OPINION: Stickler for Verisimilitude?

stick·ler noun \ˈsti-k(ə-)lər\ : a person who believes that something is very important and should be done or followed all the time
veri·si·mil·i·tude noun \-sə-ˈmi-lə-ˌtüd, -ˌtyüd\ : the quality of seeming real

I’ve been asked about my author bio, which says, ‘Martyn is a stickler for verisimilitude in fiction, even if that requires learning new skills’. So what does it mean to be a stickler for verisimilitude? Does it just mean I’m borderline obsessive about realism in fiction? Well, yes. And no.

Let’s start with the beginning (always a good place to start).

What’s the first thing a reader does when they pick up a novel? They show their willingness to ‘suspend their disbelief’. The reader knows they’re going to read what is basically, well, a lie. Or rather, a fabrication of the truth. To keep their disbelief suspended, the reader needs help from the author. The author has fabricated this story, but to stave off disbelief, the story has to ‘ring true’.

So how do you make your work ‘ring true’?

All genres have their particular realities. What will ring ‘true’ in science fiction, will be ‘ridiculous’ in suspense fiction. Romance novels have another idea of ‘romance’ than literary fiction. A reader’s expectation will be matched to the genre they are reading. A reader of romance novels will expect a happily-ever-after ending and might be disappointed when the blossoming relationship ends in misery, while for literary fiction readers, the opposite might be ‘true’.

To suspend disbelief, an author has to keep the novel’s intended audience and their expectations in mind, which can backfire horribly if the author starts to mix genres, especially if they intend to cater to the separate genres in the mix. For example, romantic suspense is often unrealistic to hardcore suspense readers, and too realistic for the tastes of romance readers. The author will have to walk a fine balance between ‘reality’ and the expectations of the audience.

However, even without mixing genres, many authors make mistakes that destroy the verisimilitude.

My particular field is suspense fiction, where it should be fairly easy to keep the story ‘ring true’. Most suspense fiction is set in the present or the not-too-distant past, dealing with human beings without artificial enhancements, who have to adhere the laws of physics. As most of us live in the same world, readers won’t find much difficulty in identifying with the characters. The characters in suspense fiction often live in a shadow world due to their occupation and often they need to keep their occupation hidden from everyone around them except maybe their co-workers.

It’s this hidden world that attracts the suspense reader, the inner workings of the societies that are mostly shielded from the general public. Whether it’s the ‘good’ side of law enforcement and legal proceedings or the ‘bad’ side of crime, the author needs to know what they’re writing about. If the author hasn’t been part of this shadow world they will have to do research, because many readers of suspense fiction are extremely knowledgeable. And the smallest wrong detail can shake the foundation of the reader’s ‘suspension of disbelief’.

I’ve written a couple of articles on suspense fiction research, but what does it take to become knowledgeable to a sufficient degree? If you want to write with confidence and strive for verisimilitude, this means you will have to go to the inhabitants of the shadow world. And that is not for the faint-hearted.

The blurb of my first book says, ‘Reprobate gives a rare glimpse in the local Dutch culture, information on the famous Dutch capital, the narcotics trade, computer hacking, motorcycle gangs, mehndi bridal tattoos, martial arts, the psychology of social engineering, and the brutal effectiveness of disciplined violence’. Since I’ve been a part of Dutch culture from birth and lived in Amsterdam for almost three decades, the first two items on that list don’t pose research problems, but the rest…

I never traded in narcotics, but I know people who use and/or deal in drugs. I can’t hack a computer, but I found people who could and did. I ride a motorcycle, but I’m not part of a gang. And while I have some real tattoos, I needed to get a temporary henna tattoo to understand mehndi and its connotations and, yes, dangers.

Of course I used to be a bouncer for discotheques and night clubs and I’ve been involved in the martial arts for over two decades, so anything to do with violence is pretty much old hat to me. And, according to my wife, it’s a good thing I don’t have bad intentions, because my social engineering skills would make me an excellent con man.

While I know many of the elements of suspense fiction first hand, I still had to do an awful lot of research. Most of my research is reading. Not other suspense novels, which are often too rife with errors to be considered valuable information. And the information on the internet is often unverified and therefore questionable.

However, when it comes to the ‘tools of the trade’, even if you’re from a society where firearms are severely restricted and it is difficult to get first hand experience, the least you can do is check details on the manufacturer’s website.

Most, if not all, manufacturers have websites where you can find the right details about guns, like the safety measures, how many rounds go into a magazine, whether there are large capacity magazines and other accessories available, product manuals, sometimes even animated videos on how to field-strip their products.

