03 May 2018

The Fine Art of M.S.U.

No, this is not a guided tour of the fine arts program at Michigan State University. or of the art school at Montana State University. And it sure ain't a discussion of the pros and cons of attending the fine arts program at Minot State University.

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.

And yet...

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!


  1. "... not sweat every single detail."

    Yeah, you right - a 20th Century colloquialism used in New Orleans and other places.

    I write historical mystery novels (THE FRENCH DETECTIVE set in 1900 and Lucifer Series set in 1930s as well as the Lucien Caye novels set in the 1940s-50s). Lotta research and I've made a few mistakes. Had a fella wearing a banlon shirt in the 1940s and got called on it by a reaader. Each time I'm stumped, I make up something. The island of Saint Lolita in SAINT LOLITA doesn't exist. But it should.

    Get the story right and the book will work. But you are also correct. Knickers in ancient Rome. That's funny. Did the women wear pantyhose as well?

  2. Great post, Brian.

    I agree that colloquialisms in "historical" dialogue are one of the surest ways to blow your credibility. Right up there with putting a silencer on a revolver (yes, I still see this).

    I do a certain amount of research, but it's mostly to figure out how much I can get away with making up my own shit. When I use real locations (which I often do), I always change a few landmarks. I know exactly where Zach Barnes lives in the series, and people from the area can find the neighborhood, but they'll never find a street with that name.

    I'm laying the groundwork for another Woody Guthrie book and I know I'm going to use a real town, but most of the businesses in it will be fictional. I need them to be because people there will do bad stuff and I don't want lawsuits. Or hassles.

    When Run Straight Down came out years ago, inspired by a gang shooting at the school where I had taught, some of my former colleagues tried to identify themselves in the fictional teaching staff. They couldn't. Guess why?

    Your distinction between authenticity and authentic et al are especially important. I may copy this post for that reason alone.

  3. I am SO with you on the "I'm going to get this 100% accurate" type of story-telling: generally boring, and there's always a detail WRONG. My other pet peeves are:
    (1) A thoroughly modern heroine in medieval France, who's independent, feisty, and determined to live her own life. Honey, that was Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wealthiest heiress ever, and even she spent 16 years locked up by her husband, Henry II. Mangling the immortal words of Crash Davis, "How come in [bad] historical novels, everybody is someone important?"
    (2) Expository dialog used about things like exactly how to make a wooden catapult, beginning with the logs. I like catapults (the sound of the word alone is pretty funny), but just tell me who's flinging what at whom.
    That said, done right, historical novels can be the best. I love Aubrey and Maturin, all the ancient Greek novels of Mary Renault, and I've raved before about Cecelia Holland, who should have won some kind of prize for her "Until the Sun Falls" - best novel ever about the Mongol invasion of Europe.

  4. Yes, indeedy. All of these more honored in the breach than the observance.

    Love the catapult comment, Eve. Makes me think of Hasdrubal's head being flung. Patrick O'Brian and Renault were devoted pen pals, and mutual admirers. O'Brian much disliked being compared to C.S. Forester and the Hornblower books, and I don't think he was a big fan of Bernard Cornwell, either (although I am). I've never understood why Cecelia Holland isn't hugely celebrated: The Kings in Winter and Until the Sun Falls are extraordinary, and the more recent Viking adventures ain't chopped liver, either.


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