Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Striking a Balance

Last week, there was held--in Milton Keynes, UK, the second annual meetup of authors who write GLBT Fiction. It started in 2010 with just 12 of us meeting up in Ely library, but this year we had writers coming from all over the UK and even one or two from Europe and America! Over 40 attendees for our second year, and we even had three male writers attending which was SO encouraging.

The website is here, for those who are interested. We are planning something even bigger next year, perhaps over 2 days. Stay tuned!

Anyway, the reason I've done a bit of seemingly off topic promo is to mention the panel I participated in. Alex Beecroft, Charlie Cochrane and I spoke on Gay Historical Fiction and some of the pitfalls that authors fall into when attempting the genre.

The pitfalls, however, aren't limited to writers of gay historical fiction, of course! This is my talk, and I hope you find it useful. If you are interested, the whole panel of all three talks is posted HERE.

So here's my segment - Striking a Balance.

I’m going to talk about balance, because sometimes I think writers have difficulty striking a balance when writing. not just historical either. It’s a Fine Line between THIS IS MY RESEARCH LET ME SHOW YOU IT – and just getting the details right.

Don’t get e wrong—you got to do the research. You’ve got to try your very best to get those details right. Readers are forgiving if they can see you’ve worked like stink, but have made one or two silly errors. In Muffled Drum I made a big thing of the Red Light District in Berlin – and too late too late two people pointed out that the street I mentioned was actually in Hamburg and not Berlin.

But readers will be less forgiving if it’s patently obvious that you haven’t even bothered to use Google to check the most basic of facts.

But you shouldn’t over do relating that research to the reader and it’s this that is a little unfair to the writer, because you are going to learn a LOT more than you’ll ever put in the book.

I have to reference Dan Brown here, who does—and i have to grit my teeth to say this—write a damned good page turner. I actually own all of his books, because they are like crack. But whereas he writes a racketing good read and I for one can’t wait to turn the page and find out what’s happening next, he lets himself down with his signature move of telling us everything about everything. I remember reading one of them, don’t know which…and it told you about the engine of the car he was driving and the type of plane he was on, down to –it seemed, every grommet and washer. I found myself flipping over pages of STUFF HE HAD TO TELL YOU BECAUSE BY GOD HE’D DONE THE RESEARCH AND YOU SHALL SHARE IT rather than simply absorbing some of the facts as the flavour of the book.

I got the impression that he was saying to the reader “Look, i slaved over this book. i did research about Russia and China and every conspiracy theory known to man. Look, I seriously worked hard. I spent hours in libraries. you need to see my research or you’ll think i just made it up!!!! It will all be wasted if I don’t write it all down!” and that’s not good, that’s not the message you want to give. I don’t want the author to intrude at all.

I can relate to this, and I felt much the same when I first started to write, but luckily my mother was around when I first started and she pointed out that we didn’t need to know every single detail and she went through and deleted many descriptive words and passages. After that I found it much easier. The trick to it for me was to walk across my own room and described how I did it. I left the sofa, walked past the tv and the dining table to the kitchen. What I didn’t do was to leave the Gillows sofa, walk across the Wilton carpet designed by XXXX in 1792 and the flat screen 32” plasma screen Sony TV (I wish) and into the bespoke B&Q kitchen stencilled with green and yellow flowers.

Modern books don’t do this (or at least they shouldn’t!) and so neither should historicals. Whether the chair is made my Chippendale or whoever doesn’t really matter. Unless it does, of course. If the story revolves around Chippendale and perhaps the theft of a chair made by him, or whether the provenance of the chair is IMPORTANT then that’s fine. But if the detail doesn’t add anything to the story — and in fact, as often happens (Dan, I’m looking at you) intrudes and distracts from the story — then leave it out.

It doesn’t mean that you can’t make the description lush and tangible. Alex, for example, particularly in her 18th century paranormal “Wages of Sin” WORKS magic with her details. How cloth feels, how candle light looks and smells (never forget the smells) what happens to wig powder when it rains. But none of it is infordumping. She is simply creating a real and entirely believeable and visual world that the 21st century reader isn’t familiar with. The details immerse the reader, so they are actually there, and they are participating in historical events rather than distancing the reader, and makingit more clear that they are simply reading a book.

