Tuesday, March 06, 2018

More on accuracy and authenticy

Feb. 7th's blog post about mentioning research in your query generated this comment from writer Kari Lynn Dell. In case you've been colonizing Mars for the past three years, Kari is a terrific writer of fabulous novels set in Texas. Y'all met Kari here on the blog some years back when I linked to her blog post about sheep.

Here's what Kari said about authenticity:
So just playing the devil's advocate a bit:

Yes, first you have to write a great book. BUT...if authenticity isn't a selling point, why does my publisher lean into my rodeo/ranching background in their marketing for my western romances? And my agent always mentions it when discussing my books (SHE REALLY DOES THIS STUFF.) And readers continually comment on the fact that they love the depth I bring to the page, knowing that I know what I'm talking about. As a reader, I like to see that an author has personal experience in their subject matter because I can trust (hopefully) that what I learn from them is accurate, and I can nearly always see it in the richness of the world they build (again, assuming excellent writing). For those reasons, if I were an agent I would like to see a single sentence about Opie's background in a query because if I love this book, it tells me the author has a deep well of experience to draw from for future work, and a unique selling point that might tip them over the edge with a publisher who's trying to decide between this book and that one, because marketing often rules the day.

The key word here is marketing. Your publisher uses your background as grist for the publicity mills. A writer who actually ropes? Yowza, send photos at once!

This helps the publisher hook the media's interest in the books. As you might imagine, I'm all in favor of that, BUT it's not something I consider at the query stage.

At the query stage, what I care about is story. The book Kari originally queried involved a thief. I didn't ask if she'd actually done time. Nope, I read the book, fell in love with the writing, and THEN starting thinking about marketing.

The flip side of authenticity though is that often someone who really knows a field has a hard time writing outside the facts.  I see this a lot with lawyers, doctors, and law enforcement who query me about books that "don't take liberties with the facts!" and are thus often short on plot.

Reality is very rarely a good story. That's why we have you: to take liberties with reality and give us a good tale.

It helps if you've lived in the world I suppose, but honestly, despite all his efforts Colin Smith has not actually been to Carkoon, yet I believe every word he writes about the kale fields there. Lee Child didn't serve in the US Army; Michael Connelly isn't a cop; and last I checked David Simon is not a drug dealer (although I am addicted to The Wire.)

Bottom line: I never reject a query based on what an author says about their background (exceptions: cannibalism; shark soup chef; Nazi) so if you include it, it's not a problem. BUT if you are writing about cowgirls, and your only rodeo experience is the Seventh Avenue IRT, I'll still read your story if it sounds interesting.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I absolutely agree with your three exceptions: devouring one’s own species, boiling giant fin-fish until tender, and less than human, human haters. I’d add to that...well, I can’t think of anything as vile to tack on the list, although kangaroo tail soup (yes, I’ve tasted it), Sweet Tarts, and Vlad the Impaler are pretty bad.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Ha! "That's why we have you: to take liberties with reality and give us a good tale."

Good tales, good world setting...take me out of myself, please. I need that escapism, a history come alive and a future celebrating the best of human endeavors. (We have 8+ inches of snow here and I need to shovel. Allow me my pollyanna moment!)

Bonnie Shaljean said...

Stephen Crane wrote the American Civil War classic The Red Badge of Courage without ever having been near a battlefield - he was a reporter and writer based in New York, who wasn't even born until several years after the war was over. Yet he gets inside the combat soldier's mind and portrays his experiences and inner world vividly, using only research and imagination. Writers are magicians sometimes.

S.P. Bowers said...

Nothing turns me off a book faster than finding they got the freeways all wrong in my state, or having someone allergic to dairy eating things they shouldn't or not eating things that are fine. I always think, if they got these things wrong, what else did they get wrong, and lose trust.

Dena Pawling said...

>>I see this a lot with lawyers, doctors, and law enforcement who query me about books that "don't take liberties with the facts!" and are thus often short on plot.

I read a book with a female protagonist who is a retired police chief. I did end up finishing it, but I lost confidence in the author when much of the tension relied upon her habit of having the MC go into sticky situations without any sort of backup, which a retired police chief would NEVER do. I don't care whether she's retired. She's NOT gonna go against 30+ years of training and experience to meet someone alone behind the pagoda at midnight, who might be the killer. Some of the situations were laughable, like the teenage girls in horror stories who grab a flashlight (because the power went out on a dark and stormy night) to check on a noise in the basement.

I understand “take liberties with the facts.” Especially if it's not supposed to be a non-fiction account. But it's very different from “take liberties with reality.” I'll throw a book across the room if the prosecutor calls the defendant to the witness stand at trial. And altho I did finish it, the book I just mentioned was the only book I've read by that author.

Give me a good story. But unless there's a good explanation [Carkoon, a dream, etc] don't make me cringe at the sheer unreality of it.

Steve Stubbs said...

You're right. Stephen King may be weird, but he's not a vampire, a werewolf, or a rabid dog.

