Once upon a time (don’t you love stories that start with that phrase?), roughly 7,300 moons ago, I was a football cheerleader. It was something I enjoyed doing, despite the fact that it made me even less popular than I already was. Quite an accomplishment, considering I was pretty low on the popularity scale as it was.
I learned a valuable lesson while cheerleading for both football and wrestling, I know enough about each sport to enjoy watching, but not enough to talk about it. I’d bet there are subjects like that for you, too. The same could be said for me of hockey. I love Minnesota Wild hockey, especially live, but I only know enough about it to enjoy the game.
My husband and I heat our home with a wood burning stove in our living room. I’ve lit and fed that stove more than I care to admit. I know that woodstove inside out…but if you want to know about the average square footage it heats or the btu’s…prepare for a blank stare.
Shortly after the attack on 9/11/01, most car companies were offering 0% financing and I looked high and low for a fun car. It would be my last fun vehicle and I took advantage, purchasing a 2001 Mercury Cougar. It had a zippy V-6 engine that zoomed down the freeway with unbelievable ease…and it purred. Now I drive a minivan. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
So, what ties all of these seemingly random thoughts together? Story, narrative, specifically the old writing mantra to write what you know. Without some serious research, you can be sure I would never write a story with intimate details of any sport. Even knowing enough to enjoy is not enough to convince a reader I know what I’m talking about. My woodstove is wonderful, but a passing comment in a novel about how long something burns. smokes, or smells that someone else knows to be conjecture, or worse, false, makes the reader growl inwardly. I don’t know jack about cars except what I can see and feel on my own, luckily, I write historical fiction so cars aren’t an issue for me.
Why does this matter? Have you ever read a story and been pulled completely out of it because the author proposed something that works for their story but is completely false and your brain won’t even allow the fallacy to stand? I have. On the off-chance you’ve read the same stories, I won’t give examples. World building and fact-checking are so incredibly important. As a writer, we must tread carefully with subjects we know and that which we merely have knowledge of. While you most likely can’t check every detail of your novel, it is good to be aware. If the fireplace in your novel heats an entire mansion…you might have taken something you are aware of (wood burning heat) and pretended you had more knowledge than you actually have (because it won’t).
In all three of my Western Vows novels, horses play a role (in the first and last, especially). I had some knowledge of horses, we had one growing up, though we never rode her. She was more of a large pet. I realized this deficiency after writing the first draft and I contacted a friend who is in the know about horses. Turns out some of what I saw in my head as part of the story was little more than theatrics perpetuated by Hollywood. Luckily, he pointed out where I was lacking and I’m hopeful my horse scenes now carry authenticity. If they don’t, it’s my fault, not his.
Without divulging too much (I’m not into shaming) have you ever encountered this situation in your reading, and how did you react?