Today I'm talking about the Fine Art of Making Shit Up.
Recently I've been enjoying the RCN series of novels by science fiction author David Drake. Drake, a fan of the Aubrey/Maturin nautical adventure novels of the late Patrick O'Brian, has based this series on O'Brian's work, setting it in a far future where the space-faring navy of the planetary "Republic of Cinnabar" (A thinly veiled avatar for late 18th/early 19th century Great Britain) finds itself locked in a life or death struggle with a cosmic avatar of Bonapartist France called "The Alliance of Free Stars" (which, it turns out, is neither an "alliance," nor "free." Discuss!).
It's all great fun.
One of the things I enjoy most about Drake's work in this series is his tapping the existing record of past human history and using it as source material for the dramatic twists and turns his narratives take.
And Drake is sanguine about the limitations under which he operates. Writing in the forward for Some Golden Harbor, he addresses the existence of the English and metric measuring systems whole cloth in a far future on which two millennia of human development ought to have worked to make them unrecognizable to our 21st century eyes:
"The scattered human societies I postulate for this series would have many systems of weights and measures. Rather that try to duplicate that reality and thereby confuse readers without advancing my story, I've simply put Cinnabar on the English system while the Alliance is metric. I don't believe either system will be in use two millennia from now, but regardless: my business is storytelling, not prediction."
I like that last line especially. my business is storytelling, not prediction.
This is a sentiment he has expressed elsewhere in slightly different form. In an author's note for an earlier work in the series (When the Tide Rises), he writes: "I write to entertain readers, not to advance a personal or political philosophy (I don't have a political philosophy); nonetheless, my fiction is almost always based on historical models."
Note the use of the word "almost" in that final sentence.
Boy, do I connect with that sentiment.
But I don't write futuristic fiction.
I write historical fiction.
And there's this strain of thought concerning historical fiction these days that flies in the face of what I've quoted above.
We historical fiction writers are supposed to make it realistic. Believable. Authentic.
I hear that in nearly every conversation where two or more historical fiction writers are part of of the back-and-forth.
And I think it's nonsense.
I'm not saying that historical fiction should not be realistic, believable and authentic.
I'm saying that "realistic" is not the same thing as "real." That "believable" is not the same thing as "true." That reading "authentic" is not the same thing as the actuality of "authenticity."
I have fellow travelers among the historical mystery writers I know and love. I've heard it said many times and more succinctly than what I managed above: "We're writing historical fiction, not history."
I have a Master's degree in history. I understand and practice historical analysis on a daily basis in my day gig (I teach history). I have also written and published in the field.
The two are not the same thing.
I hear you saying, "No kidding, Brian!"
Bear with me.
There are fans out there who will hold a fiction writer's feet to the fire over getting a detail about the workings of the brake system of a Pullman car wrong (I know this from experience). For some people it seems almost a point of perverse pride to try to catch out an author making a mistake.
And I can see their point.
When you're reading fiction you don't want to read something that's going to take you out of the story. For example, I was reading a historical mystery set in ancient Rome by an author who shall remain nameless (I will say that the author in question has advanced degrees in ancient history, and has taught classics at the university level for a number of years).
This author had an annoying habit of writing ancient Romans speaking Latin as if they were speaking cockney slang. When one character told another not to "get your knickers in a twist," it did jar me out of the story.
Much easier to take is an author such as the late, great Philip Kerr, who wrote early 20th century German characters using translations of German slang: a gun was a "lighter," for example. A cigarette, a "nail." And so on.
But was Kerr being "authentic," or was he just a damned good writer with the uncanny ability to make what he was writing feel "authentic"?
I have no idea. I don't speak enough German to fact check him.
But with historical fiction, it is all about feel. You paint a portrait. You do your level best to evoke a certain lost time and place, while hopefully not neglecting the unchanging nature of the human condition, regardless of time period.
I have read historical authors whose prose reads like the pages of a Sears catalogue: laying out historically accurate inventories of this sitting room, or that dining room.
Frankly, this type of writing always calls to mind the writing of thriller master Tom Clancy to me. Remember Tom Clancy?
The guy who camped out in the Library of the Congress and researched and researched until he could write with authority on a host of military/espionage fronts, including discussing over the course of many pages in books such as his breakthrough novel The Hunt For Red October the technical details of Russian torpedoes and American antisubmarine warfare.
That kind of writing is: Accurate. Real. Authentic.
And it absolutely bores the crap out of me.
Give me a story which evokes an age: and populates it with memorable characters who don't step on their feet, historically speaking, and I will read that before I read another tech-manual-cum-thriller every single time.
The bottom line is that people who write that sort of thing are good writers. They excel at "Making Shit Up."
By the way: that guy Clancy? In The Hunt For Red October, he hung his hat on the accuracy of what he wrote. Made a career out of it. Good for him.
In that book, he discusses the American navy's use of an auxiliary submarine rescue ship called the U.S.S. Pigeon during the hunt for the titular Russian sub.
One problem with that.
The Hunt For Red October takes place in the Atlantic Ocean.
The U.S.S. Pigeon was homeported out of San Diego, and served exclusively in the Pacific, along the West Coast of the United States.
How do I know?
The Pigeon was my first ship when I was in the navy back in the 1980s. In fact, I was serving onboard her when I read about her in The Hunt For Red October.
See? It only takes getting one thing wrong.
Better to write the best damned story you can and not sweat every single detail.
That's the real art of making shit up!
|That sure ain't the Atlantic she's sailing through!|