Of course, this is not just applicable to firearm research, but also to vehicles, alarm systems, lock picking, computer hardware and software, hacking, explosives, controlled substances, and the list goes on and on.

Which is why it bothers me when an author gets details of these existing products wrong. It’s literally five minutes of research to check the Glock website to see their patented safety measures, which differ from the safety measures on other semi-automatic pistols. If the author doesn’t even bother to get those facts straight, why should I believe anything else in their novels?

Now, I did get responses from authors that they wrote for ‘entertainment’ purposes. Or they would point out other works that also contained severe flaws. Neither of those excuses are valid, in my opinion.

The first excuse is moot, because I too write fiction to entertain people and if I can do the research, so can they. What they mean is, if an actor in a Michael Bay movie can shoot two guns at the same time, why can’t I put that in my suspense fiction? Well, you can. But I will ridicule your book in a review because the story lacks verisimilitude.

But the second excuse is inexcusable, in my opinion. To point out that other authors, sometimes well-respected, prolific and successful, make egregious mistakes is no excuse to do the same.

When I read Gorki Park by Martin Cruz Smith, I was fascinated by the details in reconstructing facial features from skulls. However, in the last part of the book, his protagonist, a law enforcement officer, attaches a silencer on a revolver. Such a stupid mistake throws everything he wrote before that in doubt. My disappointment was so encompassing that I never touched another book by Martin Cruz Smith.*

The Trophy Taker, written by Lee Weeks, had a protagonist decapitate someone with a 6-inch throwing star. Even if I had no martial arts knowledge of the use of shuriken, I would still know enough about physics to know that beheading someone would require something a bit more substantial than a throwing star.

Lee Weeks joins the authors who think a bullet fired from a handgun has enough kinetic energy to throw a human being backwards and other details that defy the laws of physics. Watching action movies is not ‘research’.

I probably go above and beyond what most people call research. I persuaded a forensic pathologist to let me observe an autopsy so I could describe one accurately. I learned how to use lockpicks; hotwire cars; surveillance and counter-surveillance techniques; psychological and physical coercion methods and application; navigation, orientation and mobility techniques for the blind; and a variety of ways to dispose of bodies.

And while not all of that is necessary and I’m quite sure the NSA has a file on me now, one of the reasons I enjoy writing suspense fiction is that my research needs provide me with an excuse to indulge my insatiable curiosity not only for my own benefit, but also to write fiction that is as close to reality as possible.

That it also makes me a scourge on those artists who pass on diligent research in favour of copying action movies I consider a bonus.

* Another mistake I found in Gorky Park: “He (Arkady Renko) found the revolver safety on the left by the cylinder and pushed it off.” The ‘safety’ on the left by the cylinder is the ‘crane latch’ that unlocks the cylinder and allows the cylinder to swivel away from the revolver for reloading.

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Reblogged: We interrupt this story to bring you this Info-dump: Blogger Insights

Writing in a Dead World

Blogger Insight

A few decades ago comedian Chevy Chase starred in the movie Funny Farm. A main component of the plot was that Chevy’s character was a journalist who retired to write a novel. In the film, he takes his wife to a hotel where he makes her read his completed work while he watches. When she reaches the end, she cries. The writing is so bad that she cannot believe they traded their dreams in on his potential writing career. Chevy’s character tries to explain to her “why” it is good and “why” it is funny, and finally just argues that she doesn’t understand “good” writing.

I don’t think any writer sets out to pen a bad or even just semi-good story. It’s not as if the general public is storming the kingdom for additional reading material. A book isn’t like making a knock-off of some famous designer brand. It takes…

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Almost Stopped Reading REVIEW: Severance Kill

Severance KillSeverance Kill by Tim Stevens
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This almost turned into another ‘stopped reading’ review, except that I wanted to know what happened to Martin Calvary, the protagonist. So I ignored my many reasons to delete this book from my Kindle and struggled through the formatting errors that cropped up in the last quarter of the book.

Should I have? Perhaps not, but I was curious to see if Stevens had a twist at the end that would be worth it. There was something that should’ve been a twist, except that it didn’t surprise me in the slightest. Maybe less discerning readers will be surprised by the ending, I don’t know.

So, the formatting errors… I actually contacted the author and he wrote me a very nice PM telling me that he had a giveaway through Bookbub with some 30,000 downloads, with all the Kindle versions containing the formatting errors, but not the ePubs. I can understand that through some mistake an older file containing proofreading notes and formatting errors ends up in an e-book.

