expect. I wanted the characters to be typical of the kind of people you’d expect to find in the locations I have selected for the story. I want my characters to eat for breakfast the same things that people who actually live on location would be eating. And if the location is fictitious, I still want it to have some of the same sort of features that give the place credibility, so that the reader can have a mooring. My made-up place ought to look like someplace familiar even if it is a spoof of that familiarity.

This is simply saying that even in my fictitious world —unless it is somehow part of a plot line —I would tend to make the leaves of trees green. My skies would be blue or gray and if I went with clouds, I’d be prone to putting them up there in the sky. Water would float boats, and people would drink it. And so, if I were to decide to populate my novel set in Tierra del Fuego with indigenous peoples, I wouldn’t import some random tribe from eight thousand miles away. If there once were actual indigenous peoples at my location I’d try to research legend and lore from the proximate neighborhood. I’d want to build that into my story, to give it a location-based verisimilitude that I would hope might interest a reader. If not, I’d go with my author’s license and make up some phony tribe. But I’d do it in a way that would allow my reader to continue to believe that skies were blue in this land, just as they are in his or her own land.

Fiction works best when the facts and premises are credible. Characters and props, talking points, descriptions, whatever, should all require a plausible explanation for being in a story.  I want my readers to be confident in my research. I want them to find my descriptions of time and place accurate. I want them to accept that people in these particular environs are realistic and capable of acting in the way I have them act in my novel.

And when, as a prominent part of my tale, I stick a naked Fiji Islander in the tundra of the Northwest Territory, I better have a damn good reason for freezing this poor guy’s balls off or having him die of excessive mosquito bites. I just can’t bring myself to stick the Fijian in a snow bank because I’m too lazy to find out what an ethnic Tierra del Fuegan really looked like and whether or not such indigenous folk were habitu├ęs of snow banks. And I’m too invested in creating a credible work to just shrug, palms up, and say when someone wonders why I did such a thing: “Hey, it’s fiction man, let it happen. Don’t be so fucking uptight.”

So my verdict is: do your homework. Build your novel with as much accurate content as you can and don’t leave yourself exposed to criticism by somebody who knows you could have done better, or worked harder, to make the story more real. For me, better fiction involves research to make a story credible to a person who grew up in the neighborhood you are trying to use as the setting for your story.

I buy books. I will pay my money for works where I have confidence that the foundations are solid. I won’t buy a work of fiction where an incorrect fact slaps me in the face. There is no “take” from such a work. For me with my consumer hat on,  your final product is sure to benefit from verisimilitude. So this author lost a sale and may find that savvy reviewers are happy to throw darts at the premise. There’s no upside in doing the hard work of writing a novel but passing on research that can make it the best you can possibly create.

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