Fact and Fiction – Weaving it Together

weave

I said at the beginning that I don’t do “writing advice”.

That was kind of a lie, because now I’m going to tell you about the terrible, dangerous nexus between all those carefully garnered facts and writing fiction.

Beware, beware: because the days/weeks/months you’ve spent organizing all those incredible details into easily-accessible files can trip you up.

It’s called the info-dump for good reason: it will appear like giant mounds of text: blow-by-blow summaries of exactly how the monetary system in your world/France in the 14th century works; recipe-by-recipe descriptions of forty-seven different kinds of food served at a medieval banquet; long political diatribes detailing the exact relationship of one peerage to another in a semi-feudal society.

You must resist. You must. Plenty of authors don’t, and while there are readers who like a fictional story to read like a high school text book – I’m not saying there aren’t – the vast majority of readers are looking for something that takes them out of themselves, takes them somewhere new – and that somewhere new should not be a classroom. Most readers are, in the end, looking to escape, and nowhere is this more true than in fantasy fiction.

You, as the writer definitely need to know and care about every bit of this. You need to know your world inside and out. It’s really the only reliable way to make sure your world holds as tightly together as the Great Wall of China.

But the hook in this enormous net of factoid fish is that your readers really do not care.

They don’t need to know those details and frankly, they don’t want to. There is nothing that will stop a reader faster than stepping outside the story to deliver a History 101 lecture on currency exchange in the fictional 1200’s.

But then – why bother doing all that work?

 

And this is where the very best authorial magic trick occurs.

When you know your stuff, it shows. You only need the most minimal of details to make your reader feel that they are in good hands, you only need to use those bits that are absolutely essential. Trust your reader and they will trust you – because for some reason, when you really, really know your apples, you don’t need to deliver everything from skin to seeds.

It all somehow magically bleeds through into the way the prose gets out. The reader senses that there is authority there without the writer having to prove it by listing all the minutiae or stopping the fight scene to explain how broken ribs can sometimes be fatal. They can feel the reality BECAUSE you aren’t spending 20,000 words naming every bone of the skeleton beneath the flesh.

And they will rave about your world-building, even though you have only twitched the curtain aside for a micro-second, and given them the merest glimpse of the mechanics – they’ll feel it, and they’ll know it, and they will sink deeper into the story, never daring to let go.

And that’s a reader worth having.

 

 

 

*** Yes, this was a lot of mixed metaphors. Blame it on the weekend, or the booze.

Lost in Space: Research Rabbit Holes and how to avoid them. Kind of.

 

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The trouble with research is that it’s kind of addictive.

The trouble with Google is that it panders to that addiction.

So you need to find ways to keep more or less on track when you do this.

First of all: write down the exact question you are looking for an answer to. “All about the fourteenth century” is not the best place to start.

If you are world-building from scratch, then at least try making some headings like “Food”,  “Architecture – elite”, “Architecture – Peasant”, “Transportation” and so on. Then start with one, and try really hard to follow it through till you feel you have a handle on that section before starting on the next one. Keep some paper and a pen beside you to write down any off-topic stuff that comes up as you do the research – but don’t abandon the original search.

For example: You are looking for information about food, and up pops a website about “medicinal plants”. Oh! You think. I need to know about those, too.

DO NOT suddenly start following that line of research.

Make a note, or add it to the list of the topics you’ve already got going.

Because if you click on that site at 9 am, I guarantee that with the best will in the world, you will suddenly realize around midnight that you now are looking at “Common poisons of 12th century Scotland”, and that your list of Foods of the 14th century still only consists of “bread, porridge”.

Try to remain focused on one topic/subject at a time. Really, really try.

Another way to tackle things is to open a .doc called “Additional Stuff” and every time you find a site that is only a bit off-topic, go to it just long enough to copy the URL onto the word.doc. I like to organize my stuff into folders and subfolders anyway, so I wind up with a folder labeled 14th Century, and then a folder called “Food”, one called “Architecture”, and so on. Inside each of those will eventually be word.docs called “Notes on xxx” and “list of related sites on xxxx” and stuff like that.

(I also have a notebook filled with questions that need to be resolved, and bits of other stray info I come across, because I’m not always handy to the computer.)

It used to have to all be on those little index cards, and inevitably I would lose some of those, because, yes, I am feckless. Organized, but irresponsible, that would be a pretty good summation of me, in general.

It seems a bit time-consuming, I know, but later on, when you start to describe a banquet scene, and you go looking at those files, that list of related sites will remind you that there was, literally, an extant menu of a feast hosted by Henri de Valois, and you have the link right there, and hey! Presto!, There’s all the information you need.

