The Devil’s in the Details

I’ve started a new book. It scares me for many reasons, but one of the major things I’m afraid of is that I don’t have all the facts I need to do the subject matter justice. It’s a touchy enough subject that I can’t trust Google, and I don’t want to randomly ask people because it’s private. Which leaves me in a bit of a pickle, honestly. Not a writer’s block inducing pickle, thank goodness, but it’s making me stop and think a lot more than the other drafts I’ve done.

I was at a book event on Saturday with R.J. Anderson (ULTRAVIOLET), Leah Bobet (ABOVE) and Megan Crewe (THE WAY WE FALL), and during the question period, someone asked for each of them to give a piece of advice to an aspiring writer. They advised all the basics: read a lot, write a lot, do a lot, and I realized that I would add one more thing to that list: make friends. Make lots of friends. If possible, make friends who are better than you at things like meal planning, fencing, car maintenance and writing query letters. Then, when you run into something you don’t have a friend for, make more friends.

I realize this sounds frightfully mercenary, but I swear it’s not. For starters, the people I’ve just described are genuinely interesting and I love hanging out with them. Also, we have other things in common, which helps fill in the gaps. And I like to think I contribute as well, provided you need to know something about body disposal or ancient defense tactics. Or, um, cake decoration.

The thing is, it’s great to have a person to whom you can say things like “What’s the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?” and get reliable answers. Don’t get me wrong: I love Google and wiki, and often write with both open in other windows, but sometimes it’s nice to hear it from some who is, you know, qualified.

I say all this because everyone, every reader who has ever picked up a book, has A THING. That THING might be traffic conditions in LA. That THING might be the economy of a pseudo-medieval kingdom. That THING might be the inner workings of the Canadian school system. And if you mess up their THING, they will be thrown out of your book. And then they might make fun of you on the internet.

Obviously no one is perfect. I understand that. But if your whole plot hangs on something like identical twins having the same fingerprints, CHECK WITH SOMEONE WHO KNOWS FINGERPRINTS. Because even though identical twins have many things in common, fingerprints are not shared between you and ANYONE ELSE, EVER (including clones, alternative universes and possibly also alternate timelines, but there’s some room for debate there).*

That’s one of the reasons I keep setting books in Canada. I know how things work here. I know how Canadians think, where we buy coffee and our slang for common restaurant chains. Furthermore, I know how Canadians think, and in spite of how we carry on in public, we do think in profoundly different ways, even from our closest neighbours.

I recently read a book where there was a tiny throw-away scene in a history class about the Seven Year War that ended with a student saying indignantly “You mean we were just given to the British?” The book was set in Canada. The speaker was Canadian. The writer was American. You know how I can tell (besides reading the author bio)? Because the Canadian reaction to that is “WOOHOO! STILL PART OF THE COMMONWEALTH!” England had to pretty much INSIST we get our independence, and even then it took us until WORLD WAR ONE to really show initiative.**

One of the coolest things to come out of the Harry Potter fandom, in terms of creative development, is that there was a whole subset of fans who got “famous” not for being writers or artists, but for being “Brit-pickers”. They were a special kind of beta reader who edited entirely for British content, ensuring that non-British writers maintained the HP tone and vocabulary, without becoming farcical. There are some really great resources on livejournal where you can ask questions and a “real” person will answer them (as opposed to a search engine), but I still put my faith in the people I’ve met over the last decade. They ask me questions, and I ask them right back.

I love it when people set books in Canada. I want it to happen ALL THE TIME. I also love crime solving. But they are my THINGs. Writing a book is hard, and sometimes when you’re on a roll, you don’t have time to stop and look up what that thing on the side of the boat that stops it from ramming the dock is called. So write [that thing], turn it red, and then find yourself a boat-person who can fill you in later. But find a person. When I write, I keep a list of the sort of people I am going to need to test read. Sometimes they are people I already know. Sometimes I am going to need to find them (there was a post on my Twitter the other day, for example, looking for a test-reader who was a teenaged girl from a Maine lobster fishing village). The test reader doesn’t even have to read the whole book, just the scenes that are relevant***.

Writing is an adventure. Sometimes it’s a walk straight up a cliff. But if you have sources and experts, sometimes it’s more like climbing a cliff that someone has already set down guide ropes for. And sometimes, if you’re really lucky, one of those details will be inspiring enough that you can hang part of your story on it. Either way, it’s well worth the time and effort. The Devil’s in the details, but if you get the details right, your book will be all the more amazing.

(Plus, research is FUN.****)




*This is because fingerprints are formed by, for lack of a better term, tidal forces in the womb. So even if you are genetically identical, you will move differently, and therefore have different prints. To have the same prints, you would have to have an identical pregnancy, and something about that just seems very unlikely. I was thisclose to posting a CSI fanfic where twins had the same fingerprints. Then I emailed my forensic biologist sister. THANK GOODNESS.
**Prior to WWI Canada was both Nationalistic and Imperialistic, but as members of the Empire, not as a nation in our own right.
***I guess this should be the part where I volunteer to test read for “Canadian spirit”, so I will!
****Or I am a giant dork. Your choice.


3 responses to “The Devil’s in the Details

  1. Cancon Checker? I would love to see that rise up on fandom tides.

    Good luck with your research. If you need to be put in touch with experts on a subject, never forget your local university faculty. We’re only a phone call or email away and I’ve known more than a few colleagues to have been tickled pink by a writer’s query.

  2. Pingback: Questions, Questions That Need Answering | Emily Kate Johnston

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