Writing and Realism

Realism is always an afterthought in writing advice: two thousand words on plot development, four thousand more on character development, and then a quick footnote on the importance of “doing your research.”  I guess most writers and writing instructors take realism for granted, as if it came naturally with close attention to characterization and plot.

But the single most common defect in fiction writing nowadays—especially with the rise of self-publishing—is the absence of realism.  In fact, most of the novels that fail to maintain the suspension of disbelief, in my experience, don’t fail because of typos and poor style; they fail because factual errors and inauthentic speech culminate in a saturation point where you just can’t be bothered to go on.  Let me provide a downright incredible example of what I’m getting at.

Some time ago I was handed a short story to critique as part of an informal writing group. The author was not only a graduate student in the humanities, he’d also attended a summer writer’s workshop at a prestigious European university.  So his story had not only been vetted by the writing group and its blue-chip instructors, but it was the culmination of a whole summer’s effort in the program.

The story was a piece of historical fiction, which saw the eighteenth-century heroine turn radical feminist after a tryst gone wrong. Not my cup of tea, to be sure, but from a purely stylistic point of view, it was well-written (though it should’ve been after passing through so many hands).

Nonetheless, the story was replete—I mean from the first sentence to the last—with the kind of factual historical errors that would embarrass a first-year history student.  I’m not even an expert on this era, but it was immediately apparent to me that the details about sentiments, manners, clothing, pedigree and place were all so horribly anachronistic that even a powerful plot (which it didn’t have either by the way) couldn’t have saved it. The most cringe-worthy error saw the heroine inspired by the works of Mary Wollstonecraft a full half-century before the feminist activist had even been born—as the kids say, “epic fail.”

At any rate, the experience suggested two rules of thumb to me that have been proven time and again since then: (1) one of the essential differences between professionals and amateurs is the level of realism; and (2) having your work vetted by a successful writer or a credentialed expert is no guarantee that you’ve satisfied the basic conditions for a good story.  Since the second point deserves a separate treatment, I won’t say more about it in this post beyond offering a cryptic preview of a future post: a fanatically pedantic editor with a broad knowledge-base who understands grammar the mechanics of narrative is far more useful to a writer than other writers or literary critics.

As for the first point—the importance of realism in writing—let’s begin with a postulate:

 Every writer can’t be a Hemingway when it comes to prose style; but every writer can get his facts right.

Now, if you’re one of those practical people who prefers to focus on what he can do, instead of dreaming of what he can’t, let me offer a few general principles for getting the facts right.  In other words, let me suggest some categories for “doing your research,” which you should be added to a checklist for improving on character, plot and dialogue.

Wait a minute! You say this sets the bar on style too low. If that’s what you’re thinking, I have a two word response: Herman Melville.  Melville was an amazing stylist and part of the reason was his seamless integration of nautical terminology and sea-fearers’ brogue into his prose.  That one example should suffice to prove the connection between style and factual knowledge, which is really an extension of the principle of realism involved in avoiding cardboard characters, implausible plots and inauthentic dialogue.  The bottom line, then, is that attention to realism—to getting the facts right—is ultimately a way of improving your prose style.

The following are the three most neglected categories in recent fiction, which should serve as touchstones for evaluating your own writing.

1. Nomenclature

Every profession, trade, academic discipline, technical field, hobby and institution has its own nomenclature—its own nouns and verbs.  People who write medical dramas, police procedurals and legal thrillers tend to recognize this, which is why they study medical textbooks, police procedure handbooks and why most successful writers of legal thrillers are also lawyers.  Most writers outside these genres also recognize this, and they wouldn’t think of trying to compete in this area without rigorous research.  But for some reason the same sagacity doesn’t always carry over to other fields.

Now, it’s obviously impossible to give all the terminology of every field, but I think a few representative examples make the point. I’ll follow up with a few simple ways to overcome your knowledge deficit.

a. Hobbies: art-lover, historian, fishing, woodworking, botany, etc.

Giving one’s protagonist a hobby or an area of expertise outside his immediate one is a nice way to fill out his character and provide all sorts of scene-setting fodder. That’s probably why it’s become a staple—dare I say a cliché?—in fiction and television drama over the last few years. Too bad the writer didn’t know the difference between Monet and Manet, Thales and Thucydides, spinnerbait and swimbait, flat-sawn and rift-sawn or the calyx and the corolla.

As someone knowledgeable about woodworking (and other more unusual things), I find it intolerably amateurish when an author draws on this field for effect without even bothering to find out if what he says is accurate. Wood is not “carved” on a lathe, for example, it’s turned. One finishes a piece of furniture when one applies a protective coating of vanish, oil or shellac.  And don’t assume that some fancy finish you’ve heard of, say, “French polish,” comes in one can (e.g., “Chuck opened a can of French polish…”), because, like most high-end finishes, this one involves several products and techniques. Moreover, a hammer and nails is almost never used in fine woodworking, much less a wrench.  And if you say so-and-so ran his hand over the “fine-grained [wood x],” you better make sure the wood being stroked is actually a fine-grained (maple is, for example, oak is not).

