Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Tuesday Tips: Fatal Flaws and Research

No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft. H.G. Wells

Sometimes, we’re simply too close to our own work to see it objectively.

I have experienced this, both as a writer who has looked at something until my eyes burned and the words blurred, and as the reader who has been asked to offer feedback, only to find what the writer really wanted was praise.

I was asked to critique something once, and I won’t use that specific example here. But I’ll use a comparable one.

Imagine a seventeen-year-old Amish girl who’d left her community to live in the big, bad world. She has a contact, a friend who left before her, that knows a person that can teach her how to drive a car.

Only when she goes to meet her friend, he’s on a stretcher, being lifted into the back of an ambulance. The scene is a mess of vehicles – none damaged – blood on the pavement, stressed onlookers and cops in uniform taking statements.

The person who was supposed to teach her how to drive a car approaches the Amish girl and she asks what happened.

He says, “Can you keep a secret?”

She nods.

“It was a 480.”

WTF? Okay, if you’re a cop, you should know what that means.

If you’re an Amish girl and have just moved to the city, that moment of profound revelation falls flatter than a camisole on an undeveloped girl’s chest.

And it is a line just like that that can pull a reader out of the illusion and kill a story for them.

This is trickier than it might seem. We think we can make everything up, but there has been a push for realism in fiction, for writers to make their world seem believable. Readers are increasingly critical, down to nitpicking over historical accuracies, use of proper police procedure, the month of a year that an item was invented or a coin was released… I mean, damn, sometimes writing non-fiction is a lot easier.

This is why it’s important to find people you trust who can look at your work with a critical eye – people who know nothing about it. In the case of the work I referred to, I knew what the phrase used at the end of chapter 1 meant because it had been explained to me. But putting myself in the protagonist’s shoes, there was no way that character would have understood what the term meant, or the significance.

That bothers me more than nitpicky research. When something said in the story is supposed to have significance and yet it contradicts what the character should legitimately know or understand, then I have a problem. It throws the character into doubt for me. Are they really a naïve Amish girl who has just moved to the city, or are they a street-wise punk that’s been studying law enforcement?

One of the most interesting things for me was to research a dog search for Echoes and Dust (or Terms of Redemption). I thought I understood how it was done. I’ve read an extensive amount about dog training and have some limited experience.

And I was wrong.

If I’d set the book in the US, I might have been right. But I wasn’t. And the top dog trainer for the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) not only called me to answer questions but read that portion of the manuscript and then called me again, to tell me what I got wrong.

I had to rewrite the entire scene.

First of all, the RCMP don’t use a scent item for tracking. They don’t stick a shirt under the dog’s nose and tell him to search.

The dogs are trained to search for a general scent trail in the area. This is often more effective, for a variety of reasons.

One is that items of clothing or possessions are often contaminated by other scents when handled. Another is that if a person has fled a murder or robbery, they’re usually running.

Which means sweating.

Which means they leave a strong scent trail, the one the dog is most likely to pick up.

The next thing I’d gotten wrong was that nothing was going to stop this dog from running for hours, certainly not the piddly river I had running through my scene that stopped the search in the story.

Geographically, I needed a wall of rock going up or a Grand Canyon, or an act of God to stop that dog. These dogs are hard-core.

It was a phenomenal experience. It isn’t quite the same as correcting a fatal flaw, but it is a critical piece of research that, neglected, would have jeopardized the believability for some readers.

And you know what the great thing was? Revising the scene not only made it believable, it made it a better.

I'd also made the mistake of writing in a highly trained husky - not in the same scene. No matter how much I read about husky temperaments, it wasn't until a few months after draft 1, when we got Chinook, that I understood just how unbelievable a highly trained husky that could go off-leash and always respond to his owner was.

Anyone who has ever owned a husky would laugh at me.

Oh, it's possible. I've talked to some husky owners who say their dog will always come back. We used to say that about Nootka, that he'd never run off...

Used to.

The bottom line is, it pays to get your facts straight, and I’m really glad I didn’t shrug off the research.

Writers always need to consider that readers may not understand something in our work. We know the story and the characters, but we do not always convey everything precisely in our work.

Read my interview with Cornelia Read in the Spring 2006 Issue of Spinetingler, and hear how a pro dealt with revisions. The attention to detail, to accuracy, is staggering.

And inspiring.

Because great authors try to get things right.

And they understand the value of feedback.

Here's something from someone who never included me and evilkev in their study.


