Clean Sheets and a Handy Vine

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My good friend had Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong ruined for her because one of the characters managed to strip a bed, wash and dry the sheets and make it back up again in the course of an afternoon. “I have difficulty doing that now with all the mod cons in my kitchen How the heck could she manage that at the beginning of the 20th century?”

While this niggle went right over my head when I read it, I do understand where she is coming from. In some books and movies there is often a small sticking point that we just can’t get over and spoils our enjoyment of the story. My husband can’t read fantasy novels involving swords and magic. “If they are so damn magical,” he asks, “why do they need swords?” My father could never watch a Tarzan movie. The lucky coincidence of a vine always being handy for the eponymous hero to swing from annoyed him so much he would have to turn it off.

My personal gripe is a thriller where the heroine dyes her hair in a filthy rest room with only a grime encrusted sink and no shower head. How the heck does she manage to rinse the gunk off? AND give herself a fabulous haircut while she waits? And people who are castaway or held prisoner: why does their hair never get greasy?

It is when ‘suspension of belief’ is broken that we can start to question the validity of all that we are reading or watching, and the spell between author/filmmaker and ourselves is shattered. As writers, is there anything we can do about this?

I think if we write in the fantasy or science fiction genres we have more leeway – a reader who accepts a talking horse or aliens breathing nitrogen will be more willing to accept it of the horse can also read or the aliens sweat diamonds. But how about those of us whose prose is more grounded in the here and now?

Getting our facts right using careful research is a good starting point. If I were writing a book where, for example, opera played an important part I’d make sure I attributed each opus to the correct composer. I would never set a novel in Ancient Egypt without getting my dynasties straight. Creating a timeline so that events happen in the right order could help here too.

It is on a framework of verified facts that we can then start to weave our stories. The data should provide the foundation for the fantasies we create.

So tell me, are there any techniques you use to ensure your readers stay with you? And what examples do you have of things that have made you want to throw the book at the telly?
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4 Comments

  1. keatsbabe
    Sep 11, 2010

    I have to give up if fiction includes real historical characters and the facts are wrong, and there is very little worse than description of a journey when it would be physically impossible to take the trip.

    Mind you, I wrote my first collection of pretentious short stories at school, and thinking degrees were like O levels, had my main character take 3 in 3 years. You have to go very wrong to beat that sort of blooper…

    • nettiewriter
      Sep 11, 2010

      LOL Oh dear! Maybe they were just a genius?
      I know what you mean about journeys – if movies are set in Glasgow and they get the geography wrong, I HAVE to walk away.
      Nx

  2. Jacky Fowler
    Sep 12, 2010

    You forgot to add that she also had to keep the fact that she’d done all this secret from the housekeeper (by the simple expedient of giving her the afternoon off all of a sudden – like that’s not going to make someone think ‘Hmmm? I wonder why?’ Check it out – it’s on p54, so pretty early on and I just couldn’t believe a word he said after that. Shame, because so many people have loved the book and praised the way it dealt with the heroic bravery of sappers in WWI. But it was such an obvious ‘wrong un’ and perhaps it ‘offended’ me more because the author was male (wonder about his editor?) and simply didn’t think enough about the life of his female character. Anyway, haven’t picked up another of his books since.

    • nettiewriter
      Sep 12, 2010

      … and relax! LOL It always tickles me how heated you become over this! We each have our own annoyances though.

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