Er, or I don't think he is, anyway.

Julie Weathers said...

I don't usually read western romance because they make me want to choke the author. A romance author put up her top implausible sex scenes on a horse on twitter a while back. These were from well-respected authors. I got through three before I was scrounging around for the nearest loa and a suitable offering. Luckily, I have no rum in the house. Guess what I'm researching!

I wrote a western romance short story once. City slicker gal goes out to the barn with Jim and thinks it will be romantic to make love in the hay. Don't they all? They never loaded hay and got all those alfalfa leaves down your bra no matter how tightly you button up your shirt. Anyway, Jim and Jane are locked in the throes of passion when she looks up and sees a blue racer snake that's been baled up with a bale of hale next to Jim's head. That always gives you a good way to get your heart pumping when you reach for a bale of hay and a snake, usually a rattler but racers and others get caught, is looking at you. They're dead, of course, but the shock is the same.

Needless to say, the moment with Jim and Jane is ruined. Jim's chance at happy ever after flies down the road in a plume of red scoria dust.

This is why I don't write western romance. I might get the details right, but I don't have a romantic bone in my body.

I'll leave that to Kari Lynn who does a remarkable job of it.

When Diana Gabaldon queried Outlander, she included chunks of the story, some of her work from Disney and a 25-page synopsis of how she thought the story was going to go. It wasn't finished yet. She may have mentioned she was a professor, but didn't dwell on it. That she's a scientist and biologist shows in the kind of research she does, but the only thing the agent cared about was the writing. The finished story turned out nothing like the synopsis, btw.

I don't think someone could get an agent that way today, but even then the bio wasn't a selling point other than her writing experience, Disney and several technical pieces that showed she could hit a deadline and knew how to string a sentence together.

One of my beta readers just went over my first six chapters. I've had an offer from a well-known historian, so I'm going to let him take a look at the first 100 pages to see what needs to be adjusted. Even though I've researched carefully and I think all my tees are crossed, it makes me nervous. But I can't pass the opportunity.

Sorry for the long post, but Janet is right. In real estate it's location, location, location. In publishing it's all about the writing unless you are a celebrity.

Mister Furkles said...

If you include my hometown in an old west story, you’d better get it right for me. But only fifty thousand lived there when I was growing up. So no real problem if you make some things up. But if you are writing a crime story in Manhattan, and there is a chase scene from the East River to the North River docks, it might be on 34th street or on 57th street but it better not be along Broadway.

That is because millions of readers live in and around NYC.

I like fantasy. As far as I know, Tolkien was actually not acquainted with any real hobbits. Doesn’t bother us because none of us are either.

Story telling first, quality prose second, and if you squeeze in authenticity, that’s frosting on the donut. But don’t screw up countries, big cities, or anything millions of people know well.

And it’s Shark Fin Soup. Japan cuisine authenticity. But I don't like Japan cuisine, so it's okay with me.

Mister Furkles said...

Hey, Dena, are those skinny teenage girls in skimpy attire? If so, Wes Craven Jr. may want movie rights.

Janet Reid said...

North River Docks? *scanning atlas*

Amazing the stuff you learn from blog readers!
North River in NYC!

Mister Furkles said...

My map shows the docks from 59th down to Stuyvesant High. I thought the old New Yorkers called the Hudson the North River. Are there three rivers?

Mister Furkles said...

Pete Hamill wrote a great novel titled "North River". Thought you'd recommended it.

Julie Weathers said...


"like the teenage girls in horror stories who grab a flashlight (because the power went out on a dark and stormy night) to check on a noise in the basement."

Uh, yeah. Years ago we bred and showed Aussies before AKC got their mitts on them. The dogs, not the people. They were light trained, meaning if I flicked the porch light a few times they were supposed to stop barking. I had to do this because we lived near the volunteer fire department in the tiny berg of about 100 people and every time the sirens went off they raised all kinds of Cain.

Anyway, one night the dogs would not shut up. So I jerked on my Wranglers and boots, stuffed my not terribly substantial nightgown in my pants and stomped out to the kennels. The ponies followed me like kids who follow you when their siblings are about to get a scolding.

"What the heck are you dogs barking at? There are no sirens! Now shut up, it's 3:00 in the danged--" Right about then something stuck me square in the middle of the back. The dogs were barking more furiously than ever. I screamed as well as any horror queen in any movie.

The neighbor's Charolais cow was out. Moooo.

I took Charlotte home at a high huff.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Well, once we get to marketing my work, I suppose that’s when the “I just got back from Hell” will come in handy.

And Colin is always in Carkoon. Things fall apart without him.

Donnaeve said...

I think I'm still there (Carkoon) for my comment on a particular writer of non-fiction historic books who has since been disgraced. Shame on him.

It's true one doesn't need to be an expert at some "thing" to write a great story involving that one thing. I could wax and wane about it, but if you're careful with research, you can "seem" to know all there is to know about. . . growing cotton for instance. Or making moonshine.

