This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The 20-foot Ball of Yarn

            After more than a year of research and writing, The Borina Family of Watsonville, a history I did for that family’s foundation, will be published next month, and I expect it to make a modest contribution to the knowledge of local history in our area.
            A couple of months ago I blogged about how the research for the book sometimes seemed like chasing ghosts. That piece was about the difficulty of running down information on people who are all gone now, with few others remaining who knew them personally. The handful of people alive who still remember the Borinas will soon be gone themselves, but the book will keep the family’s memory alive to at least some small extent.
            There’s another issue involved in doing a family history like this, and it’s a paradox. In the course of running it down, the author comes across a heck of a lot of information, and massaging and condensing it into some sort of halfway interesting narrative is a true challenge.

The Histories Nobody Reads

            Quite a few people try their hand at writing a family history every year. Most of them can handle the first part of the job, which is ferreting out the information. Whether there’s a lot of information or a little, it’s generally available to anyone who can muster a bit of dogged persistence when it comes to going through raw materials — whether those are online sources or old-fashioned letters and diaries in a box in the attic.
            Figuring out what to make of it and how to use it is the rub, and that’s where family histories can turn unreadable.
In my case one storytelling challenge was that the family patriarch figured out a way to develop a lucrative market for apples in Asia during the 1930s. The details of how he did it eluded me; he never recorded the story, and whatever part of that story his daughters knew died with them.
            There was, however, a considerable body of work about developing markets for California fruit in Asia at the time. One 1930s article on the subject, which I encountered in an archive ran about as long as my entire book. How does something like that get worked into the story in a compelling fashion? (I used the gist of it and a piquant quote.)

The Great Unraveling

            It occurred to me at some point along the way that researching a book like this is a bit like picking up scraps of yarn here and there. At the end of the research process (and it ends when you decide it does, because in theory it could go on forever) you have a ball of yarn 20-feet in diameter.
            The writing process is about turning that enormous ball of yarn into a beautiful Christmas sweater with a reindeer pattern. In order to do that, you have to remember all the individual bits of yarn that went into the ball and spend a great deal of time and effort unraveling it in search of the bits you can use.
            Most of the yarn you’ve amassed never goes into the sweater, and some really nice material inevitably gets left behind. Part of writing involves being ruthless about leaving out good material that doesn’t fit your pattern. I seem to have a mind that’s naturally inclined to do that sort of thing, but I have no idea at all how I would go about trying to teach someone else to do it. All I know is that my way seems to work for me, and in a couple of months, we’ll find out if it works for the readers of the book as well.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Limits of Realism

            Watching an episode of Elementary recently, I perked up when it got to a scene where the detectives were visiting a witness who had just emerged from a coma after being shot by a multiple killer. Sherlock Holmes had already deduced the identity of the killer and the detective in the hospital room whipped out a photo of the perp and held it up, at which the guy in the hospital bed pointed to it and said “Yeah …”
            So not right.
            Also not so big a deal.
            It wasn’t right because any competent defense attorney could have raised questions about the identification; the victim was essentially asked a leading question of the type not allowed in court. That’s one of the reasons most modern police departments seeking an ID from a photo give the witness a half-dozen pictures of potential perps to choose from. That way the identification does a lot better if the case ever comes to trial.

When a Mistake Doesn’t Hurt Too Much

            On the other hand, the scene occurred in the context of a show in which the basic premise is that the New York City Police Department is using Sherlock Holmes and his associate, Dr. Joan Watson, as consultants on major crimes. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s a certain amount of reality avoidance in the show to start with.
            From that perspective, a violation of police procedure for the purpose of wrapping up the story within an hour is at most a minor infraction. Had the scene occurred in a drama that prided itself on being grittily realistic about the details of police work, it would have been a howler.
            Similarly, in the novels of Golden Age writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey, a mistake about the effects of arsenic on the spleen is not a deal-breaker, provided, of course, that the solution to the mystery doesn’t revolve around the reader catching the mistake. Those authors were more concerned with the motives of the suspects, and having one of the suspects behave out of character would be far more serious in their books than getting a scientific detail wrong.

Yielding to the Story

            Nobody who writes a book wants a glaring and laughable mistake in it, and a certain due diligence in that regard is important for all authors. But there are ways of dealing with it other than rigorous research. For example, Catriona McPherson, author of the Dandy Gilver mysteries, said in a newspaper interview that one of the reasons she did a series set in the 1920s was so she wouldn’t have to waste a lot of time learning forensic stuff and writing it into the books. Like Christie, Tey, et. al, she wanted to focus on the characters and situation.
            In the course of doing the final revision for my first mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, I had to make a call in that regard. Re-reading the book, I realized that at one point I had the local sheriff doing something the FBI chief on the scene would surely have done himself. The scene was unrealistic in the same way as the one-photo lineup in Elementary.
            On the other hand, the story was at that point barreling toward its climax, and introducing and developing a new character at that point would have sapped its narrative drive. So, reality be damned, I let the sheriff go ahead and do the FBI chief’s job. When you’re writing fiction, there are times you can’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.