A good beta is worth their weight in gold. A good beta (and not just one who will tell you how great you are!) will tell you if you’ve turned into Dan Brown and you are oversharing that research.

The depressing fact of life is, that 99 percent of the research you will do for your book will (should!!) never appear on the pages of your book, but you can’t skip that research because it will make your book and more 3-dimensional, and in response to that, more enjoyable to read.


Wendy Soliman said...

Sounds like an interesting and fast growing conference. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I found the conference, and the session on writing historicals, so helpful. It's great to have this follow-up post to cement what I learnt.

Of particular use was the advice not to hammer the reader over the head with detail. If we can give them a sense of place from tone and atmosphere alone we've done our job :)

Erastes said...

Thanks Wendy! I get the feeling we've ust begun, we just need to find more people, and I know there are out there somewhere!

Erastes said...

Thank you, Stuart - It was great to meet you, and hope to learn more about you and your books as we go along. Everyone's pretty helpful, so never be afraid to ask any of us anything.

And that's right. Create an atmosphere. It's a little like being dumped directly into a city and knowing somehow where you are without having to gawk around you like a tourist. :D

J. L. Hilton said...

One of the biggest challenges as an author is striking that balance. On one hand, I feel like a lot of detail bogs down the plot and pacing... but on the other hand, my beta readers (and editor) are constantly asking questions about the details. Even details that aren't important to the plot.

To some extent, it also comes down to personal preference. When I read, I prefer sparse stories that leave a lot to the imagination, and I'm more interested in dialog and character relationships than setting. I don't enjoy "epic" SF/F or thrillers with excessive detail. But I also know a LOT of readers who like detail, detail and more detail. It helps their immersion.

It's a tough nut to crack. :)

Cathy in AK said...

When the details are woven into the narrative in such a smooth manner that you don't even realize they're there--that takes talent! And it's much appreicated by the reader : )

I read a thriller that detailed the process of DNA analysis. For four pages. I kept thinking the same thing you said, the authors did all this research and they wanted to show their efforts. I almost tossed the book then and there. That is not something an author wants to bring about : P

Susanna Fraser said...

As I once put it to a critique partner who liked to set her fiction in various fascinating, beautiful parts of the world where she'd traveled, we're not writing travel guides or histories. We just need enough tantalizing details to make the geekier end of our readership want to run to the library to check out the Lonely Planet guide and/or a good history book on our setting as soon as they finish our book. :-)

Claire Robyns said...

I find maintaining that balance incredibly difficult, mainly because I learn such fascinating stuff during my research and I'm convinced my readers will find it just as fascinating. I have to keep on reminding myself that they'll go read the historical non-fiction if that's what they want.

I do find that most historicals describe furniture, etc in more detail than contemporaries, but in my reading, I actually enjoy this as it sets the sccene - but sometimes the author can go overboard and then I start to skim.

Erastes said...

Hi, J.L - thanks for commenting!

heh, yes, my editors often ask about details, but I try and talk my way out of too many of them! LOL. They have such patience with me.

Absolutely - personal preference is the key,as with so much. And also the genre and the style of the book, too. and the Point of View!

Taryn Kincaid said...

I think we all want to splash our research across the age -- at first. In writing the first draft of my first attempt at a Regency, I was curious about port, spent some time researching it, and splashed all things white, tawny, ruby and crusted into a pivotal scene involving the hero and secondary characters. I thought this was quite clever =
, since he was a Peninsula War veteran and port comes from Portugal. But the dialogue was not as sinister as I'd hoped and the scene was largely a snoozefest. So, eventually, though it kind of broke my heart, away it went!
You can put it all in. But you have to be able to take it all out.

Erastes said...

Good point, Taryn - sometimes putting it in, is the best way to work out what to take out! :D

Thanks for your comment!