So, if you have one of these screwed up Severance Kill e-books, maybe you can get a new corrected file through Manage my Kindle. Or you can just ignore the typos, missing quotes and strike-through sentences. And overlook the awkward prose when a sick woman running up the steps is ‘ignoring the complaints from her unaccustomed knees’ and operatives being ‘linked up telephonically’.

However, I pointed out that there were many more mistakes unrelated to the formatting issue. Mr. Stevens didn’t show any interest in my feedback, so I’ll just put them in my review.

On the whole, the book was well-written. I had some trouble with the start of the book, where Calvary is getting his ass kicked out of a fourth-floor apartment, manages to keep from falling to his death, and gets back into the apartment to finish the target. The target, who first puts up a fight and almost finishes Calvary, suddenly retreats into his apartment, where the target suddenly changes into a weakling.

Calvary crouches in front of the sitting target, lays a hand on either side of the man’s face and kills him with a crack… So what did Calvary do? Break his neck? Let’s just say, don’t believe the action movies you’ve seen about how easy it is to break someone’s neck. The author is a doctor with the National Health Service, so he might be hesitant to give an exact blow-by-blow on how to break someone’s neck, but to break someone’s neck while crouched in front of him and holding his ears is quite a challenge.

After that, Calvary gets blackmailed into doing a last job in Prague, where he reminisces about his past kills. And I almost put the book down.

Why?

Because Calvary reminisces about electrocuting a target in his bathtub. By throwing a battery-operated transistor radio into the bath. The death of the target is horrifying. “Crackles and screams, churning mix of water and blood and effluent, like a shark’s attack” and the victim dies with a rictus of agony and a hand clawing the air.

Impressive, if it wasn’t that a battery-operated transistor radio tossed in a bathtub will not have a sufficiently high charge to electrocute a human being. I could start a whole explanation about the milliamps used by transistor radio and how many transistor radios would have to be submerged in your bath to tickle your heart into the high frequency fatal fluttering of a heart attack, but even then the victim will not flail about like they are chewing on a high voltage wire.

And while I can understand someone emptying their bowels when they are electrocuted, how exactly does all that blood get in the water? And what makes the water churn? Not the two 9V batteries in the transistor radio, I can tell you.

If killing someone by tossing a battery-operated transistor radio into their baths would work, lots of disgruntled housewives would be buying battery-operated transistor radios…

With my bullshit radar now on full alert I read on.

Calvary relieves someone of his semi-automatic pistol and thumbs the safety before he slips it in his pocket. When he takes the pistol from his pocket a few pages later and hands it to someone, the pistol turns out to be a Glock 17. And Glocks have not safety to be thumbed. The safety of the Glock is a small ‘second trigger’ inside the trigger.

Moments later Calvary takes ‘the Browning’ because ‘the Browning has to be cocked before every shot and the Glock chambered a new round automatically, making it easier for a novice to use’. The Browning, like the Glock, is a semi-automatic pistol. You might have to pull the slide to chamber the first round, but after that the blowback action of the slide will chamber a new round from the spring-loaded magazine in the grip.

The last part of the story featured strike through sentences, misspelled words like ’trial’ for ‘trail’, omitted words like ‘[character name] phone went’, double words like ‘ahead he fancied saw the car park’ [maybe so you can choose which verb you think is most appropriate?] and quotes missing so you have to guess what is narrative and what is dialogue. Sometimes the Third Person Limited perspective featured intrusions of First Person, often right in the middle of action scenes, ‘one of her feet catching him on the cheekbone. It wasn’t enough to put me off. Calvary began to crawl…’ and so on.

All that could be overlooked if the characters didn’t start doing improbable things, like Calvary on the run renting a car with cash but expressing no worries about having to show his driving license because ‘he [protagonist] doubted [antagonists] would be monitoring every car rental place in the city’.

Really?

Their spy craft must be worse than mine, because—despite not being a professional spy—I would definitely monitor every means of (public) transport in a hundred mile radius if I were looking for a spy on the run.

But then, Calvary could be right about the antagonists lack of tracking skills. The scene shifts to the antagonists who are fretting because one of their operatives has been incommunicado for almost a day. Finally the leader has a brilliant idea and goes to the communications officer, where the leader asks an underling ‘can you get a GPS trace on [missing operative’s] phone?’ The comm officer, who has been twiddling her thumbs apparently, answers affirmatively and set to work.
Again: seriously? These antagonists are supposed to be veteran’ intelligence’ officers, and they wait for hours before they decide to put a trace on their missing team member?

With my suspension of disbelief blown beyond repair I finished the book.

Wasted potential. 2/5 stars. Only recommended if your suspension of disbelief is made out of sturdier material than mine…

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