Still, it's a damned if you do, damned if you don't thing to write a book. If you're an expert on *x subject* you can't make it so dry and factual as to bore the pants off the agent. (Jeff Somers might not like to wear pants but agents do, I'm sure) On the other hand, if you know nothing, nada, zip about a topic, you can't fake that either. You have to do research and balance what you've found out with some sizzling plot lines, likeable characters and the whole mash-up of what makes a good story.

OT: Hey Colin, as to your question from yesterday about my unusual publication journey - yes, I did have a very different sort of path. I thought I did a post about it - maybe I didn't. It would be good to share that if not! Good reminder - which I need these days as my memory is not quite up to par post-treatment- yet.

Kathy Joyce said...

Set of eyes that I paid for comments on my WIP wrote, essentially, "Had a comment ready that hiking trails in white-collar prisons are unrealistic. Then I got curious and googled. Who knew?" (Yes, I did research that).

Current draft of my query says: [Sentence about my expertise related to an aspect of the story]. "Fortunately, I did have to rely on research and imagination about the federal prison system and the inner workings of the Chicago mafia."

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Beyond background providing authenticity, you've got to have a fire in your belly for the subject you're writing about. I earned my living as a firefighter - the first female to make it through the academy I attended back in the 80's, YAY! Do I want to write about any aspect of that life, my career, women in the fire service, the fire service in general? Nope and no thank you. What sparks my imagination? Horses.

Find your passion, real or imagined.

Craig F said...

You can, on occasion, intrigue an agent with something like escape through an overpressure adit. That has particular implications. If something does not have particular implications it is best to describe it in more common terms.

Even though cordite has not been used since early in WWII, it is a term most has in their lexicon. It also falls more trippingly off the tongue than tri-nitro-cellulose.

Kate Larkindale said...

Authenticity is important, but sometimes reality doesn't work for the story. I was inspired to write one of my books after hearing someone speak about their job and their experiences. The one story that really resonated with me, and made me want to write the book, was the one part of that novel readers just didn't buy. I took a while to accept, but in the end, I re-wrote the last third of the book to remove that aspect of the story and while it's not the book I planned to write, the story does work better now. And it's published, so it's too late to go back and change it back.

Sherry Howard said...

My writer eyes sparkled this morning when I saw rodeo. I’m currently ”courting” rodeo people for research. I love learning about something I know little about, walking in the shoes of an interviewee, and absorbing some of the culture. Research is half the fun for some manuscripts. I’m not going to ride a bucking bull before I write the ms about one.

Kitty said...

Julie W wrote: City slicker gal goes out to the barn with Jim and thinks it will be romantic to make love in the hay. Don't they all?

Remember that scene in the 1985 movie MURPHY'S ROMANCE where Sally Fields' ex-husband tries to put the moves on her while they're fluffing the hay in the stalls? She's tempted by him but she spoiled the mood when she had a sneezing fit. ;~)

Colin Smith said...

Elise: Some folks like to get away, take a holiday from the neighborhood. Hop a flight to Miami Beach, or to Hollywood. I'm taking a shuttle on the QOTKU exile line... I'm in a Carkoon state of mind... ;)

Donna: I don't recall seeing such a post on your blog, but I remember you telling the story at the DIXIE launch party. If I'm right, you really ought to write it up for your blog. If nothing else, it demonstrates there's no single formula for success.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Colin I love you. That is all.

And my kid will be back in a New York state of mind on Saturday. She’s on the red eye back from LA on Friday. At least, we’ll be in the same time zone again.

John Davis Frain said...

Colin: Start spreading the news. You're leaving today
I want to be a part of it, Carkoon, Carkoon.
These vagabond shoes, they're longing to stray
and step around the heart of it, Carkoon, Carkoon.

He started it, Ms. Reid!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

John 😝 Hilarious.

EmilyaNaymark said...

Wow, I feel like I got a twofer for the question I asked back in the beginning of February (I'm the OP from Feb. 7). What a bonus!

The takeaway for me from all this wonderful discussion:
1) Write a kickass book
2) Do your due dilligence (AKA: don't have your character swim across the East River and come ashore in New Jersey)
3) Unless your personal journey is directly related to your novel, keep it to yourself
4) No matter how many hours (months, a year) you grilled your husband on the correct procedure to test street drugs for, yes, authenticity, mentioning it in a query is silly. (btw, heroin turns a dark, purplish red. just if anyone's curious.)

Mentioning my hours (months, a year) of research during the marketing phase, however, may not be out of the question, and will depend on strategy.

My question has been answered. I'm thrilled.

Thank you all (and especially Janet for facilitating) very much.

AJ Blythe said...

2Ns, can't say I've had kangaroo tail soup, but I do enjoy kangaroo.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Interesting that you mention Mars... Yes, I've spent the last three years exploring the potential for Mars colonisation. Last semester's paper was on the evidence of water on Mars. There may be sufficient water sources in the northern ice cap to sustain a human colony there. It's just a case of getting it from there to "here".