Writing Between the Lines

One of my responsibilities as someone who writes fantasy (and hopes others will enjoy reading it) is creating a narrative that invites the reader to suspend their disbelief. I want to pull them into the story, willing to accept healers and mages in a world where gods courting celestial bodies affect their abilities.

The most affective way to do this is through research. I have found that an author needs to be a researcher as much as they need to be a writer. I find myself feverishly googling things I never even thought of existing before (the most concerning for my husband will probably always be the searches involving human leather) and losing whole blocks of writing time lost in articles and references. Balancing research and writing is a topic for a future post.

Creating a plausible setting even for a fantastical world is an important foundation for the reader. I had to research climate, geography, weather, and how it all interacts just to make sure the atmosphere matches the land my characters traverse.

One part of the book I’m working on now took months of research to build a culture that makes up less than a quarter of the story. Some of the things I had to learn about for that were the process for tanning leather, life-cycle of moths, nutritional value of various insects, weaponless fighting styles, limits of the human  body under specific conditions, sign languages, pictographs, various minerals and stones, and cave systems. Aside from the fighting styles, it was all for the foundation, and months of research only worked out to be a few paragraphs in the story. I barely got to include the tip of the iceberg of things I learned.

Those few sentences were important. A single word can turn a reader off. Every time something jars the reader out of the story, it’s more work to be pulled back in. Reading through a discussion on readers’ pet peeves, I saw several where one word or phrase was all it took. Some of my own are like that–I can’t stand it when I read that a horse “growled”. Horses do not growl, I know they do not growl and it snaps me back to reality and makes me less trusting as I continue to read.

In a funny way, disrupting that suspension of disbelief is a betrayal to the reader (at least I have certainly felt that way when reading before). So knowing what you’re writing about is important. Research is an investment in your work, and not something to be skipped over. Sometimes, though, there are a lot of common misconceptions on a topic floating around pop culture, and accurate information is what upsets the suspension of disbelief.

The example I’ll use is long swords–specifically medieval European long swords. It was rare to find any over 5 pounds, they’re usually 2.5 – 3.5 pounds (ceremonial swords could be heavier, but I’m focusing on functional swords). But a lot of people believe they weighed 20, 30, even 40 pounds. It seems implausible to readers for certain characters to wield these swords. There is this idea that only big, strong, fully grown men could pick up these things, let alone use them practically. So for Kat, my sword-weilding, 5’4″, 17 yr old, female protagonist to use one would pretty much guarantee a lot of reader skepticism. As a warrior, her swords are an important part of the story, and I risk compromising the suspension of disbelief whenever I mention them.

Fortunately, Kat’s swords are modeled after katanas and people seem more willing to accept that someone her size could handle those. In reality, katanas and European swords weigh about the same.

Now, if Kat were using something modeled after medieval European swords, I would need to navigate through that. I could just charge in with truth on my side and declare it is up to readers to educate themselves, google keeps all things within our grasp, after all. But that doesn’t really help me. Disrupting that suspended disbelief, even with accurate information, risks losing the reader entirely.

A mini history and technical lesson won’t fit neatly into a story, either. Info dumps like that disrupt the flow of the story, too, and anytime that happens, it’s less certain a reader will be pulled back in.

People tend to read my genre to relax and escape, they don’t want to do the work of researching things, and they don’t want boring lessons. It’s my responsibility to respect the role reading plays for most of the people who will pick up my book. Like everything else in the story, if Kat used European swords I would have to weave that information in, in a way that doesn’t break the flow, but makes it plausible.

Because Kat is a warrior, and weapons are something readers expect to read a little about in heroic fantasy, I can spend a sentence or two describing them. When she is given her first sword, I could talk about how it felt to hold it, mention how light it felt to hold, until she considers everything the sword represents (the culmination of years of training, and a way of life for the rest of her life) and then the sword feels heavier. Then she can remember the code she is trained to live by and that balances the weight for her, making it easy to wield. Now, I’ve given the reader information about the weight of the sword and tied it into a theme that will be relevant throughout the entire series.

I can’t guarantee that will combat the pop culture idea of the sword, but it should be enough context to uphold my end of that invitation to suspend disbelief.