Truth. It's a seemingly simple concept and one that is important in our art. As fiction writers, we are not strictly bound by truth, yet it still plays a pivotal role in our art. We all have our own truth to tell. The fact that we tell it through the characters we create and their actions and reactions to the situations we place them in, does not diminish the truth that we tell. Moreover, if we deviate from that truth, we risk losing our audience, so we are constantly challenged to get it right.
If I am writing an historical piece, as I often do, it is essential that I get the smallest details of the time and place correct. I cannot have my character in 1870 zipping his trousers any more than I can have him wrapping his food in plastic wrap. I am prevented from placing a coastal mountain range setting in southern Louisiana simply by the fact that none exist, and my readers know it.
This applies equally to other genres. If you're going to write romance you had better understand, feel and be able to convey the range of emotions your story will involve. Your thriller or sci-fi story had better have plausible, and relatively understandable, technology and the details of it absolutely must align with current scientific understanding. Sure, you can go beyond what is now possible, but the laws of physics and your science must align.
All of these things require immense amounts of research and sometimes even what you think you know is wrong. In my first attempt at writing a novel, which is set in 1865-6, I equipped my main character with a pistol which wouldn't be invented until 1873. I also had a cattle war in this novel set in New Mexico, but Goodnight and Loving didn't take their first herd up the trail until 1866 and it was 1874 before John Chisum established the Jingle Bob Ranch with the first herd to actually be kept in the state. I had a major rewrite to do.
The recent election has pointed out another area where truth and research are important. No matter who you supported, there were hundreds of “fake news” stories, internet rumors and misleading sound bytes to choose from. To sort them out, even with the advantages of the internet and google, was nearly a full-time job. Yet, to cast an informed ballot, some attempt had to be made. It was a totally disheartening experience for me as I'm sure it was for most Americans.
The final area of research I want to discuss, and this is important to us as writers are our sources. How do we know where to place a comma, a semi-colon or an em-dash? Do you know how to find a qualified editor? If so, how? The answer is that someone, somewhere has told us the answers to these and infinitely more questions the novice or aspiring writer simply hasn't learned yet. How do we know that the answers we are being given are correct? That's right. Research.
We can always go to trusted resources like the Chicago Manual of Style for grammar questions, or the Merriam-Webster Dictionary for spelling and pronunciation, and we should. What do we do about those other questions? Those questions where we don't have a ready source or don't know where to find one are a bit trickier. For these questions, we are often compelled to rely on the sage advice of those who have gone before us. So, pull up your on-line writing group and post your question. In short order, you will have ten different answers, many of them conflicting. How do you know who is right?
Here's where your research comes in again. Who are these people who are being so helpful? How do they know the answers? There are some steps you can take to sort through this blizzard of chaff and find the valuable kernel of real grain.
Look closely at how they answer your question. Phrases like “I think...”, “What I do...” or “In my experience...” might be warning signs that the responder is someone trying their best to be helpful or they could just be trying, really hard, to let you know that the ultimate choice is yours and they don't want to be pushy. On the other hand, there will be some who come across with answers that seem carved in stone. This may be a case of “there really is only one right answer”, or it may be that they simply speak with the voice of a god and expect all before them to bow and worship. Run! The only writing gods are your muses and the immortals who are mostly gone.
Look at the background of the person giving the answer. What have they published? Was it traditional, or self-published? What do you know about the publisher? Don't be afraid to ask questions. Most people are more than willing to give you at least a taste of their background because they know that you need to evaluate the feedback you're getting. Go to Amazon and look them up. If they have only written short stories, where were they published? Yes, you should give more weight to something published in a major magazine like Missouri Review than to something published in the Lehigh High School Warrior. Before you give it that weight though, be sure it really was published. I know of one writer who stated that he had been published in Glimmer Train, a highly respected magazine and yet was obviously unaware that Glimmer Train maintains an up-to-date listing of ALL of their contributors going back to their very first issue and alphabetized for easy searching. You should give more credence to something published last year or the year before than to a statement that “I published my first piece twenty years ago.” A regular string of decent publication credits is a strong indicator of a professional who knows his or her business and is churning out solid work.
Should you give more credence to responses from editors as opposed to other writers? Yes and no. If the responder has editing credentials from a major publishing house, then absolutely. What about editors who are independent or who have only worked for small-presses? Here, it's a little trickier. Do they have a professional website? Do they have an impressive client list? Is it verifiable? Have you or your trusted friends had any work done by them? There are some really outstanding editors out there who have never worked for any publishing house, but you need to find a way to vet them to determine the value of their advice. This research may take some private messages, emails, phone calls or even some sample work. It's worth it in the end.
What about award winning or award nominated writers? Again, let caution be your guide. If someone says that they have won a major writing award, chances are that they have, but take the time and trouble to look it up. Nominations are an area where the lines grow even dimmer. Many really major writing awards are selected through a nominating process. Often this takes the form of any member of the sponsoring organization can nominate anyone whose work was published during the year the nominations are open for. To make it worse, some organizations publish a list of “nominees” which is in fact a short list for the award. So, when someone says that they were a nominee, does their name appear on the short-list, or was it merely a case of a fellow member sent their name in as a friendly gesture, a pat on the back, or worse a tit-for-tat arrangement. Nominees in the short-list category are generally published by the organization during or prior to the awards. A little research will tell you if the writer you are interested in is in the former or the latter category.
The bottom-line here is that a little research can help you to avoid some of the pit-falls and snares along your path to becoming a wildly successful author, or even one who is just competent in his/her craft. There are no short-cuts. Do your homework. Write your truth and be true to yourself.
I hope that you will find this helpful. Until next time…