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[process] Reality, realism and synchronicity - Lakeshore — LiveJournal
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Jay Lake
Date: 2012-05-23 05:44
Subject: [process] Reality, realism and synchronicity
Security: Public
Tags:books, conventions, funny, process, writing
Sometime this past week (it's all something of a blur now), I was having a conversation about realism in fiction. I think this was with @madge707. We weren't talking about realism as a literary movement, but rather the more plain meaning of the word. Specifically, the balance between enough detail and too much detail.

As they say, you can't fool all of the people all of the time. It's simply not possible. Someone with special knowledge is going to be a much more critical reader of fiction in their knowledge domain. The amount and precision of medical information I would have to put into a short story about doctors in order to satisfy a medically-trained reader is far greater and more demanding than what I would have to put in to satisfy a general reader. On the other hand, there are a lot of doctors and nurses and med techs and so forth out there, so this is probably worth getting right.

Another example of this is a short story I read some years ago, possibly in a Writers of the Future volume. In it, the protagonist is time traveling, and flips through a series of historical vignettes. At one point, the arrive atop a yurt in Genghis Khan's horde, and climb down the central tent pole to take some action. This threw me out of the story, first of all because "yurt" is a Russian word, and to Mongolians, it's a "ger". Second of all, gers don't have a central tent pole. They have a pair of offset poles supporting a central ring. Why do I know this? Because I've spent time in Outer Mongolia, including visiting and sleeping in actual Mongolian gers. However, this is a knowledge domain that I share with about seven of the people who ever read that story.

One of the challenges of being a writer is knowing where to set that dial. When does reality trump realism? Sometimes the actual details really are less believable than the fictional details.

The example that had generated the conversation was that @madge707 was working on a story about a San Francisco police detective. In the SFPD, detectives are titled as "inspectors". Someone in her critique group at the conference was confused by this, not realizing this bit of San Francisco detail. So the question was, did she go for the reality, which was confusing, or the realism, which was erroneous. (Obviously, there are fairly simple ways to resolve this, it's just an example.)

I provided a similar example from living in Portland. While Portland has a police department, just like virtually every other city or town in the United States, the Portland police department is formally known as the Portland Police Bureau. (The fire department is the Portland Fire Bureau, etc.) I'm not even sure most people in Portland realize this. It's not prominently painted on the police cars or anything. Almost certainly no one outside Portland knows this unless they have special Portland knowledge. So, as I said to @madge707, if writing about crime in Portland, would it be confusing to refer to the Police Bureau, or the PPB? Because that would look odd to most American readers, who expect the term "Police Department".

A couple of days later, I'm reading Mark Teppo's excellent and gripping novel LightbreakerPowells | BN ] (which I have since left on an airplane, forty pages from the end, grrr) and what do I find but a reference to the Portland Police Department, being used by a character who is a cop from the Seattle Police Department. The reference is in initial caps, i.e., the proper name, which is of course, not correct. Something the character in question would absolutely know better than to do, insofar as real life goes.

I cracked up hard.

Ah, the magic of synchronicity.

Post A Comment | 12 Comments | | Link

Twilight: WriterRose
User: twilight2000
Date: 2012-05-23 13:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I love this - I had a similar issue in a workshop where the workshop leader critiqued a work of mine set in the the Orkneys, because of some *very* specific Orkney based info. I'd included a bunch of local flavor material, based on the research I'd done, So I was surprised to get that comment. It seems that particular critiqer had spend several months up there for some reason. Given that this person was a Well Known Published Author, it really took me aback and I let it hit much harder than it should.

Because really, how many of my readers will have spent enough time in the Orkney's to be bothered by this?

I'd probably use both "Inspector" and "PBB" in your examples above - because they give local flavor and many more people will have city-specific knowledge than of the Orkneys - but your point is well taken :>.

Edited at 2012-05-23 01:23 pm (UTC)
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User: a_cubed
Date: 2012-05-23 13:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Depending on the length of the piece and how many times you need to do it, of course, you can just explain in story. You have to beware "As you know, Bob" of course. Much more difficult to do in short fiction, of course.
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Twilight: WriteInspirationPen
User: twilight2000
Date: 2012-05-23 14:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Especially with titles - speaker a: "Inspector?" speaker b: "yea, the weird in San Francisco doesn't quit" (or some such) and so on. I love bits like that when I'm reading - makes the space seem more UNlike where I live - which is kind of the point for me :>.
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User: dionysus1999
Date: 2012-05-23 14:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I suspect most readers are forgiving of minor inaccuracies. If your favorite author takes 20 years to research/write a book she may not be your favorite author much longer.

Not quite the same, but audiobook readers really should research local names. One urban fantasy reader my wife and I listen to on long car trips pronounced "Mackinac" wrong as we were driving over the bridge in question. Mack-i-naw is the correct pronunciation.
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User: mmegaera
Date: 2012-05-24 00:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Listening to an audio version of William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways a number of years ago, I was enjoying it very much right up until the narrator arrived in Oregon and mentioned the Will'-a-mette River (as the saying goes, it's Wi-lamm'-it, dammit!).

Then I spent some time wondering how many other regional names the reader mispronounced that I didn't notice because I just didn't know any better, and sort of wanted to cry.
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User: mcjulie
Date: 2012-05-23 15:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I have a copy of Lightbreaker which I have finished reading & can bring to Jaycon, if required. I realize you might not want to wait that long...
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Jay Lake: writing-bookmobile
User: jaylake
Date: 2012-05-23 15:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Actually, that would be awesome. I'll deal with the bookus interruptus til then. Thanks!
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Dave O'Neill
User: daveon
Date: 2012-05-23 15:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I got into a huge fight once with a test reader, over, off all things, my use of 'late dry season afternoon' to describe the time of year. The story opened in North Western Australia which, basically, only has wet and dry seasons but the reader was insisting this was impossible.

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Dave O'Neill
User: daveon
Date: 2012-05-23 15:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I also get annoyed when TV fails on simple details too. It's a minor one, but having the wrong electrical outlets visible in scenes set in scenes set in the UK really bugs me. It's a simple fix but they just get it wrong.
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just a bear whose intentions are good
User: two_star
Date: 2012-05-23 18:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I am reminded of the Austrian satirical cop show Kottan Ermittelt, where the main character's catch phrase is "Inspektor gibt's kan," ("There ain't any inspectors,") the joke being that "Inspektor" is not a rank in Austrian police departments, but everyone just assumes it is, and calls him as such, presumably because everything they know about the police comes from West German media.
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User: dsgood
Date: 2012-05-23 19:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
There's a story in which it's snowing in cities all over the world; including Honolulu. At an expert conference, character says -"It never snows in Hawaii."- An expert wouldn't say that; it does snow in Hawaii, though not every year and only at rather high altitudes. I haven't read much by that writer since reading most of that story.

And: Why do engineers who write sf so often have governments which work exactly according to the specs, with no friction? Why are so many fantasy writers unclear on the distinction between feudalism and absolute monarchy?
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orangemike: speaks
User: orangemike
Date: 2012-05-23 21:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
All your readers who ride with the Great Dark Horde will know about gers; and we're everywhere!!!!
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