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Danny Adams

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History In Your Historical Fiction, Science In Your Science Fiction, And So On [Aug. 20th, 2008|04:11 pm]
Danny Adams
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[Current Location |Still Wading Around In 1774 Land]
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There's a saying that goes something like "Every time you start writing a new book you have to learn to write all over again." Because every book is different in its own way. I think this goes for genres too; I've written plenty of historical fiction, but while writing Shenandoah I'm learning to write historical fiction all over again even though my last such novel was finished as recently as the spring of 2006. And I'm tackling the same questions as I have before.

The biggest one so far for me has been, How much history do I include in the historical fiction novel? There are a multitude of ways you could answer this question. What contributes to the story? is a good one, if ambiguous. Another is What interests you the most?, the theory being that if it interests you enough you'll make it interesting to the reader. (This doesn't always work in practice, but that's another post.)

But with Shenandoah I've run across a new rule of thumb which I've used in speculative fiction before, and now seems to be working quite well across genres: What would the characters care about?

For me this is the essence of logic in storytelling, not to mention brevity. For example, there was a fair amount of religious conflict in the Shenandoah Valley in the second half of the 18th century, which surprised long-time residents because during the first half there was a great deal of religious harmony. But this is something my characters might notice only in passing; it's more likely that, say, they'd notice how the buffalo herds were thinning, then becoming small groups, and then--hey, when was the last time you saw a buffalo? I don't remember either. Which is not to say that this is going to be dramatic enough bit for a story, but that's where your Writer Head has to come in and decide What's What.

Now it's possible that a character is forced to care about something, like how the conflict between the French and English over the Ohio country spilled bloodily over into the Shenandoah and wiped out several members of one character's family. It could be that a Scottish Presbyterian wants to marry a German Moravian and their communities come into conflict over it. Or it could be that the Indian village depended on the buffalo to eat and now they're having to adapt to white ways or risk starving to death. Oh, look--now it's become important to the story. :) But the point is that all of these historical facts have something to do with the characters' immediate worlds.

I think I put off some speculative editors applying this to science fiction stories, though. I don't necessarily think that the 25th century equivalent of someone feeding the boilers in a starship is going to know the physics of a wormhole, even if he knows the general idea, so it would seem silly for me to have that character expounding into Hard SF dialogue. In this universe wormholes just are for most people, the same way that computers and cars just are for most Americans. I can tell you the principles of how they work, but that doesn't mean I could build or fix them.

Applying this to SF seems to be a no-no for some people, though, but seeing any character in a given story have an expert's knowledge of whatever needs to be explained, regardless of that character's background, is one of my biggest suspension of disbelief killers.

This obviously isn't to say you should eliminate it entirely. A big chunk of my last chapter would fall apart if the characters didn't know what was going on in the Ohio country. Books like Greg Bear's Anvil of Stars would fall apart without the technological flights. But then again, characters in said chapter and book were experts, specifically living the situations that made them experts, and that expertise was interwoven into the story.

Just make sure it's not there solely to show off how much research you've done.

(I could comment here about Frederick Pohl's recent declaration--or re-declaration, since I believe he's said it before--that lazy would-be Hard SF writers write fantasy. I've read plenty of hard SF that seemed lazy with everything else to me, like characterization. But I think I'll save that for another post too. And never mind that fantasy was around long before SF.)

I suppose what it boils down to for me is this: I read a historical novel primarily for characters interacting with each other against a historical backdrop, not for history lessons. I read SF primarily for characters interacting with each other against an SF environment, not for science lessons. The history makes for a great setting, but it shouldn't be the main character. Technological explanations make for great flights of imagination in SF, but shouldn't be the main character.

And now that I'm nearly done with my latest review reading, I'm hoping to put this in practice at least a little bit more this afternoon, too.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: sartorias
2008-08-20 08:28 pm (UTC)
Good thoughts.

So many of those questions depend on reader tastes and experience that the only one that one can really get a grip on (if a slippery grip!) is What would the characters care about?
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[User Picture]From: madwriter
2008-08-21 03:00 pm (UTC)
It's certainly the one I've had the best handle on so far.
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[User Picture]From: coffeeem
2008-08-20 08:43 pm (UTC)
Yep, so many writing decisions come down to Point Of View. And using POV well fixes so many problems. Good post.
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[User Picture]From: madwriter
2008-08-21 03:00 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I tend not to do many writing posts anymore as I usually feel I have little to say or add, but I'm glad when people get something out of the ones I do write.
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[User Picture]From: anderyn
2008-08-20 08:44 pm (UTC)
YES! I think you have the nail on the head, because that's where I start losing interest when I read -- if the writer has put in detail because they think it's cool, NOT because the character would be interested/care about it.