And you didn’t have to stay up past midnight even once.

 

 

 

One other important reminder: you are not obligated to read every article you come across, in total, before deciding that it is useful. This is especially true of academic articles, and the rule of thumb here is to read the abstract (to make sure that the paper actually treats the subject you are researching) and then scroll down to the “Conclusion” and read that to make sure it actually went where it said it was going. Only after that will it become potentially necessary to wade through the background literature summation, the methodology, the data, and the discussion of said data.

Trust me. It’s how everyone gets through grad school before their eightieth birthday.

Research and How to Mug It in a Dark Alley

Back in the Later Stone Age of the internet, people used to get really upset at how other people seemed to be able to find things on the web that they couldn’t.

rose-of-cimarron

Rose of Cimarron

And then some well-meaning other person would start throwing around terms like “Boolean” and “confined relevance” and the upset person would slink away to the Public Library and try to do the research the old-fashioned way.

Times have changed. Google got rid of whatever it was that was making it so hard to figure out how to put search terms into the machine – where do the quote marks go? Do I need “+” here or “/” or the word “or”?

Now you can just enter three or four nouns that you think might be somewhat relevant to your subject and the genies in the bottle magically figure it out for you.

Seriously. They do.

Try typing in    magic street medieval tricks    into your search bar. No commas, no quote marks, no ifs, ands, or buts.

And you get perfectly comprehensible sites that deal with what you are, in fact, probably looking for, which is information on pre-industrial age marketplace entertainers who did what is nowadays called “sleight-of-hand” or “table magic”.

The real problem is getting to something more than surface information. Those first few sites are good, sure, but they aren’t in-depth.

And maybe that’s okay – maybe you just need the basic stuff so you can slide in one sentence about a nifty distraction happening on your village green on market day, so that the Main Character doesn’t notice her baby brother is being kidnapped.

But it’s possible that you need more. Maybe you need to make sure that the trick is something that would and could be performed in your mythical version of France in 1180. You might want to use a coin trick, but can you be sure that common folk even used coins in alt.Provence back then? And if so, what coins?

More Googling will ensue, but in many cases, Google might fail you. I’m not saying there isn’t at least one website devoted to any subject, be they never so obscure or nigglingly specific, but – like everyday news – you need to be sure that the information you are getting is accurate.

When this happens, here’s a trick:

Go back up to the search bar and niggle around till it gives you the pull-down menu of alternate choices relevant to the original search term. For the search terms I used here, it will probably look like this:

Secretum philosophorum
magic in medieval times
Medieval magic spells
black magic

Check those out…

There are also some alternative search engines, and I’m not talking Yahoo! here.

Try “Google Scholar” – it can give you some books and articles that can point you in better directions.

Academia.edu is a really good source as well: people who have written papers on pretty much every topic under the sun have uploaded things there, and it’s free (no paywall! A rarity for things like this) and if you can get access for something like Jstor, there are even more possibilities. Usually, most colleges and universities have that access, and while it is neither universal nor well-publicized, many of these institutions have options like “community cards” that can get you in the door and accessing those catalogues at will.

FREX: University of Calgary has gone almost completely digital, and will assign anyone a free user account good for three months, so that you can get onto a terminal there and look at/download anything you find, and there are literally thousands of aggregate sites with scholarly articles on everything under the sun.

Pro tip: Bring a USB stick with a lot of storage space.

If you aren’t sure how to use these things, read this   http://www.onlinecolleges.net/for-students/online-academic-research/   because it will help.

If all else fails, go to that college library and ask at the desk. Library people will (probably) be only too happy to explain things to you.

But you will need to use your judgment, no matter where the information comes from. Try to get more than one source, and look for things like citations and bibliographies that suggest that the author did not pull a research rabbit out of their hat.

Trust me. You don’t need some 2-star review just because you had the street performer in alt.Provence pull a denier out from behind the miller’s ear in an era when the franc was already in use.

The Road to Fantasy is Paved with Facts

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(This is the first of four “themed” posts about research for fantasy novelists.)

I don’t really give “Writing Advice”.

Oh, sure – I have my opinions, and since I’ve managed to produce two novels and a memoir, I have just enough experience and success to think that, perhaps, I do know what I’m doing when I write.

At least, I know what works for me, and being older and crabbier than I was when the first novel got past the first draft, I occasionally do hop onto the soap-box and declaim about stuff writers might want to stop doing, because it’s annoying to read that shit.

But the one thing I have come to realize that what I do know something about is research.

