Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Reality vs Escape

I so enjoyed Laura Crum's blog post the other day, Research... Or Not?, because that topic has been on my mind a lot lately: how necessary is realism?

I love realism in my entertainment. I hear the argument that books are an escape, but I'm not so sure that I read books to escape. I think I read books looking for greater understanding of my own world, searching for like-minded folks to see how they're handling the same struggles I am facing, hoping to find a kindred spirit amongst the masses.

I'm always looking for the nuggets of truth.

Books that don't faithfully describe the places that I know and love are especially upsetting to me. I enjoy Carl Hiassen books because they're set in Florida, and I grew up there. But I love Tim Dorsey books, because not only are they set in Florida, but the settings, from St. Petersburg hotels to turnpike service plazas, are really there. I can read Florida Roadkill or Stingray Shuffle or any of his novels and actually picture about 75% of the locales that Florida history-buff/serial killer (he's a really cool guy, I swear!) Serge A. Storms visits. And I love that.

On the other hand, I couldn't get through critically acclaimed Swamplandia! in part because geographically it was all wrong, mixing up Florida's Gulf and Atlantic coasts in a way I just couldn't wrap my head around. (I also thought that I'd like the idea of the girl dating the ghost in the swamp, but it turned out it was just too strange for me to handle.)

And they might seem like the opposites of realism at first glance, but I count richly written epic fantasies like The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire among my favorite reads because the author went to so much trouble to create a believable, consistent world. I might not have ever been to Middle-Earth or the Seven Kingdoms, but I bet I could find my way around if I ended up there.

When I wrote The Head and Not The Heart, I was so devoted to getting the facts and details right that I actually stopped writing it for a while (back in 2010) and moved to New York to gallop racehorses. I'd done all the Ocala bits already, managing broodmares and starting babies and training two-year-olds, but I hadn't actually been backside at an operating racetrack. So, we all moved to New York and went to work at Aqueduct for six months. And then, once I was satisfied that I knew what I was talking about, I rewrote the New York sections of the book.

That's the kind of research I think any author can get behind!

The novel I'm working on now is set in Three Day Eventing, another sport I know first-hand. But I'm starting to pull back on the details a little bit. I don't want the book to be about eventing, after all, I want it to be about people who happen to be eventing. I want it to be about their passion and their drive, but not every fence on the Rolex course. And so I'm a little more willing to fudge facts and figures in order to create a compelling read that will draw in more than just the people who have always lived and breathed eventing. And therein lies the challenge of writing with less worry about research and realism. It's great to know your subject, there's no doubt about that. But can I get the story to stand above the setting?

Just looking at my bookshelves, I guess I can say that my favorite books are those that are very true to life, with a happy ending, and if there's any sort of crime, it has to be funny. I suppose that's because I love my surroundings, I expect a happy ending, and I try to avoid drama at all times! How about you? Do you escape by reading about completely different settings, or do you seek out your own life in books?


Laura Crum said...

I'm glad you enjoyed my post, Natalie. I think I'm like you--I look for books with characters I can relate to and connect with. I like settings that are described in depth and from the heart--by an author that really knows them. I'm currently reading "Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness", which I like. Its a memoir/biography, which by its nature is slower paced than a novel, but I enjoy this form of writing. I can relate to the spirit and drive of the main character, and though I have never been to Africa, the author's deep knowledge brings the setting alive and I feel I am there.

The author that got me interested in writing mysteries was Dick Francis. His background as a jump jockey made his racing novels just sparkle with "real life" details. He was my inspiration to try to create mystery novels using my background of training western cowhorses.

In the end, whether I'm reading novels or non-fiction, I'm looking for something that moves me by its basic truth, whether its "Lord of the Rings" or Vita Sackville West's garden books. The passion the author has for the subject at hand is the bottom line, I think.

Natalie Keller Reinert said...

Oh I love stories set in Africa. Getting into other countries by natives of those places can be especially rewarding... Peter Carey takes me all over Australia, and if I ever go there I'm sure I'll be seeing everything with his voiceover in my head. My Dublin is Roddy Doyle's Dublin (a dirtier rougher place than the tourist board's Dublin!)

And then you have the authors who cross the line and you're never sure what to believe... Salman Rushdie's India is half-real and half-imagined, and since I've never been, how can I determine which details are which?

Alison said...

Great post Natalie!

I wish I was young enough to gallop horses again for that rush AND that research. It was about forty years ago . . .

I love Dick Francis, too, Laura. I just finished The 19th Wife (no horses) which also fudged the bounderies of fact/fiction but it was still a great read, so I think it definitely can work. Good luck on this new book!

Patricia Salem said...

I absolutely LOVE the lengths to which Natalie went to write her book. I sometimes laughingly describe myself as "the George Plimpton of the distaff side," because I have immersed myself in so many worlds and like to write about them. I find verisimilitude essential in fiction, and like Natalie, think even fantasy has to create a believable, consistent world (one of the reasons I don't read fantasy much--it seems like the rules change all the time, so to speak).

I'm writing a piece of fiction that has a lot of equestrian milieux in it, and I go out of my way to make them accurate. But it is also set where I live in Mexico and is a bit of a roman a clef, so I take some liberties with geography, landmarks, etc. I sadly admit some of my changes are in anticipation of potential editors saying, "You can't write that. You'll get sued."

During the last decade, I've found myself reading much more nonfiction than fiction, and I wonder if it's because that creation of an entire world in a made-up story is either so difficult or so unimportant to more current fiction writers. Where are the Michners and McCulloughs (or the Dickens or Hugos) of the present day?

Maybe Kundera was right; we have been reduced to recording small, intimate slices of life, that are so minute we can write whatever we want, with no regard to accuracy whatsoever. Does this reflect a disconnect in our society? Has fiction writing become so much a process of self-gratification, that we have lost the thread that connects us as humans, either through recognizing a world we inhabit or being drawn into someone else's because it is so carefully and accurately portrayed?

Fantastyk Voyager said...

I get little thrills when I read about places I've been. I also enjoy the make-believe worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, and Robert Jordan's Eye of the World series. I look back in wonder that I could have read so many thousands of pages (Jordan's books are very long and it's a series of twelve!) Growing up in Florida, I might have to check out that serial killer series.
Looking forward to your new book on eventing too.

Natalie Keller Reinert said...

Dick Francis was the most amazing researcher. I know a lot of people read him for his horse racing setting, but in the couple of books of his that I have read, I was surprised at how deeply he took readers into the worlds of very specific jobs: architects, for example, or wine shop owners.

@Patricia, I'm dismayed by the minimalism that has taken over fiction, as well. Epics that cover generations, like THE THORN BIRDS, aren't being written anymore... it's so much harder to *live in* a book that takes place over, say, a week. (Although an exception can be made for one of my favorite books of all time, Jon Hassler's STAGGERFORD. I once recommended it to a friend as "a story about a guy having a bad week." He read it and came back with, "you really undersold that as just a bad week!" It's amazing.

@Fantastyk Voyager... you MUST read Tim Dorsey if you have a connection to Florida. He was a reporter for the St Pete Times and he knows the state's history, for better or for worse, inside and out. His hyperactive writing style is hysterical. At one of his first book signings he was turning over his shoulder during the reading and shouting at the cafe baristas who were blending up Frappuchinos.. the man's an original!