Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Establishing Credibility with Readers and Editors

Do you know the address of the Eiffel Tower?
How does a writer establish credibility with a reader? How can you make your reader feel like he, too, is in Paris and can visualize exactly where the protagonist of your book is? Narrative descriptions are the reader’s entrĂ©e into your scenes. They are always important but especially for foreign locales or plots set in a different era. Dialog will also help make your story believable. Teens today say, “Like, no way!” but a teen in the 1920’s would say, “You’re all wet!” Attention to details is paramount. By depicting a location with verisimilitude, you can more easily set an accurate, believable scene and tweak your reader’s interest for reading further.
“I turned right on Rue de Palais. The black Volvo tailing me turned also. I parked haphazardly and ran into the courthouse. Seeing an exit, I slid to it and slipped through the door on to Rue Bourgeois and into the wooded park.” Sounds okay but if your editor is a traveler, has lived in Paris or likes to check maps and you are wrong, you will lose credibility as an author. If others can not trust you on this, what else are you writing that is false?
The obvious answer to writing credibly is to visit the site at the time of year to match your plot. “Oh, gee! I have to go to Paris for my book, honey.” Before you pack your bags and get a pat down at the airport, you will want to study many books about Paris. Read guidebooks and highlight places that may fit your plot. Buy current maps and take them with you; you can study them on the plane. Invest in or use a library’s books on the geography and topography of Paris. Write down what you think you will see based on these books. When on actual terra firma, check your notes and amend them for accuracy if necessary.
While in Paris, take extensive notes and pictures. Remember to write down smells and what colors and hues you see. Your reader should sense the stereotypical Frenchman with a mustache and beret and accordion music in the background. Use a small voice recorder to capture extra feelings or actual sounds to take home. A good way to learn about your chosen location is to ride public transportation. You can listen to conversations and take notes on people’s dress to write more authentically in your story. If you are up for it, you can interview people like doormen, wait people and museum guards to gain further perceptions.
Note the ethnic makeup of the area; learn about the economics, politics and climate of your location. I observed during a recent visit to Sydney, Australia that all young businessmen wear black business suits with peg leg trousers, white French-cuffed shirts and shined, pointed toe, black, dress shoes. If you set your plot in Sydney and described a street scene using what you thought you knew based on the men’s business dress in Spokane, you would be off the mark and “lose cred”.
Pretend you want to write a sequel to The Great Gatsby from Daisy Buchanan’s cousin’s viewpoint. Studying the social scenes, morals, slang and habits of Long Island in the 1920’s would be a necessity. You will need to do in-depth research via old pictures noting the architecture of building, and what cars and buses looked like then. Visiting museums that have clothes from that decade will enable you to describe Daisy’s new frock; it certainly will not be polyester and wrinkle free. Read other books written about that same era but do not rely on that author’s descriptions of things. He may not have done his research.
Conducting your inquiries, visiting sites if possible, studying maps, social mores, politics, economic situations, and looking at a plethora of pictures establishes credibility with your readers as well as your editors and publisher. As Daisy Buchanan would say, you will be hotsy totsy and just ducky.
Question: Have you ever traveled to a specific location to do research for a story or book? Has a trip to a different location inspired a story after visiting there?


Nancy Owens Barnes said...

Thank you Norm. You've made some good points. I recall a friend once telling me how they once enjoyed reading the work of a certain well-known author, but had stopped reading them because the author often made errors in describing geographical features of places the reader was familiar with. Like you say, the author lost credibility with the reader. Thanks for the reminder.

Mary Jane Honegger said...

Hey Norm! A trip to Montana three years ago is what set me on my goal to write a screenplay. A year later I returned to attend a 50-year reunion that provided me with information I would never have learned otherwise. I found out about that reunion by signing up for an online newsletter for a museum in the community in which I I was interested. That might be another idea for research just in case one can't afford that trip to Paris!

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

This reminds me of the episode of "24" where the characters talk about a plane flying "through the mountains" in Iowa. Ha! You don't get much flatter and less mountainous than Iowa.

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

This post is such a good reminder of the importance of research. My problem is that I LOVE the research part. I could spend forever digging up minutiae and never get around to actually writing the story. The Internet can be deadly for this. Recently I looked up what paintings would have been displayed in the Chicago's Art Institute in 1924, a simple task which led to hours of finding out more about the paintings I liked and the lives of the artists, NONE of which had anything to do with the story I was supposed to be working on. Call me Peter Cottontail, hopping down the bunny trail...