Writing Excuses 9.9: What to Do When Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction
Key points: Sometimes real names, events, and facts seem contrived if you use them in fiction. Sometimes you don’t use it, sometimes you use it and hang a flag on it. Tie it into the plot or character, provide some relationship with other elements of the story. Watch out for researched theories or events that are just too hard for the reader to believe — you may end up spending too much effort unteaching the reader to make it worth the effort. Beware breaking the fourth wall, jumping outside the mental frame of the story. Look at your cool point, and decide if it is really important to the plot or story. If not, you may have to go with what people expect. Watch for terms or phrases that throw readers. Check with readers to see if things are kicking them out. Decide how you want to handle issues where what readers expect is not necessarily what you want to give them. Use your characters as focusing lenses to pick out aspects of society and culture.
[Mary] Season Nine, Episode Nine.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, what to do when truth is stranger than fiction.
[Howard] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Mary] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And as a special treat this week, we actually have Dan Skyping in for the first time. Unfortunately, there’s some sort of static and interference on the line. He sounds a little bit odd. He actually sounds a lot like Mae West running a phone sex line.
[Dan] These mahshmallows are delicious.
[Brandon] We also have Nancy Fulda joining us. Nancy. We’ve had you on a couple of times. Can you tell us where people can find some of your work?
[Nancy] Sure. Go to NancyFulda.com. There’s a link called bookshelf http://www.nancyfulda.com/bookshelf. It will show you most of the stuff. Most of my stuff is short fiction. That means that the original publications are often very difficult to find. But a lot of it has been recycled onto e-book format and you can find the links to those. Especially the most popular ones.
[Howard] So the rights have reverted to you.
[Nancy] The rights have reverted. I’ve been put them up, some of them on Amazon, some of them on Barnes & Noble.
[Brandon] I was looking, you have some nice blurbs on each of them so people can choose. If you’re going to give somebody one of your stories to read, other than Movement which we’ve already promo’ed, what should they read?
[Nancy] I would have to go with Backlash.
[Brandon] Okay. So go look up Backlash.
[Mary] I’m just going to mention that Backlash is also on Audible.
[Brandon] Oh, good. So, truth is stranger than fiction. This is actually kind of a can-of-worms’ed episode that we are hybriding into… We split it off from the idea of the narrative differences between character and author, and it’s also getting into some of these ideas of what do you do as a writer when you want to include something in your work that you know that readers are really going to respond the wrong way toward. How do you decide when you want to be completely faithful and true to what you’ve researched, and when you just want to say, “I want to have sound in space because it’s cooler.”
[Howard] You know what. I… An example that’s not actually from fiction. A partner of mine who did an illustration of LOTA, the Longshoreman of the Apocalypse, in the Obama style, you know, the Hope poster. It was LOTA with the word food. http://cannonhamakerstudios.com/CHS/?p=8 This artist’s name is Cannon Hamaker.
[Howard] I met him and I said, “That is not right. Because if I were to put that name in a book, people would say you can’t use that name. That name is too cool for a main character to have that name.” And yet, Cannon Hamaker, real person.
[Mary] Wolf Blitzer, war correspondent.
[Howard] Yeah. Wolf Blitzer.
[Mary] Can’t use that in a book. Nope. So one of the things… Sometimes it’s things like names, where it’s just like this is so… It’s too perfect. So it sounds contrived when you put it in a book. A lot of times, you just have to walk away from those. Or you do the hanging the flag on it, which is that you use the name, and then you have other characters crack jokes about it.
[Brandon] Yeah. It has to become a plot element, if you want… You have to fight for these things.
[Mary] Or at least a character element, even if it’s not a plot element. But you have to incorporate it.
[Nancy] Or you create a causal relationship between the name and something else in the story. If you can create… It doesn’t even have to be plausible all that much, but if you can create some reason why something else in the story resulted in this perfect name, readers will usually go with that.
[Brandon] I remember… I think I’ve shared this story on Writing Excuses before, where one of my early books, one of the unpublished ones, I was doing some research about the time period because I wanted to set kind of in a much more Iron Age or maybe Bronze Age society and do it right. Not go with the medieval sort of thing. So I was reading a lot of books on this and I ran across one theory that said part of the reason that chariots became such a big deal was… Yes, in part because the stirrup didn’t exist yet and that’s really useful when you’re going to war riding on a horse’s back, but they also thought that horses had not been selectively bred well enough in regions to carry a rider on their back.
[Brandon] That they… But they could pull. They were strong enough to pull a rider behind them. It was just a theory. Looking online, I found that there are contrasting theories…
[Howard] Also competing theories.
[Brandon] But I thought, “That is awesome.” Writing a fantasy book, that’s something I can say. These horses have not been selectively bred over the years. They can’t carry riders on their backs. So I started doing this, writing this book this way. All of my alpha readers were saying things like, “Why don’t they just get on the horses’ backs?” I couldn’t, in world, have them say, “Well, we haven’t selectively bred them well enough.” I mean… So I ran into this issue where it had to become a major thing that I was struggling with to keep in my story.