It’s also important to know that different species of wood are more commonly used in different eras and that they’re cut in different ways.  Chippendales’ furniture, for example, was usually made out of Cuban mahogany, not oak or maple.  Shaker furniture makers preferred the simpler, inauspicious grains of maple and black cherry (shunning mahogany), while Mission and especially Arts & Crafts furniture are most commonly identified with quarter-sawn white oak.  Each piece of furniture also has a name (e.g., cornice, pediment, etc.) and different eras used different techniques for construction and finishing.

As I mentioned at the outset, these particular facts are only meant to suggest the breadth and depth of the field—it’s hardly enough to write a scene. But if you make a mental note that your last trip to Ikea and the contents of dad’s rusty toolbox don’t add up to a knowledge-base about furniture and woodworking, then you’ve taken the first step toward avoiding embarrassment and adding richness and depth to your writing.

The upside to all this is how little research you actually have to do. You don’t need to undertake an apprenticeship to learn about woodworking—or gardening, or cooking or anything else.  All you need for brief references or a minor scene is an article from a hobbyist’s magazine. The good ones always use the correct nomenclature.  The same goes for more academic subjects, like art history—pick up a book and read it.

b. Construction

Every part of a house or a building has a proper name and a proper verb for carrying out the process.  Carpenters frame houses when they erect the wooden structure out of which most houses are built. Walls are constructed from vertical studs with horizontal headers (on the top) and footers (on the bottom). The framing material is usually spruce, unless steel studding is used or some other more readily available local wood. Floor beams are called joists and the roof is held up by rafters (ergo, “beams” belong in barns and timber-frame construction, unless it’s a steel I-beam, which suspends the floor joists).

The outside is covered with plywood sheeting and then faced or clad with siding.  The inside is faced with drywall or sheetrock (but there are other regional names). Plaster and lath hasn’t been used for seventy years in the developed world.  And all of the wood parts are cut with miter-saws, circular-saws and even chainsaws, and they’re attached with pneumatic nail-guns or simply nailers. Hammering a house together with spikes (not nails) is a rare thing nowadays.

Foundations hold up houses and are constructed by pouring concrete into wooden forms that are removed when the concrete cures; or, the foundation is made from concrete blocks that are cemented together with mortar (not with cement). “Cement” is a generic word for types of adhesive or a process of attaching materials together using those types of adhesive. In other words, foundations aren’t made of “cement” and masons don’t use “cement,” they use mortar on blocks and bricks, each of which is made from different materials and use for different purposes.

Further, plumbers plumb houses (usually with copper and ABS piping), electricians wire houses, and the “electrical piping” in commercial and industrial facilities is not called “piping” but conduit, which is run when it’s installed.  And, like picture frames, doors are always hung.  Incidentally, house walls, doors and modern bathtubs are not bulletproof.  A brick façade, for example, with provide some protection, but the bricks will crumble like mud pies under repeated gunfire. Unlike the cast iron varieties of yesteryear, newer bathtubs are thin steel or fiberglass.

True, some artistic license must be allowed.  Shooting people with nail-guns, for example, was all the rage a few years ago when these tools became commonplace on jobsites. In fact, however, it’s very nearly impossible to do it without pressing the tip against someone, because these tools have a safety feature that prevents…you guessed it… accidentally shooting someone! All the same, there are always and without exception proper names for the materials, tools and procedures used by industry.  Realism requires knowledge of these domains when the story requires their introduction.

As before, you can correct this deficit with a few handyman magazines, which are usually written by people who know the business.

c. Architecture

Few things grate more than the careless use of architectural terms like “Doric,” as in “He admired the Doric columns of the…” when the building or monument that completes the sentence belongs to a wholly different style and era.  Doric refers to a very specific kind of column in the traditional Orders of Architecture, which have come down to us through the Roman engineer and architect Vitruvius. Types of columns are matched with types of styles.  Similarly, a Georgian mansion adorned with Art Deco furniture is an oddity that should be explained, because the terms refer to two wholly different styles, eras and tastes.  When these terms are confused by the author, they point to his amateurism and thus alienate the reader who knows better.  In the worst case, they break the suspension of disbelief and render the book unreadable.

