My thanks today to my guest, Pat Valdata, for this post. Pat is both a poet and a novelist, and, when I told her this blog was geared primarily toward beginning writers, she immediately came up with the idea of sharing her thoughts on verisimilitude, the art of using details to create the illusion of reality. Read Pat's full bio and my review of her latest book, Inherent Vice, in my last post, here.
Why Getting Small Details Right MattersI am reading a book in which one character is an entomologist, and in one scene, he talks about a wasp who stings him, referring to the wasp several times as “he.” This bothered me enough that I looked wasps up on the Internet, and as I suspected, only female wasps have stingers, what National Geographic describes as “modified egg-laying organs.”
by Pat Valdata
by Pat Valdata
I would expect any trained entomologist to use the correct pronoun, wouldn’t you? A small point, maybe, but when I read that passage, the inaccuracy took me right out the story. I’m a pretty omnivorous reader, but what I always look for is a strong narrative, compelling characters, and vivid settings, all of which combine to draw me deep into the story, where I can disappear happily for hours. I love visualizing fictional worlds in my mind, and I especially enjoy writers who help me enter their world and stay there.That’s why getting all the details right matters so much. The technical term is verisimilitude, and it’s an important feature of almost all fiction, with the possible exception of surrealism. Even fantasy stories create their own kind of verisimilitude: Think of all that backstory J.R.R. Tolkien provided in the appendices to the Lord of the Rings. Once we accept the places and characters he presents to us, we expect the details to support that world. Imagine being halfway through the story and coming upon a Hobbit who wore shoes, or a kind-hearted Orc. It would feel wrong, and in my case, would jolt me back to my own reality.
I want my own readers to immerse themselves in my books, so I spend a lot of time on small details that give the story that sense of intimacy and being there that I so enjoy when I read. When I wrote The Other Sister, which takes place between 1904 and 1956, I spent months on research to make sure that I got small details right: which port an immigrant couple from Hungary might use to leave Europe for America; which movies would be playing in the early 1920s; what a Victrola cost. I tried to be careful with dialogue, to avoid anachronisms (none of my characters said “Awesome,” for example). And as I described a location as it was transformed from rural to suburban, I found out when the country lane might have become a paved street, and made sure I never “unpaved” it by mistake later in the book.
Of course, you don’t have to get the tiniest details right in an early draft, when it’s more important to move the action along and develop your characters. But during revision, keep an eye out for the kind of slip that will make a reader put down your story and start fact-checking instead.