[Mary] Yeah. I call this the un-teaching the reader. That you have to… The reader comes to the book with certain preconceptions. If you are doing anything that flies in the face of that, even if it’s real, you can’t… You have to first break them of the preconception that they’ve come to the book with.
[Brandon] And that’s hard. Because it’s kind of like reverse world building. Like we talk about this idea of you have to slowly ease the reader into the world, your learning curve and things like this. Well, now you’ve added this sort of gateway before you can start your learning curve where you have to kind of blank some of their preconceived notions.
[Nancy] And you have to do it without breaking out of the frame of the world.
[Brandon, Mary] Yes.
[Nancy] Which is what makes it difficult, because if you could just jump outside of the mental frame of the characters of the story, you could just say, “Well, of course, they don’t ride horses yet.” But the characters don’t know that. That’s where it runs into… That’s where it becomes difficult.
[Mary] Yeah. It’s, I think, particularly difficult when you are in a secondary world where you can’t even bring up anything analogous. Like that story that I was working on with the moon. I’ve got characters who don’t even have the concept of a moon because they’ve lived on part of the planet that doesn’t have one. Trying to get the book or the story to the point that I could explain to my beta readers, “No, no, this is a tidally locked planet. This is totally scientifically real.” Involved needing to un-teach stuff.
[Brandon] Yes. That can be so hard. It’s one of the cool things you can do in writing, but I think as new writers… It’s something that I wasn’t even aware of until it hit me smack in the face.
[Mary] For me, the tipping point is whether or not it is plot important. Like I’ve had other things… In Without a Summer, I have them dancing the waltz. The waltz looks totally different in 1816 than it does now. Completely and totally different.
[Howard] Is it still in three-four.
[Mary] It’s completely and totally… Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. I mean like…
[Howard] Because one of the defining elements of the waltz is…
[Nancy] The three four time.
[Mary] I looked at it, and I’m like, the amount of page space that it would take for me to un-teach people is not worth it. So I picked the waltz positions that were closest to modern, and then was very vague about what was happening in the waltz so that I just didn’t raise the question.
[Brandon] Once again, this is an onus upon the author, less than the reader. You can’t fix every one of these things. There are going to be things… But one of these was when I used the word hat trick… The term hat trick in the Mistborn trilogy. Now this is something that we get into, this idea of are the books in translation and what’s going to kick people out. Do you use the word okay, which is kind of a modern… Or not, because they’re… I thought this term… Phrase works really well, I looked up the origin of the word hat trick, and I thought, “Well, this predates modern sports by quite a bit.” So I’m like, “Cool, I’ll use this.” It has thrown every reader who’s hit that line out of the book.
[Brandon] To the point that even though I’m right, I should not have used that term.
[Howard] You totally Zambonied them.
[Brandon] Yeah. I totally Zambonied them.
[Mary] Alethia Kontis was just talking about the fact that she had to cut the word… A word out of her novel which has been around since the 1400s because everyone said, “This is too modern.” The word was phase. Exactly the same word, meaning has not shifted.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and do our book of the week. Mary, you’re going to give us Chimes at Midnight.
[Mary] Yeah. So Chimes at Midnight is narrated by me, and this is in the continuing Seanan McGuire series. You can step into these books without starting at the beginning, but it does help to read them straight through. The thing that I love, and I’ve talked about this before… The thing that I love about these books is the character of October Daye. She’s basically caught between two worlds. One is the mortal world, and the other is faerie, and trying to decide sort of where she fits in the world. In particular with this, because we’re dealing with San Francisco, it’s overlaid on a real-world San Francisco. It’s also good to look at from the point of the things that Seanan has to teach and unteach the audience about San Francisco, and where she breaks San Francisco to fit with faerie. So…
[Brandon] Awesome. Howard, how can they get that book?
[Howard] Head out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a 30-day free trial membership, and have a listen to Chimes at Midnight absolutely free, or you can pick up… I think the whole October Daye series by Seanan McGuire is out there.
[Mary] It is.
[Howard] And how many of those have you narrated, Mary?
[Mary] All of them?
[Howard] So if you have not yet grown weary of Mary’s voice, and none of us have…
[Brandon] No, of course not.
[Howard] October Daye… Boy, there’s a lot of good listening out there for you.
[Brandon] This topic is really useful and really pertinent to this podcast, because I’ll bet our listeners are not believing that we actually have Dan on Skype, and that this strange interference is happening. But the truth is stranger than fiction, right, Dan?
[Dan] It’s so true. I’m here in Germany, and oh, this chocolate that I’m eating is to die for.
[Brandon] Exactly. So…
[Howard] We are very fortunate that Dan was not enjoying bratwurst.