May I please link this to my writer's group forum? It's just for our in-person group, but I'd love to share the thoughts with them.
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[User Picture]From: madwriter
2008-08-21 03:01 pm (UTC)
Be my guest. :)
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[User Picture]From: lisapt
2008-08-22 01:26 am (UTC)
Hi, I'm from anderyn's writer's group.

Thanks for the insight. I like the idea of using the background (historical, science, magic systems) as a technique for character development. By showing what the people care about, they become much more real. Everyone notices different details, and what the care or don't care about says a lot about them.

BTW, in spite of being an electrical engineer, I can't stand long technical descriptions in my SF. I skim it, even in the stories of the old masters. I don't read novels for science. I read for the characters and stories.
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[User Picture]From: madwriter
2008-08-22 04:09 pm (UTC)
Welcome!

I don't mind an explanation if it's something critical to the story, even if it's the engineer saying something like "OK, here's what you can expect to happen when we plunge through the quantum bore..." But otherwise, feh.
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[User Picture]From: j_cheney
2008-08-20 08:47 pm (UTC)
So I'm working on a story and scratching my head, asking myself "Can they see the Eiffel tower while walking west on bd Haussman?"

Yeah, that's the sort of thing one has to research when doing historical fiction--but it isn't the point, is it? (I'm not going to touch on the story I researched my butt off for, and then left an anachronistic item sitting on a table. EEP! No one has commented on it yet...)

The beauty of SF is that one doesn't have to answer that sort of question, but yeah, sometimes the authors do get carried away.

You're right on both counts. ;o)


Edited at 2008-08-20 08:48 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: madwriter
2008-08-21 03:04 pm (UTC)
But I consider this standard research rather than making something an integral part of the story. On the other hand, it's also the little details that tend to give me the most trouble. :)
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[User Picture]From: j_cheney
2008-08-21 03:17 pm (UTC)
How very true ;o)
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[User Picture]From: crinklequirk
2008-08-20 09:06 pm (UTC)
Very good points - and it would be Pohl who'd incite a ruckus (albeit fairly stated, IMO), wouldn't it now, lol.

There is another part of the balance, though, and I'm sure you've been finding it out again while researching those tidbits about the region for the period you're writing about.

When you're writing hard sf or Period stuff, etc., you need to get the background right. Not that the boiler room mechanic (to borrow your example) would know all the details if he's not into it, rather that you, the author, would have to have at least a thorough overview of the backgrounds, technical details, etc. (like putting a Mob hat on a woman of high class in the 1835 Pine City Fur Post here in MN - NOT! It's not Period, you see). If one messes up on such details, or the general overview of saying that you could get to Proxima Centauri in 100 years using ion propulsion - well, let's say that there are going to be problems should your readers be versed in such details, and they'll be yanked out of the reading no matter how good the overall plot and characterization happens to be.

But again, that's another sort of balance, one which touches upon the master framework of an entire novel, or perhaps more properly bespeaks the world-building authors engage in when writing their stories.

Well-stated post, btw. :)
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[User Picture]From: madwriter
2008-08-21 03:06 pm (UTC)
Setting is actually the hardest thing for me, and what causes me the most work in subsequent drafts. My first draft might describe a character wearing buckskin and carrying the long rifle he bought in Pennsylvania...OK, but what does the wild country he's riding through look like? How much trouble is his horse having with the deer path he's forced to use? Is he drinking solely water on this trip, and if not, what might he have access to? Did he make jerky since there are no taverns in the back country? That sort of thing.

Your comment also reminds me of Hemingway's comment that he knew the entire life of his characters but only included 10% of that life in his books. I think the same holds true for historical / scientific background as well.
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[User Picture]From: akirlu
2008-08-20 09:17 pm (UTC)
Technological explanations make for great flights of imagination in SF, but shouldn't be the main character.

