Jilly: Digging Deeper

Do you have a specialist subject or some arcane body of knowledge? Have you ever seen it used to power a novel? Did the author get it right? Does it affect how you feel about their writing in general?

This morning I’ve been reading the comments on one of my favorite blogs with a mixture of awe and fascination.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a huge fan of Ilona Andrews’ writing, and one of my favorite free weekend treats is to read the latest installment of One Fell Sweep, the third book in their self-published Innkeeper Chronicles (click here to read my thoughts on the second book, Sweep In Peace). The books are posted free as a weekly serial on the Innkeeper website as they are written. Then they’re taken down, edited, and published for sale.

The heroine of the series is Dina, who runs a magical Bed and Breakfast in Red Deer, Texas. In the current story her goal is to help a melancholic endangered alien species survive the murderous attentions of a bunch of ruthless feathered otherworldly crusaders whose mission is to wipe them off the face of the galaxy.

Team Dina is a fabulously entertaining community including a stiff-necked knightly vampire; a hotstuff werewolf with scary fighting knowhow; a top-notch chef with quills, claws, and a raging artistic temperament; a retired tyrant with cannibalistic tendencies masquerading as an aristocratic old lady; a hard-nosed local cop who has no idea what he’s facing; Dina’s sister, the widow of a disgrace to the chivalric vampire species, and Dina’s adorable half-vampire niece.

I love the series for its characters, humor and humanity. The writing is excellent and the pacing snappy. I enjoy the intelligent world-building and clever plotting, but I have to be honest, I don’t really pay attention to the technical details of what the bad guys can and can’t do, or how the good guys defeat them. All I really care about are the characters, how they interact, and what happens to them. Who wins, who loses, who cheats, who sacrifices, who lives, who dies, who falls in love (especially the last).

So – mild spoilers ahead – the inn is currently under siege, and in last week’s episode, the murderous chief bad guy introduced the fast-germinating seed of a plant capable of destroying the entire planet into the inn’s water supply. The threat was identified and dealt with by Team Dina, though at a cost. This week was all about the aftermath of the attack and offered great potential for important revelations in future episodes.

My reading of this bit of the story: wow, bad guys put killer plant in the Inn’s water system. Eek. That thing has the potential to wipe out the entire story world. Holds breath as Team Dina identify and deal with killer plant. Phew. Threat nullified. Emotional stress. Character badly hurt. Relief. Character survives. Can’t wait to see the impact of the battle on community and relationships.

Then I read the 260+ comments, which include an informed technical discussion about what exactly is a prokaryotic bacteriophage, complete with references (click here and scroll down if you’re curious). And last week there was the definition of phagocytes, a digression about computational models of the biomechanics of sea slug mouths, and my personal favorite, a commenter who used to work for a sewer department theorizing about how exactly the inn’s water supply was infiltrated by the bad guys.

Even though I still don’t really understand (and don’t much care) about the microbiological details of the killer plant attack, I love the idea that other readers do, and that those readers maybe get a little extra kick out of the stories because the authors are diligent in their research and knowledgeable about the material they use for their plots, even if they then choose to take fictional liberties.

The whole prokaryotic bacteriophage discussion makes me a happy reader. It gives me the same feeling I got when I learned that Georgette Heyer bought an original letter written by the Duke of Wellington because she planned to include one in a story and wanted to get his style of writing exactly right. It reinforces my feeling that the author knows what she’s doing and she’s in control of her work. And that makes me more willing to suspend disbelief and trust aspects of the story that I might otherwise question.

It also makes me feel I need to dig deeper on some aspects of my own romantic fantasy WIP. When I’m done with it, I’d like to feel confident I could defend my story choices in a killer plant standard discussion.

I know not everyone feels the way I do. Last year, at a well-regarded London theater, I went to an interesting play set in a business world that I knew pretty well. Afterwards I said to a senior member of staff that although the writing was good from a craft perspective, based on my personal knowledge I had found some of the protagonist’s peripheral experiences not credible and that had left me skeptical about and distanced from the central story. His reply was super-polite (I was there as a guest) but in essence he said I’d missed the point. The writer’s job was to use his imagination and capture the central truth of the character’s experience. Researching business trivia was not what the story was about and so did not really matter overmuch. Or words to that effect.

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Jilly: Digging Deeper

  1. One of the things that made writing Demons Don’t easy was that I’d worked in a clinic very much like Dara’s and I knew how they worked. One (or two ore three) of the problems I’m having with The Demon’s in the Details is that I know so little about Sedona, AZ (even though visited there in preparation for writing), art, creating a video game–the list goes on and on. I’ve come away with a determination never to write substantially outside my own experience again (say the woman whose new book stars a former dancer and a dog trainer).

    I hope that by the time I complete final drafts of these two books, I will have eliminated anything that isn’t accurate, but I know these books will never have the authenticity of Dara’s clinic. And I think that matters. It definitely matters to readers who know the difference (like you at that play) and I think that the works feel indefinably thinner and weaker, like teabag wasn’t left in the cup long enough, even to people who aren’t knowledgeable.

    That said, Bob McKee says if you have to choose between external truth and inner truth, choose the inner truth. HIs example is the movie Casablanca, which is set up around the premise that letters of transit from the French authorities were valid in Nazi-held areas. The idea is ridiculous, but millions of people have seen that move and it’s rarely raised as an issue.

    • I find myself in the same boat – my first book was set in contemporary London and Scotland, in a creative/entrepreneurial business world I knew well and could imagine clearly. Now I’m creating a world from scratch, I’m finding it so much harder. I’m happy to take liberties with physics and geology, but I want them to be consistent, joined-up liberties. I’m finding the need to do more homework than I’d expected, and I’m planning to pull in as much expert help as I can to reinforce my efforts. Good job I’m expecting to get at least six books out of it 😉 .

      Your teabag test is a perfect analogy – the work feels somehow thinner and weaker, or stronger and tastier, even to people who aren’t expert enough to know why. Exactly.

  2. It seems to me that the writers’ job is not to capture the character but to illuminate the character/story for the reader or watcher. If the reader (or watcher) is distanced from the story because of poor research and unbelievable details, then the writer has failed.

    I won’t say that writing for oneself is without merit, but if a writer is writing for publication, then the experience of the reader is of utmost importance. You can’t say the reader has failed – it’s the writer’s job to make the story clear.

    • This, exactly. You can’t make a perfect match with every reader, but you can give your story every chance to make a connection, and to miss out on that opportunity because a reader is distanced by poor research is a failure on the writer’s part, not the reader’s. The play I saw felt very much like a missed opportunity.

  3. I gotta say that I believe the writer needs to capture the “truthiness” of the situation. It’s got to feel real to the average reader/viewer. That said, the easiest way (? really? easiest?) is to insert big heapin’ helpin’s of truth.

    On the fandom side, though, it’s much more entertaining if the writer gives enough truth that the readers can take sides and debate just how something works. (-: A good group of ardent fansters will MAKE it work. “Well, if the scenario took place under X conditions, during a winter blue moon, and after three weeks of rain, it’d be a foregone conclusion that the writer wrote it exactly as how it should have happened. We have no text-ev to show that these conditions were not the case.”

    I don’t see this so much in contemporary romance fandoms, but in Regency romance circles and other fantasy/SF fandoms, the fans can get stuck on the tiniest things — is a captain in the army more important than the captain in a space navy? What text ev do we have to support our pet theories? What real-life examples can we draw from? It can be exhaustive . . . but it can be really interesting. I love trivia.

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