[Brandon] Oh, yes.
[Dan] Oh, sausages.
[Brandon] [cough] Oh, boy. So how do you decide? As a writer… Like when you’re working along on this, do you just put it in and then see if it kicks readers out? Do you preemptively decide? Do you like… When in the process are you removing these things, are you looking for these things where the truth is stranger than fiction?
[Dan] Well, when I’m doing it, I look at whether or not my readers are disturbed.
[Brandon] I think all of your readers are disturbed, Dan. That’s part of what you do.
[Mary] I do the same thing as Dan, actually.
[Brandon] Oh. Wow.
[Mary] I also look… Strangely. I also look at where it’s kicking readers out. Sometimes I’ll go ahead and put it in, and just see.
[Brandon] Now, I… Sometimes… This is kind of a similar topic. One thing I’ve run into is sometimes the truth is not stranger than fiction. It’s what people expect, as we talked about before, and you’ll be writing a book and you’re like, “This is what people anticipate. This is what I should do.” The thing I… The example I have is kind of the whole women’s liberation idea. Where when you’re treating women in most periods through time, you have to kind of look at women’s place in society, and there’s not the modern view of things like this. Certainly through most… Through many periods, it’s not as bad off as we assume, but it still being a woman is a hard thing in a man’s world, so to speak. Dealing with this in my books is something that… In Elantris, I’m like I’ve gotta… I’m going to have a woman rebelling against this and things like this. In Elantris, Vin is moving through very much a man’s world and it’s part of who she is and what’s going on. After doing it through two series, I’m like I just don’t want to find a third take on this, right? Do I need to, in every book, address this? It is the truth that I really need to be looking at, at what point do I say, “I’m not going to make this a focus for the story anymore?”
[Mary] Yeah. In that particular case, when you say it’s the truth you need to be looking at… You’re meaning because of the…
[Brandon] The truth that readers expect.
[Mary] Yes. As opposed to the actual… [Garbled – they think you’re making things up?]
[Brandon] Because I’m making fantasy worlds, where I can do as we talked about before, kind of the idea where in a fantasy world, I won’t call it cheating but that’s the easy term to describe it, where you can go and say, “This world has adapted differently.” You have to have much stronger gender equality in a society that in other ways feels very medieval but is… Has grown and progressed in a different way. You can do that as a fantasy writer. Is it cheating? I’ve had to kind of talk about this with myself… Think about this with myself. At what point is this cheating, at what point is it me just saying, “No, this is how the world is?” It’s okay to do that.
[Mary] Since there are matriarchal societies, it’s completely plausible. It’s just selling it. You wanted to say something, Nancy?
[Nancy] Yeah. Well, I was going to say that I think you can do a lot, too, over the characters. Because in any society, regardless of the way that the gender roles in the society are laid out, you are going to have personality types who find the gender situation very difficult, and you are going to have personality types who breeze right through it and hardly even notice. Even… Take me, right? I was one of three women in my computer science program. Never bugged me. Never fazed me. As an adult now, I look at the situation and one perceives it a little bit differently. But as a 21-year-old, not a problem for me at all. That is very closely related to my background, my situation, other factors in my life, and my personality type. But if one is able to take a character and make that character believable, I think one can use the character very often is a focusing lens to focus on certain aspects of the society and the culture and leave other ones out.
[Mary] That’s very good advice.
[Howard] On the front of potentially offending the reader by saying anything or writing a thing that runs counter to the way they believe the world works, that’s difficult. That comes right back to uneducating or reeducating the reader. What I found is that every so often, when I am going back through a story and adding footnotes for the publications, I’ll look for scripts where I feel like something might be a little off. There might be something a little deeper here. One of these… One of the characters says, “Oh, sweet newton, no, we’ve been fooled.” Well, was she talking about Newton the scientist or why she talking about Newton the fig treat. So I started reading about the fig Newton treat, and realized that the words double funnel extrusion machine…
[Howard] As an invention in Newton, Massachusetts, were right there in this article about the fig newton. I thought, “Okay. You know what? That is… I could not have got… Well, I probably could have gotten away with naming a device the double funnel extruder…”
[Howard] But this is now going in the footnote. I love that angle of research. Look for things where you feel like there might be something deeper here. You feel like there might be something that your readers are going to bring to the table that you haven’t addressed. Do some homework, and the answer might present itself. You might realize that there’s something that a character can bring into the scene with them that will help explain this. It’s not likely to be a double funnel extruder, but if it is… Win.
[Mary] Yeah. I’m now wanting to put in a double funnel extrusion in Glamour just because… Crossover.
[Nancy] With a footnote.
[Mary] With a footnote. Yeah.
[Brandon] And on that note, Dan, why don’t you give us a writing prompt?
[Dan] Oh, well, I think for your writing prompt, you should have your character be running through a double extrusion funnel and oh, see what’s at the end.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.