On the other hand, a wise SF writer once said, if your story could be told intact without the science-fictional element, then it isn't really a science fiction story. And I think that's right. Technology and science may not be the main character, may not even be an interest of the main character -- though it has been in plenty of successful SF -- but it has to be a foundational element in the events that happen. The projected technological change has to be crucial to that particular set of events being possible at all, otherwise you're just using Scifi props for atmosphere.

But in general, I do think that using "what would my characters care about?" as a guideline when choosing what to put in and what to leave out is an excellent baseline for making storytelling decisions. Certainly authors who disregard what their characters care about, to the point that they act "out of character" in service to the plot, tend to annoy me.
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[User Picture]From: madwriter
2008-08-21 03:08 pm (UTC)
>>On the other hand, a wise SF writer once said, if your story could be told intact without the science-fictional element, then it isn't really a science fiction story.<<

A variation of this rule holds true for historical fiction too: If you drop the historical element and the story holds up, then why not just set it nowadays?

But this is where my dilemma came in, and why I narrowed my focus to what the characters cared about (innately or by being made to from unavoidable circumstances). There is so much to choose from that this seemed like the best way to narrow down what's already going to be a huge book.
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[User Picture]From: jamesenge
2008-08-20 09:17 pm (UTC)
"What would the characters care about?"

Nicely put. This is a shrewd test to apply to worldmaking material in general (whether researched or invented). The writer may know that the 7 Electors of the Verspanglian Electorate ride ceremoniously through the capital city on seven-legged horses whenever there's a national holiday or a manure shortage, but readers probably won't care unless some character does--if she needs to cross the street on a parade day or steal a seven-legged horse, etc.
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From: mauzybroadway
2008-08-20 09:46 pm (UTC)
"What would the characters care about?"

Same is beginning to hold true for the arena of genealogy. My father-in-law is the consummate record-keeper. He can tell you the dates of births/deaths and even the newspaper/bible/location of where he found the information. But when pressed about the history and the stories of these people, well... that's not his forte.

He often chides me that I am pretty narrow when collecting my own genealogy. He has a point. My perspective, though, the "what I care about" is the genealogy that I've had personal exposure to. It's my way of honoring and remembering those relatives and connections that I can relate to... that I've had experience with. It reminds me that our lives are but moments in time.

Mighty fine post!
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[User Picture]From: madwriter
2008-08-21 03:10 pm (UTC)
And this is why I include stories, when I know them, on each family member's genealogy page. :)

This isn't meant to be a criticism, but I never understood the genealogists who collect names and dates without knowing anything else about the family member. Even as far back as I've traced some of my lines, I would rather only go back a few generations and have stories attached to each person than a thousand years with nothing more than names.
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From: mauzybroadway
2008-08-21 03:20 pm (UTC)
It's interesting talking to my father-in-law about this.

For him, it's about the fact that he created the computer program from scratch to assign everyone their own code and location within this massive time-line. God bless him for assessing the "bigger picture of connections".
i
For him, it's more cartography rather than narrative. That's not to say that he doesn't treasure the stories; it's just that the narrative isn't a true definition of genealogy. Narrative gets in the way of true recording; it's harder to code for since it is subjective and often unconfirmed.
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[User Picture]From: madwriter
2008-08-21 03:44 pm (UTC)
I think one of the things I've always liked the most about Walt is that, both literally and metaphorically, he's interested in both coding and narrative. :)
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[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2008-08-20 10:40 pm (UTC)
I'm writing historical fantasy these days, and I agree wholeheartedly. Both in the direction you describe -- put in what the characters care about -- and in its reversed corollary, which would be that if you want it in the book, give the characters a reason to care. Create a love interest from the other religion. Have your protagonist be conversant with warp drives and how they operate. Integrate it before it shows up, so it doesn't come out of left field.
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[User Picture]From: madwriter
2008-08-21 03:11 pm (UTC)
And it's easy to do in a believable way, too. How many of us haven't been attracted to someone we shouldn't be? And maybe that private in the boiler room aspires to officer training and wants to be a chief engineer, so he'd have to know about wormhole theory if he wants to achieve his lifelong ambition.
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[User Picture]From: al_zorra
2008-08-20 10:48 pm (UTC)
Sometimes though, the history you know of the period depicted in fiction, can make the fiction all the more interesting.

