Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Authenticity in our stories

Yesterday, an article appeared on NPR featuring UCLA professor, David Saltzberg. Don't know who he is? That's okay, most people won't. He's the science advisor for the TV show, The Big Bang Theory. It's his job to make sure the formulas on all the whiteboards make sense, as well as review the scripts to make sure the science is accurate. The vast majority of the TV viewing public wouldn't know if the show got it wrong, but that does nothing to lessen just how important his job really is. Because it's his responsibility to make sure the science and by extension these people are as authentic as possible.

This isn't any different to writers putting in the effort of research on their stories. Most of the time, readers will never even notice the details we put in, but rest assured, the one time we get it wrong, someone will spot it. But it's this minutiae that adds to the verisimilitude of the worlds we create. I've spent hours researching radio models, reading census and tax reports, even studying current technology on how to make glass, all in the interest of authenticity. Because that one detail we might get wrong? Can turn around and bite you in the butt.

When they turn to the first page of a book, readers put their trust in the author. They hand over their imaginations and feelings in exchange for the promise of a satisfying conclusion. If we fail on any part of our promise, we have to fight to get that reader's trust back. And failure can totally mean getting a detail wrong. It's not just about continuity errors, though those rank pretty high for me. It's little things, too. Like the formulas on the whiteboards for TBBT, road names in areas I'm familiar with, or historical facts that are easily checked.

There are criticisms out there that historical readers are the worst of the lot, picking out anachronisms and inaccuracies from otherwise perfectly fine stories. While I've certainly been on the receiving end of that, I can see their point, too. People who read historicals often want to be immersed in these other worlds. The history matters. Get that wrong, and why should they bother continuing when they can't guarantee they'll get what they want?

The same holds true for every reader. Someone, somewhere, will know if you get a detail wrong in your story. It sucks when they point it out. But at the end of the day, that pushes me to strive to take even more care in the next story I tell. It makes me better.

Really, isn't that what we all want?


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