Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Am I Just Showing Off (my ignorance)?

I recently read an interview with Jodi Picoult in which she says she acts out mock trials with an attorney before she writes the legal parts of her books. They go through all the examinations that might occur in the courtrooms of her books, so that when she sits down to write, that part of the book basically writes itself.

On the other hand, John Grisham, who is himself a lawyer, wrote at the end of his book King of Torts, that he makes up much of the locations in his books. He doesn't scour the restaurants and streets of D.C. to make sure his book is entirely geographically accurate. Some creative license, he insists, is needed to make the story go where it needs to go, and certain things just shouldn't be limited by reality.

I understand these two things are entirely different. One is legal and one is descriptive. But it begs the question: how much in a fiction book should be reality?

As I write Some Kind of Normal, I am currently mulling this issue as I flesh out the clinical trial that Ashley will undergo. I am not a doctor, or a lawyer (although I am the daughter of one, so having that access is nice). All I have on my side is an internet full of legal jargon and clinical trials that I have to mold to my own purposes. How much about stem cell research and replacement and the moral and ethical legalities and processes of clinical trials do I need to know to be able to write? How accurate does a reader expect the writing to be?

I already know way more than will be in the book, because I don't want the book to be full of legal and medical jargon. I'm not John Grisham, or Michael Crichton (who was a doctor) or Tom Clancy.... my knowledge wouldn't hold up under the type of scrutiny that professing knowledge incurs. But I do wonder how much is necessary to make it look like I know what I'm writing about, and how much makes it look like I'm showing off - namely my ignorance.

I recently read Jodi Picoult's book Vanishing Acts. She obviously did her research on prison life and making meth. Personally, more than I considered necessary. I found myself skipping the longer paragraphs that detailed how to make meth in a homemade lab because it didn't really add to the story, and I don't care how to make meth. To say the main character became involved in this process and that, as a pharmacist in a former life he had this knowledge, was enough for me.

Would it have been enough for you? How much research do you expect to see in a fiction book? If a writer only skims the surface of what is complicated medical or legal or technical aspects, do you think they don't know their stuff? And if they get too deep into it, do you think they are showing off? And more importantly, do you really read it?


  1. I am so happy you posted on this - I was just having this conversation with myself yesterday. I think if you are well-rounded and know enough, you can get by with it. I doubt someone will scrutinize your work and verify each and every word. As long as it isn't outlandish or anything. Plus - to your advantage - you're 1st person narrative allows you to "lame speak" it. You aren't required as much, in my opinion, to have specific technical jargon as a 3rd person narrative would need.

    I just tweaked the next scene in my book. You've read the first part, the interview and the discovery of the body. I just finished hte autopsy part. As I stated before, I don't want long narrative bits conveying hte injuries in gruesome detail. Staying with the "reader learns through dialogue" as I did with Jim and the town, the reader sits in on the autopsy with Frank, the Sheriff. What I found to help me was read actual autopsies and discussed with a pathologist the routine autopsy. I wanted this to be authentic and I couldn't fake it. So reading a real autopsy or two and knowing the terms, I was able to fit my murder victim's injuries into an autopsy. Here's my predicament. There's jargon. Its in the dialogue as the examiner records the autopsy into his recorder. Meanwhile, (hopefully) my reader is sitting in the chilly room with Frank, witnessing the autopsy along with him and learns the extent to the injuries along with him. Sort of how Speilberg did it in Jaws. He never really showed the 1st victim - but Dreyfus's audible autopsy gave us more than what we needed to realize the extent of injury. I don't want it to be overly gruesome or adjective laden. I figured a flat - technical autopsy would be the best way to convey that. To do that effectively, I did have to research and that is what makes it real. But my location is completely fictional. Based on reality, I took more than my fair share of creative license, so I think it is okay.

    To answer your question - depends on how it is done. The book you mention - the long narrative explaining how to make meth, if it doesn't add to the story, then I'd lose it. Fight Club - they say the book had tons of narrative explaining how to make explosives, soap, etc. But that was part of the style. Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho has pages filled with brand names, descriptions, etc. Its 1st person, so perhaps that helps. If it is a certain style as Fight Club and American Psycho are - then its okay. If it is just there because the author did the research and wants to include that knowledge without adding to style or story - then no. Lose it.

    In your case, you can do the research - get a healthy view of the stem cell research, etc. But your 1st person narrative allows you to lame speak it so its not so overly technical and off-putting. Except with a few dialogue of doctors explaining the process and perhaps dumbing it down for Babs, you should not be in a position where you've overdone it. I'm worried about my autopsy scene. As much as I love it, and love the way the reader learns of the injuries - I'm afraid I have too much medical terms.

  2. This is an interesting question, Heidi, and I'm of two minds on it.

    My first mind says eh, if it has too much description it's not really my thing. I won't read it. And yet - on those subjects I know, however eclectic and random, if information gets put up wrong I get irritated. There have been a couple books where I've stopped reading.

    That being said. You actually have a portion of what you're writing about. I agree with Brittany here that you could probably get by with what you know of it. A little background work doesn't hurt but I wouldn't read something that just went on and on of description for something in the trial...I would get the feeling (like you described) that they were just showing off their knowledge. I was reading a great entry on description by one of the agent blogs and they said, leave it up to the reader to flesh it out in their own mind.

    This is how I write, and what I think is good. But YMMV.

  3. I'm sure this is such a subjective issue. I think maybe if you don't know anything about it (like, me and an autopsy), as long as it rings true I am fine with generalities or a little bit of license with the details. If it's something I have real-life knowledge about or a heavy interest in (say, teaching or climbing Mount Everest), I'm less forgiving.

    There will be someone somewhere reading about the process Ashley goes through to get into the clinical trial and the experimental nature of the surgery with an eye to what is unrealistic about it.

    Maybe I have to take this aspect as every aspect of writing: there will always be people who don't like how the writer writes. Someone will put down your book, Jen, because they just don't like fantasy (but not me!), and there will be people who might put down your book, Brittany, because they don't like crime. Or maybe it will be because of adverbs, or adjectives, or the use of the word said, or lack of dialog, or too much dialog, or it's too slow. Or too fast. Or too technical. Or not technical enough. Or because it's written by a woman.

    I think for me it's important to know more than I write, so I have a little wiggle room. Especially when I'm sitting on Jay Leno's couch and he's interviewing me. Then I'll know enough more than is in the book to sound intelligent. :)

    Maybe the trick is using as little as possible.... the jargon, the technicalities aren't really the story. It's the process through which the story is told. It's the skeleton. The story is the flesh and heart.

    And Brittany, I really like the way you say you are approaching the autopsy, and the entire novel. I can't wait to read more!