Eric’s Writing Blog

The writing blog of Eric Rosenfield

Research, Current Events and Fiction

with one comment

After writing a few stories set in places like Afghanistan and Somalia, I’m really starting to realize why writers make up alternate universes or go far into the future or make up fictional countries in order to comment on current events. It’s one thing if you’re Tom Bissell, who lived in Uzbekistan for some time, to write about conditions in Uzbekistan. But for me to try and convincingly make up what things are like on the ground in those places, based on some news articles or television programs or whatever, well, I could probably fool other people who know as much about it as I did going in, but people who really know about, soldiers or journalists or natives or whoever, I just feel like they would glance over my stories and call me on my bullshit.

It’s a question though: how much responsibility does a writer have to get a setting “right” or is it more important that they convincingly tell their story? Pulp writer Lester Dent had tricks for setting stories in places he’d never been, little snippits of detail he’d throw in here and there, but in some cases even I can tell he’s talking out his ass. Do I care? Do you care if you read a story by a writer and you notice that they get some detail wrong, even if the rest of the story is good?

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Written by ericrosenfield

September 28, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. As a reader, more than anything, I’m looking for emotional authenticity (I know, that sounds kinda snotty/new agey). Most of the times it will be a setting I’m not familiar with anyway; a few specific details tucked here and there will whisk most readers along.

    The issue I suppose is when a reader hits a book on a subject they know. If the story is set in Ukraine and the mother is cooking pierogie and not blintzi, I’ll subconsciously let it slide if I enjoy the story; if the writer is already pissing me off with poor writing, plot, style, etc, I usually add ‘lack of detail’ to my already growing list of grievances.

    Ex. — Cory Doctorow’s ‘Little Brother’. Thought it was a terrible book. Mustache-twirling villains, Ayn Rand-like pronouncements, flat characters etc added up to ‘this sucks.’ The details he screwed up on San Francisco simply confirmed ‘it sucks.’ If I had liked the story, those San Fran details would’ve barely hit my radar.

    Some readers will always be sticklers because of their background, frex military or pugilism. I know quite a bit about firearms, having shot everything from a simple .22 thru an UZI. A beta reader called me out on the detail of a semi-auto; I think I was describing a Sig Sauer when I was actually describing a Glock, or something nitpicky like that. I’ve noticed people that are well versed in a topic but not avid readers tend to bounce more on specificity, whereas avid readers let things slide more often (just anecdotal).

    You raise a very good point on setting/detail, and it’s one of the reasons I virtually refuse to write Sci Fi, particularly hard science fiction — a lot of the readers treat it as science/logic ‘porn’. I want to explore, have fun with my writing. I don’t want to calculate semi-major axis, eccentricity, inclination and periapsis to figure out the space shuttle’s launch window based on Mir’s orbital inclination of 51.6 degrees. (Actually, I just *did* do that, and it took a few minutes, but it was time I’d rather *write* instead of pulling out the calculator!)

    Swartzfeger

    September 28, 2009 at 5:35 pm


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