2. Professions and professional idioms

On the face of it, this one’s a given because of the close connection between dialogue and the way people in various professions talk.  Yet I frequently read outlandish expressions and sentiments attributed to various professionals.  A college professor, for example, advises someone to “consult his works.” No one but a pompous ass would refer to his “works,” because the term is synonymous with classics or masterpieces.  He will say my research or my work (singular) in a particular field, but never “my works” (plural) when referring to his publications.  It’s a subtle distinction, yes, but it makes all the difference to someone in the know. (Of course, if the professor character is a pompous ass, then in all likelihood he would advise someone “to consult his many works on the subject.”)

The most common transgressions happen, however, when the author depicts soldiers and the military—just ask a soldier. Know the difference between grunts and jarheads and the kinds of things soldiers actually say to one another and how they act.  Here I can only give two general rules for realism: (1) read soldiers’ memoirs, good field reporters, go to mess halls and talk with actual soldiers; (2) don’t rely on Hollywood movies.

If you thought the recent crop of films about the military were realistic, it’s probably because they reinforced the false perceptions of soldiers and the military that you’ve already picked up from the same source; and if you share this anti-military view out of ideological conviction, then good for you. But if you’re the kind of writer who’s interested in things as they are—in realism rather than perpetuating axe-grinding stereotypes—then you should consider the fact that Hollywood’s view of the military has been hopelessly discombobulated by Vietnam-era anti-war films, which were, at bottom, wholly unrealistic.  If you think otherwise, consult source 1 for an earful.

Much the same applies for any other profession: there’s not only specialized terms used by professionals, but they learn to speak in a professional dialectic, which include speech, manners and other idiosyncrasies unique to it.  I’ll admit that this sort of language and understanding is hard to pick up unless you’ve been there.  But try sneaking into professional conferences and watch documentaries to see how they actually communicate with one another.

3. Detail as double-edged sword—or, fishing out of season

Every rhetorician and trial lawyer knows that precise detail makes speeches and testimony more persuasive.  “He was wearing a navy blue blazer marked with a St. John’s High School crest” is more persuasive than “It looked to me like a dark jacket, maybe black.”  Writers know too that concrete detail is preferable to abstraction—e.g., “Bill was fishing for large mouth bass in Chesapeake Bay” is better than “Bill was fishing in the lake”—at least, when the detail is conducive to plot and character development.

Unlike rhetoricians and lawyers, however, writers have to check foreground details against the details of the background narrative. So if you write that Bill went fishing in Chesapeake Bay (foreground), you better make sure that you didn’t already specify that the time and place was mid-July (in the background narrative) when the fishing season is closed. Obviously, a character can fish out of season, but it’s remarkable if he does, and so it must be noted.  It should go without saying that depicting your “straight-arrow cop” casually poaching fish is a defect in realistic writing (parody notwithstanding).

There are a thousand ways to fall into this sort of trap. Not all of them will be obvious and many will probably be missed by the reader. But you can’t rely on that because of the symmetry between your characters and your audience.  It’s not uncommon for readers to follow a series that depicts characters they identify with or aspire to be.  So creating a crime-solving cop who’s also a fishing enthusiast, for example, will likely attract readers who are also fishing enthusiasts.  But if you constantly make these sorts of gross errors to an expert audience, you’ll lose readership because they’ll feel cheated, as if you’re pandering to them, which is even worse than not having the fishing angle at all—and that’s the sharpest part of the double-edge.

4. Pseudo-knowledge

I downloaded a sample of a post-apocalyptic novel recently, which was not badly written and the story was somewhat compelling.  But the writer insisted on inserting his pseudo-knowledge of global finance into the narrative. No doubt he wanted to heighten the dramatic tension by increasing the realism of the situation with historical precedents of financial collapse.  It’s a good strategy; and if his information dumps had been accurate, he might well have strengthened the realism of the novel.

Unfortunately, what wasn’t pseudo-history was pseudo-finance. Hence, his plan backfired in the worse possible way: in placing this pseudo-historical material so prominently in the narrative, it proved catastrophic to the suspension of disbelief, instead of working to strengthen it. Indeed, he would have been better off not mentioning historical precedents at all.  I may well have kept reading.

There’s a simple and straightforward lesson here that needn’t be belabored:

 Pseudo-knowledge cannot reinforce realism; so, get your history/ economics/ religion/ science/ engineering (etc.) right.

Now, there’s one big exception to this rule.  Unfortunately for rule-rejectionists, it’s one of those exceptions that prove the rule. I’m talking about Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code here, of course, a perfect example of whole narrative concocted on pseudo-history.  But Brown’s book reinforces my case for the simple reason that only a miniscule number of people are sufficiently conversant in the historical material upon which the book was based to be completely turned off by it. Like many others in that smallish circle, I couldn’t bear reading it. But the vast majority of people had no problem with it, because the gross errors and exaggerations didn’t kick them in the face.  So, no, Brown’s book isn’t an exception; it’s just that the vast majority of his readers couldn’t tell. The rule stands.

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