“… that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” Samuel Coleridge.
Everyone has their strengths. For my kid #4 it’s her ability to remember obscure details. I pay her five dollars an hour to listen to me read my stories. She somehow lays her six-foot body on the floor of my tiny office and stares at the ceiling. I keep checking to make sure she hasn’t fallen asleep. But she’s listening. At fourteen, five dollars an hour is meaningful pay. And for me, her plethora of factoids is worth every penny.
In my novella called “Mine” one of the throw away lines in my story was about a calico cat. Kid #4 stops me. “Uh. I bet you made that cat a boy, Mom.” She was right, it was a boy cat. “To have a boy calico cat would be a genetic anomaly. All calico cats are female unless they have XXY chromosomes. Change the color,” she said.
“Well okay, would grey be alright?” I asked.
As a writer, why should I care about such a minor detail?
Readers and writers have a contract from the outset. Writers can write the most moving and beautiful words in the world, but without a key ingredient from the reader, our efforts will be forever two-dimensional. We need cooperation. The reader must open the pages of our book with a willing suspension of disbelief in order for the writer to take them on an adventure. The writer, on the other hand, is required to buoy this disbelief by writing correctly. I’m not talking about the Oxford comma, grammar is somewhat malleable. I’m talking about facts. Cold hard facts.
A poorly placed semi-colon will not throw off a reader; it is the sloppy use of fact that destroys fiction. A reader opens the book with the intention of suspending disbelief in order to enter a new world, meet new people, and have vicarious experiences. But if the reader knows factually that something is inaccurate it abrades that line between possible and impossible. Once eroded, the readers’ willingness to participate in belief suspension becomes a struggle.
We writers should always try to support the literary contract: If you write it, I will believe you.
And for me, this means research – detailed, accurate, meticulous research.
I mentioned my calico cat comment at a lecture the other day. As soon as I said the calico cat was a boy, fifteen heads shook “no.” You see, I’m allergic to cats. I can’t go near them, so they are not on my knowledge radar. But for those fifteen shaking heads, as soon as they read the calico was male, I’ve blown my credibility. We have to try our best not to blow it. So I do a lot of hands-on research, talking to experts about what is right and what would make them throw down my book in disgust.
To this end, I have found four magic words, “I’m writing a book.” These four words at the beginning of any question will open the doors to a wealth of information. While otherwise, someone may hesitate to give you data when asked straight out. My writer friend Jamie Mason experienced this when researching her book, Three Graves Full. She called a company who dug holes and asked how long it would take to dig a 6x3x6 foot hole… with a shovel… alone… in the dark. Apparently, the digging company was a little reluctant to answer this. She forgot to use her magic words.
Once, I used my four magic words when researching a plane crash for my book. I called an airport safety manager, who invited me to the hangar. He let me climb into all the jets, so I could pick out the one that would fit my needs. He taught me how to steal a plane. He showed me how to find the right maps in a map room. But he spent the whole two hours we were together trying to save my poor heroine. “If she would just do X she would live,” he said.“I’m sorry, she has to die. But not right away. Can you tell me about planes and lightning strikes?” “What about this? If she would just do Y, she could live.” He would try again. “I’m sorry, she has to die. What about fires in the cockpit?”
The best resources that I have found are professionals who are writing in retirement or who are writing in their spare time. These folks are a vast wealth of professional industry knowledge. They are in the writing game, so they can quickly get to the gem that will illuminate your plot line. You don’t have to explain why you’re trying to figure out the right dose of tranquilizer to put out a hundred and sixty-five pound male, or why you need to know the cook rate of a body in an acid bath. They understand. And making those writerly connections is such a gift.
The lovely thing about doing the research is finding out a new fact that can shift your plot, taking it in an unintended yet fascinating new direction – one that you would never have imagined on your own. Research is one of my very favorite parts of writing. And too, having it right means the reader gets to suspend their disbelief and live in your story’s imaginary world – which fulfills the literary contract from beginning to end.