Because he shops more than I do.


Now, about that pesky contest, if you didn’t check out the website yet, visit Sandra Ruttan.com and at the bottom of the front page there’s a link to the Quill Review.

Yes, that’s right, I’ve been interviewed. And this time not by the police.

And the interview may, or may not, help you with tomorrow’s trivia contest and question.

Yes, the prize is a copy of the 2005 Spinetingler Anthology, BUT if you have a copy already (Stuart) then a substitute prize may involve alcohol.

Check back tomorrow for the trivia question.

Which may be as simple as, “What is Sandra’s nickname for her husband?”

Or then again, maybe it won’t be…


Bernita said...


Anonymous said...

I keep finding time and again that if I get stuck on a scene, it's because I haven't researched it enough. Whether the research involves looking something up on the internet or simply dreaming up more detail to inform the scene, it always feels wron

Vincent said...

I keep finding time and again that if I get stuck on a scene, it's because I haven't researched it enough. Whether the research involves looking something up on the internet or simply dreaming up more detail to inform the scene, it always feels wrong or unwritable without it.

There's also what I think of as the writer's prime directive: telling your story in a clear and obvious manner. This doesn't mean the story itself can't be opaque and confusing, just that the language used to tell it shouldn't obscure it further. I stalled reading 'Foucault's Pendulum' simply because there are lengthy passages full of arcane references that mean nothing to me. Foreign phrases keep cropping up I can't translate. The characters plausibly know what they're talking about, but I haven't a clue. I find it hard to get involved in a book when most of the narrative passes straight over my head.

All of which brings me to a final question: what the heck is a 480?

R.J. Baker said...

I was wondering what the hell 480 is too. 360 I get. 480?

Gabriele C. said...

Yes, what IS a 480?

That would have thrown me out of the story, too, especially in a first chapter.

I hope I can find people to help me with some special scenes, like medical treatment and chariot racing because net and book research doesn't really cover that. For Roman military things, I have the RAT forums with a bunch of knowledgeable people who will - hopefully - tell me if I dressed my characters in the wrong sort of lorica.

One of my first readers writes SciFi and reads almost no hist fic besides mine. That's a very helpful view when it comes to things I assume readers will know but don't.

BTW If you need info about sledge dogs, try this blog. I bet she'll be happy to answer questions.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sorry guys - ooops! A 480 is, according to The Complete Idiot's Guide to Criminal Investigation, a felony hit and run.

Whatever that is.

Vincent, I liked your point about how the writing shouldn't make the content more obscure or harder to follow as well.

Gabriele, thanks for the link! My dogs I understand now! Huskies are runners, and what I had one doing in the book was not too bloody likely. As soon as I got a husky, I started to learn all about that!

M. G. Tarquini said...

falls flatter than a camisole on an undeveloped girl’s chest.


I didn't know what a 480 is but a felony hit and run is when a car hits a person and runs. I think the run part makes it a felony.

A contest? Okay, I'll oil up the fingers for tomorrow.

And, um, I don't know what a 360 is. In the world of police procedurals, I'm the little Amish girl. And yeah, yes, absolutely on the idea of having fresh eyes who don't love you looking at the work.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Ah, somebody liked my line! Tee hee!

Actually, a 481 is a misdemeanor hit and run, so the felony can't just be the running.

But I think these guys mean they know 360 as in 360 degrees.

Because I can't find 360 in the Idiot's book. But I'm sure it means something!

Boy Kim said...

It's not a good idea to use the words 'dogs' and 'hardcore' in the same sentence. People will get the wrong idea.

Erik Ivan James said...

Good post. Informative about 'research'.

M. G. Tarquini said...

I'll ask my Dad next time I talk to him. Maybe some places don't let the running only be a misdemenour? (sp?)

Kate said...

I think it would be a felony because the guy died. Here the same bad driving can earn you either just a fine or a jail sentence, depending on whether the person you hit survives or not.

Daniel Hatadi said...

Damn. You mean we actually have to check our facts? For fiction? Bah, humbug.

* runs off to scribble list questions to ask the police *

Sandra Ruttan said...


I thought the police were asking you the questions...


Dana Y. T. Lin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dana Y. T. Lin said...


I was gonna say that M.G. and I often debate over the authenticity of things. For instance, if you see a red-checkered tabled anywhere near an Italian - RUN! It's a fake. And if you see cream cheese in your fried wontons - RUN! It's another imitation. Hee.

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