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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WRITING: Exposition and the dreaded Info Dump

One of the most difficult skills in writing fiction is how to give your reader information without making it seem like you’re giving information.

A shortcut often used is for a character to be called into an audience with a superior or authority, who will have a file on the character from which they will quote and, sometimes, demand elaboration:

“You’ve been working undercover in narcotics for four years since you lost your wife and child, and now you want to work the homicide squad?”

That is not a question. That’s an info dump. All the information above is already known to the person being questioned. Also, is it relevant to the story? If so, there are more subtle ways:

“Do you think homicide is less stressful than narcotics, Michael?”

“No, sir. I just want to get out of the undercover work.”

“You don’t seem to have a difficulty staying on the right side,” the commissioner said. “I know the temptations are sometimes, ehm, persuasive.”

“I haven’t been tempted for years, sir.”

“You were tempted before.”

“That changed, sir. Lily and Chantelle…”

The commissioner’s eyes softened. “It must’ve been hard on you, that we never caught the killers. We always thought it had something to do with the XXX case, but nobody talked.”

“I made my peace with it, sir.”

“So your application with homicide is not to gain access to the records, to see where we failed.”

“No, sir. Like I said–”

“You just want to get out from the undercover work. Even though you received two commendations.”

“I’m tired of play-acting, sir. I want to do some straight police work for a change.”

The commissioner nodded. “I’ll approve your application, Michael. Don’t let me down.”

“No, sir. I won’t. Thank you.”

“The change might involve a change of roster, so your free days will be suspended for a moment until the new roster…”

“I’ll still have next Wednesday off, don’t I?”

The commissioner smiled sadly. “Yes, Michael. Nobody would want to you to come in for work when you need to pay your respects.”

Michael sighed his relief. Visiting their graves was about the only thing he could do since they had been slain so senselessly. He rose and nodded at the commissioner for turning for the office door, hoping the commissioner’s remark had been a wild stab and not a clue visible in his face. Homicide detail would give him access to the records. And he would see where they’d failed to bring Lily and Chantelle’s killers to justice. He’d been biding his time for four years, he wouldn’t want to screw up now.

Only the last paragraph features true exposition, but since the reader’s interest should be piqued by the hints in the dialogue, the information isn’t dumped. Plus it leaves enough to the imagination to give the reader. Also, it’s possible to leave it off–the commissioner’s remark is enough hint that Michael might be tempted to do some investigating on his own.

 

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