Reading Jack Bickham’s book on Setting
Presenting factual material
Knowing how to present facts in your story is a critical skill.
Some facts are simple. What’s the weather like in South Idaho? Other facts are esoteric. How do you explain Karl Friston’s Free Energy Principle?
How do you describe a dentist pulling a tooth, or a mechanic repairing a motor.
Facts presented in fiction as facts must be as accurate and truthful as is practical. Obviously, if you’re in a universe where people blast between stars and you’re talking about their super space engine, there are limits to how truthful and practical you can be.
Even in that case there has to be an internal factual consistency about the setting. It’s cultural and future-science context must be clear and you have to adhere to it.
Within the frame of reference, you have to stick to the truth or you violate believability.
There’s the matter of reader expectations. They won’t expect it to snow in July in Alabama. If it does, you got some ‘splainin’ to do.
The more you violate believability, the more explaining you will have to do.
A single factual error in your story can destroy all credibility.
In one case, the author notes, an airplane radio transmitted further than it possibly could have done. It destroyed his faith in the story. Other people noticed the error too.
Another example: a tourist visits Saudi Arabia. The writer hadn’t bothered to learn, there are no tourists in Saudi Arabia.
Never assume you know a fact. Check it out. The airplane throttle works the opposite from a car. If you push it forward, you get more power.
Especially, check up on the weather, if you give a specific time and place.
Readers will check out your story. If you make a mistake, they’ll know.
Know kinds of trees, flower, bushes. Animals. Typical weather. Ethnic composition. clothing styles, housing, transportation. Know what things cost. Know the slang and don’t use it. Know what people care about.
Get the details right. Think of yourself saying, “did you know that…?” and the detail should be the kind of thing that will make people lean in and say, ‘huh, I did NOT know that and it’s fascinating!” or leave it out.
WHEN IS TOO MUCH TOO MUCH?
Readers now are very well informed, see the Internet. They like real data in a story.
There’s a limit. Do the hard research up front and amass a ton of data. Then sprinkle it into the story. LIGHTLY.
They didn’t come for the data. They came for the story. It’s just that the data can’t be can’t be obviously, painfully wrong and there has to be a point to it.
Dribble in information about your setting. That’s all you have to do. Just see what the character sees in the moment. That’s all that’s needed.
And then more when the plot needs it, so the reason for the information being there is obvious.
If you stop the story for lengthy information, you’ll stop the story. People will leave your book on the couch and never ever pick it up again. The maid will burn it with the autumn leaves.
The faster the story is going, the less time there is for information. Information is often dispensed in the slow parts of the story as the characters are puzzling out their course of action, in the Sequel rather than in the Scene.
How do you give a character information that he needs for the plot?
Don’t have someone just walk up and tell him.
First create the need and desire for the information in the character and then have him go and out and get it.
Sometimes, especially in historical novels, where you are taking a broader view of a big historical process, the omniscient point of view works to give the information, which should be fascinating of it’s own right.
In other words you have to think about viewpoint when you are delivering information.
START THINKING RESEARCH
Become familiar with the research tools you need, not just on the Internet but in your library and in the area you are writing about.