(You would think that having an MA in archaeology from a highly renowned institution, and having some research published and used, I would have known this before, but it wasn’t until I got about a quarter of the way through my current magnum opus that I understood how incredibly transferable this skill set is, and how many otherwise very decent writers lack it.)

Now, my novels are fantasies.

Literally, I make them up.

But then again, I don’t.

No, the magic that I describe is not known to be in effect on this planet. The deities that are referenced have no singular counterpart in modern religions. The plots, or even the events themselves, are not lifted from European history or anywhere else that I’m aware of.

Those are all just whatever occurred to me at the time, and I am sure that a really anal-retentive reader could find the places where the thing that happened doesn’t exactly fit with its outcome, because real life is never so tidy or karmic.

But then, I’m not alone. That’s every work of fiction ever.

But what I do know is that I model the cultures and world I have created on those ancient worlds and cultures that I know about, because I spent a lot of years reading and researching them.

There’s a method to this madness, and here, as I reach the halfway point of the current novel, I find myself having to delve back into research, for those things I don’t know. And I have to tell you, it is really, really worth it.

Believability in fiction is crucial.

If your MC is climbing a mountain, you don’t want the reader (who may well have climbed a few mountains themselves) tossing your book aside in disgust because they know, three words in, that your description of the actions and emotions involved are completely inaccurate.

Believability in fiction is crucial.

It’s even more crucial in fantasy literature. If you want the reader to believe, if you want them to live inside the skin of your creation, you have to base it all on the most solid foundation you possibly can.

I am not going to be giving writing advice here. I write the way I write and you write the way you write, and readers, too, you all come with your own skills and history and internal ears. You know what you like and you are not wrong about that.

What I’m going to give you is research advice.

Because in this one thing, I can confidently say I know better than you do what you need.

NSFW – Canadians Swear.

Canadians swear a lot.

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I mean, really a lot.

Everything is a bitch, people are constantly asking if someone is shitting them, and 90% of the population can be categorized as bastards at any given time.

We can use “fuck” in so many ways that there is no longer any reason for dictionaries to classify it grammatically. It’s a verb, a noun, an adjective and an adverb  – if there’s a place in a sentence that some variation on “fuck” can be shoehorned into, it goes in there.

It even doubles as punctuation.

And that’s just ordinary conversation.

When we get mad, it can ratchet up to the point where entire paragraphs have been constructed without any non-swears at all. It’s just one possible pronoun or article followed by a long stream of expletives that even sailors would blush at.

But you have to be aware.

Because when we’re really upset – I mean, beyond the natural perturbation of life’s ordinary troubles – when we are so seriously incensed, driven to the wall of anger-insane….

We do not swear at all.

When that happens, be afraid.

Be very afraid.

Because when the cursing stops, we are in deadly earnest, and we intend to stomp you into smithereens.

 

This Week in Canada…

duel

 

A sort of catch-all bill aimed at getting rid of some outdated laws went through Parliament a few days ago, and while it is long overdue, some things were a bit of an eye-opener.

 

The government, at long last, agreed that “pretending to be a witch” would no longer be an offense punishable by law, to the immense relief of schoolchildren at Hallowe’en all across the land.

No, no one had actually been convicted for impersonating witches recently, although Google notes that a Toronto man was charged in 2012, so it is possible that “recently” only covers the last five years. While it is sad to think that people are being hoodwinked into paying big bucks to have demons evicted from their clouded minds and bodies, it is, in the end, no different and no worse than the televangelist demanding followers send money to prevent him from being “taken by the Lord”, or for pastors to eject starving widows from the congregation because they cannot afford to tithe enough for the pastor’s liking – both of which are actual things that have happened in my lifetime.

 

But the other big news from this bill was that dueling is legal again!

Yes, indeed. It is now, once again, the right of every Canadian to settle their differences with sword or gun, as long as it’s done according to the time-honoured traditions.

You cannot imagine how ecstatic we all are about this.

Pistols at dawn! Gauntlets thrown and gloves smacked across faces!

All across the provinces, people with anger management problems are telling their best friends to start boning up on the responsibilities of the “second”, the less recalcitrant are looking up “delopement” in the dictionary, and we all are imploring landlords to lay down stocks of claret and beef steaks, because protocol demands that there be a hearty and red-blooded breakfast following the ritual bloodletting for the honour of a Lady. Lace cuffs are expected to be the most sought-after sartorial item this fall.

Well, it makes a change from all the wrangling over whether customers should have to pay a fee to get their cell phones unlocked, anyway.