For instance, the period of The Three Musketeers saga takes place against the same historical canvas as does contemporary Spanish historical novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte's Captain Altriste's novels. The joy, the panache, the bouyancy of Dumas's characters is wholly absent from the experiences of Altriste and the other characters bogged down in the Netherlands, attempting to keep Holland for the Spanish empire. The comparison and contrast with what one knows of the English courts, the French courts and the Spanish courts of the period really enrich the reading of any fiction set in those periods. If characters get involved with those royalties, and are writing historical fiction, it seems one needs to know something of the circumstances and the personalities of these very large figures, that affected the fate of their parts of the world.

Everyone at court certainly takes them into account, and so do the officers in their military and navy -- but then, how much does the grunt? Far less, one thinks.

Love, C.
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[User Picture]From: madwriter
2008-08-21 03:15 pm (UTC)
Cutting out a lot of the broader scope is, I think, what hurts the most. I've included a lot of the events happening in the Ohio country, for instance, but left out a lot of the scheming in the European courts going on during the Continental side of the war. I weighed including it for a long time, and had an avenue to do so--George Washington is a character and he is an acquaintance of Lord Fairfax, who would likely be privy to such things. But in a book as huge as this one will be (around 250-300K) I finally decided it would be too much.

On the other hand, I could also change my mind by the second draft.
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[User Picture]From: al_zorra
2008-08-21 03:27 pm (UTC)
Indeed. What the author must know about the history of the period is not at all the same as what the various characters need to know.

But you do see this all too often: the author didn't know enough, and this affects negatively her characters and story-line. This is particularly true, it seems to me, in so-called alternate history novels.

Love, C.
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From: crapjournal
2008-08-21 07:29 pm (UTC)
I agree completely, also this was a great post! It reminds me of the opening war scene in the first episode of Firefly, if you've, uh, ever seen that. It just didn't seem necessary, and I feel like they could have showed that in other ways, just by hinting at over the course of the series. Whatever you imagine is likely to be much better than five minutes of rushed war scenes.

Again, I apologise if you haven't seen it, and I feel like a complete nerd for bringing it up like this.
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[User Picture]From: madwriter
2008-08-21 08:20 pm (UTC)
No worries, I've seen it!
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[User Picture]From: crinklequirk
2008-08-21 11:35 pm (UTC)
Yes, but if you know the history of Firefly, it's more a matter of politiky stuffs with they-who-pull-good-series and what they thought was a "proper" first episode - hence the over-explanation.

Annoying as all get-out that the series was yanked around that way, but what can you say when it's the networks? At least we got the movie. (Well, okay, but Wash shouldn't ought to have died, and the preacher's death was just completely unnecessary, not to mention out-of-character and out-of-[series']style.)
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From: crapjournal
2008-08-22 03:20 pm (UTC)
I didn't know that, but it makes a lot of sense. The rest of the series isn't like that at all, and it's heartening to learn that it wasn't really Whedon's intention.

The movie though, I can't talk about it. The reason Firefly is so fresh in my mind is that my wife and I are just now going through the series on DVD and... when I saw the movie two years ago, without any context and immediately after I had my wisdom teeth removed-- it just didn't seem that special, and none of the characters were anything (to me). Obviously it'll probably be different time number two. Sad to hear that the preacher dies! That does seem odd for the series.
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[User Picture]From: crinklequirk
2008-08-22 06:59 pm (UTC)
Whoops - SORRY! Didn't realize that'd be a spoiler for you.

Just ignore the movie bits, and yes, Whedon is a little better than that first bit. It's amazing what politics with networks will get you, though; and rather annoying.

Have fun watching the series!
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From: crapjournal
2008-08-23 04:31 am (UTC)
Thanks! And it's okay, you don't have to worry. Spoilers bother me less than most people. Also, I probably should have known that anyway.
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[User Picture]From: mikailborg
2008-08-21 10:08 pm (UTC)
I remember a quote from Roddenberry, circa 1967-8, that went something like: "Does a beat cop stop to explain gunpowder every time he fires his .38? Then why would a spaceman explain his weapon to an unseen audience, or discuss the engines of his ship?"

On the other hand, the principles of the Alderson Drive in The Mote In God's Eye have a direct bearing on why humans have never encountered the Moties before, and on the solution to the problem they pose. So there's a case where you find an excuse to do some explanation.
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