|Mary Robinette Kowal and Neil Gaiman|
Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog today addresses authenticity in historical fiction, and digging deeper to find the right reference.
The term that concerned her was “paper cut.” Making a humorous reference to a paper-cut as a safety issue works today, but not two hundred years ago when paper didn’t have sharp edges. She began to go through potential ‘safety issues’ involved in handling one’s correspondence, until she found one that worked–but even better, it was more interesting.
She says, “This is a better joke, and I got to it because I’m using language that
reflects the culture. Doing so also forces me to really think about what
is happening in the scene, and what the lives of people in the time
would be like.”
This is true, and it’s what I love about research, even though sometimes I drive myself mad googling and digging through my own references, and sometimes asking on facebook or twitter or emailing colleagues with vast knowledge in the area of my current projects. What makes it worth it is that I inevitably end up with something, at the very least, more interesting than my original thought.
Often it opens up a new avenue to explore in the book itself, an ‘aha!’ moment that will brighten up my day, week, or longer, as a wonderful new ‘what if this happens?’ presents itself, because that small detour for research took me to new knowledge of the subject I hadn’t considered before. Sometimes it makes a scene ‘pop’ and work in a terrific way I hadn’t anticipated.
Sometimes–and this is more common than you might think–it presents a plot twist that makes me squee.
So, am I musing about research here, and authenticity, and if you don’t write historical fiction, you don’t need to care?
No. The idea of historical authenticity just got us into this idea.
The bigger idea is ‘digging deeper’ whenever the first thing that springs from your fingertips is so natural, so easy, so obvious–that it might even be a cliché.
While the paper-cut reference was satisfactory if the setting was contemporary, and nobody would have stopped cold and wondered about it, nor would any readers probably have thought, “How obvious, what a cliché,” it’s also worth highlighting or marking for later thought. (Never stop your writing process in the middle of a scene that is flowing over this kind of issue. Note that MRK was returning to this much later rather than during the writing process.)
Even if the setting is the year 2014 and paper-cuts are real, painful and can be funny if used properly in your story–if you dig deeper, can you think of something else to substitute? There are several options, and I’m sure you can come up with more.
1) Some other easily-imagined minor office injury that is less generic and expected and thus–more interesting.
2) A minor injury that reflects their specific location, business or interests, whether they are in a taxidermy shop, a morgue, or having a picnic in Central Park.
3) A minor injury that refers back to something one of the characters did earlier, something meaningful. It can be a jab or tease, it can be an insult, or it can be a tender reassurance.
Have fun with it!
Oh, and sometimes, after much work and consideration, you will decide it really can be a paper-cut, after all.
Cross-posted at classofpooks, the place where I post links to helpful things for writers.