Sunday, April 18, 2010

Suspension of Disbelief

It’s a little nerve-wracking to start a new blog, particularly when you’re a writer of historicals, because there’s just so darn much you can talk about! And I tend to be scatterbrained at best, leaping from one topic that interests me to another. So don’t be surprised if on the 18th of the month, you suddenly find some oddball topic that is just, well…odd and not the least bit scholarly.

Speaking of odd, today I want to talk about something that has come up several times lately. It's been on my mind and as a writer, I find it fascinating. You may find it less so. Sorry.

Anyway, the topic for today: disbelief.  You know, that thing you have to "put aside" when you read a story, especially one that just seems unbelievable to begin with.

Well, as a writer, it's my job to suck you into the world I create and make you believe it enough to stick with the story until the end. However, lately, I’ve discovered that what causes the reader to stop and say, “hmmm,” isn’t necessarily the tricky plot point or too-stupid-to-live (henceforth known as TSTL) heroine, or hero. It is often the thing the writer thought she could just assume was believable, because it’s a real event. Or real something that actually occurred or was used in the past.

I’ll give you someone else's example first. I had a colleague who included a brief mention of the War of 1812 in her manuscript. A reader doing a critique objected on the basis that “one shouldn’t make up a war like that—everyone knows there was no war between England and the U.S.A. in 1812.”

When the writer (in tears) spoke to me about it, it took me a while to understand the problem. I thought I misheard her and couldn't understand what the scathing comments concerned. The war was real, how could the reader object? But this is an example of something that perhaps called out for either a brief explanation in the book, or an Author's note giving the bare facts of the war.

Later, I had personal experience of this phenomena when I was questioned about a 19th century scandal in England. During the Napoleonic wars, some people made money by selling spoiled grained to the military. Rest assured, the culprits were caught and tried. Found guilty and punished.

Sad, and sadly true. There seems to be very little that humans will actually stop short of, historically speaking. So it wasn't the activities of the hero and heroine that seemed odd--it was the "real reality" that actually sparked that, "hmmm, I find that hard to believe" moment.

Which actually brings me (long-way-round) to my point. It’s the "real things" that may cause people to assume the writer doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.

We writers spend all our time justifying the fictional elements. At least I know I do. We all take for granted the historical reality and forget all the hours of research into truly odd and bizarre historical things. I'm frequently guilty of making short shrift of the history, forgetting that the reader has no way to know which bits are "made up" for the convenience of the story, and which are really, well, real. I may spend many extra cycles on making the bizarreness in my plot believable, forgetting that I haven't adequately explained the historical underpinnings.

I’m beginning to learn that it might not be the plot elements that need explanation. It may be the historical facts, themselves. We may need to place into context that tidbit of history we include, perhaps within the story (if it makes sense) or in an Author’s Note at the end. I’m personally very fond of Author’s Notes and read them religiously, so I might have an unfair preference for that vehicle. But as a reader, I hate it when the author digresses from the story to throw in some long-winded, historical "this is how things were, then" passage that isn’t germane to the action at hand. It often seems to slow things down.

For me, "the reader", the fewer, “As you know, Caroline, the fact that in 1812…” digressions, the better. And I appreciate Author’s Notes, because they don’t interrupt the story and you don’t have to read them unless you really want to. But I'm always curious about what other readers think or feel about this.

What do you prefer? An explanation of the history within the context of the story, or an Author's Note at the end?

By the way, this inspirational topic was brought to you by a recent question about an obscure historical fact. Or rather, a strange-but-true phenomena that resulted in a serial murder case in England.

“Yes, Virginia, there really was a serial murder team known as Burke and Hare, comprised of (not unexpectedly) William Burke and William Hare.”

This deadly duo murdered folks around Edinburg Scotland from 1827 through 1828, for the express purpose of selling the corpses to physicians’ colleges for dissection. They were so successful (until they were caught) that the word “burking” comes from their infamous method of killing folks by compressing the chest and smothering the victim.

The actions taken by Burke and Hare led one person to ask me if such heinous behavior could ever be true. It really is hard to believe, especially since the money wasn't even all that great.

“And yes, my dear, it is sadly true. Burke and Hare popularized the crime, after they ran out of ready bodies in the graveyard.”

History is definitely stranger than fiction.

It’s our job to make it seem real.

I only hope I succeeded in I Bid One American, and my most recent historical romantic mystery, The Bricklayer’s Helper, (Aug 2010 release).

But ultimately, it's up to the reader to decide!


Paty Jager said...

Interesting, Amy.

Celia Yeary said...

AMY--rest assured, this has happened to all of us. I try very hard not to invent a historic event and put it in a novel as something real, so when I'm told--"this is unrealistic--couldn't or didn't happen"--I readily go back to my research and at least satisfy myself, if I can't satisfy others.
Often, you see, truth is stranger than fiction. Celia

Delle said...

Oh, do I understand! I've been told 1. "there were no English king names Rufus" (yes I know- that was a nickname for William II).
2. "Rufus was a redhead." (No, he was blond with a beefy red complexion.)
3. "There were no newspapers in 1806." (duhhhhh... anybody remember Ben Franklin?)
4. "A Viking would never surrender his sword." (Which fiction author told you that, because that's something no one alive today knows.)
5. My favorite, recently, in an unfinished paranormal Regency entered in a contest: "There's no such thing as the Maree. I looked it up." (There is now, because I created them!)
Oh, and there was this very well-known agent who asked me, "Who is this Valkyrie character? I never heard of him."