Writers! Are your characters staying within the bounds of reality?

Written By: Jackie Weger - Nov• 12•18

Places and Activities ~ Story Location and Character Behavior

How many times have you come to a scene in a book and said: That can’t happen? Or you stop reading a story placed in a location you know well and the author has it all wrong? Telling you up front I get reviews that say I got it wrong, such as nobody works in the basement of government buildings in Washington, D.C.  Yes, they do. I’ve met government workers and interviewed them. Some are writers, too. Or: Government employees can’t steal or spy because they have to take lie detector tests.  Read a list of those caught Here.  Fact: Many government agencies outsource employee hiring and those outsource agents are often sloppy when it comes to issuing security clearances and thorough background checks. ‘Problem’ civilian employees under contract may simply be laid off or have a contract cancelled.  They are not protected by Civil Service guidelines.

Venomous centipede. One bit me between my toes. Within a week there was a necrotic hole. Took 3 weeks for Sulfur and antibiotics to heal it.

I once wrote a contemporary book about trapping in the Louisiana Swamps. Mercy. We got letters from readers complaining that doesn’t happen in the USA anymore. And that the author doesn’t know anything about real Cajuns. Well, honey, I lived and trapped with those Cajuns for many weeks in the  Atchafalaya River Basin during trapping season. Fast forward and now there is a reality show: Swamp People. I actually got three books out of that research trip because I learned as in all communities, there are different levels of society; the workers, the leaseholders, the fur and pelt buyers and what I call Cajun Royalty ~ the cane, cattle and rice farmers. The rice farmer doubles down and seed their fields with crawfish for a second crop. We’re talking $$$ here.  I’m sharing this with you because it’s critical when we are putting a story in another’s backyard. We need to know that backyard.

Wandering spider. Aggressive. Bites. Toxic. Hides in cabinets and clothes.

I love adventure and thriller books, especially those located in Central and South America~historical or contemporary. Love ’em.  This week I had to put aside a top ranked thriller because the author screwed up. I’m good with author license to jimmy facts to make a plot work. But I’m not good with a saboteur leaping off the back of a launch in Amazonian flood waters and swimming away in the black of night. Swimming to where? Wearing shorts and a shirt in some of the most dangerous waters in our universe. One splash and a paiche, the Amazonian shark is in your face. Then it bites your head off.

Next the launch blows up and everybody is in the water. A caiman got one of throwaway characters. The rest made it to shore and trekked through the jungle at night–no flashlights. No light at all. More mud and water and piranhas ate another character. Oops.  The cast of characters gets to a tiny, one room ersatz medical mission in the middle of the jungle and one turns on a spigot in the sink. That’s when I stopped reading.

My private bathroom. Snakes and scorpions visited often.

Here’s why: I’ve lived in jungle villages. I’ve trekked in the Darién Gap. Didn’t get far because it’s too dangerous.  Even in the tame village I lived in, natives did NOT wander paths at night. And no native walked to an outhouse after dusk without a flashlight and a lighted torch to kill scorpions and poisonous centipedes.  This: We slept beneath nets, with flashlight handy under our pillows. One never slipped out of bed or moved that net until we shined the light on the floor and walls. Never mind vipers, mosquitoes, bot flies, palm wasps that dive for your eyes and a host of other deadly creatures such as anaconda and boa constrictors. An acquaintance of mine decided to wade across a waist-deep stream in the Amazon at full dusk to pan for gold. A juvenile anaconda got him around the legs. He got loose and lived to tell me about it, but the snake took a chunk the size of a fist out of his abdomen.

Natives call this a spike palm. I fell into one when I was about fourteen. Punctures deep in my hand and arm. Wild stories were certain natives tied their enemies to the tree until dead.

There are no water spigots in deep jungle. No piped in water. No water wells. That’s why every native village is near a water source ~ a creek, a river, a stream in which to haul a gourd or bucket of water for bathing and cooking.  The mountain village I lived in had a reservoir on the side of the mountain. If a native had the money to buy PVC piping and strung it to his house or thatcho and paid 50 cents to the village elder per spigot, the native could have ‘running water’ to an outside sink.  IF one lived on the same side of the mountain as the reservoir. But most just hauled water from the river, bathed in the river and washed clothes in the river.  Recall, if one has water coming in, it has to go out… away from packed dirt floors in one’s ‘living area’.

I recently read a great book all the way to the denouement which put me off from ever buying another of the author’s books. To kill off the villain the hero throws the guy over a hotel balcony onto the deck of a container ship as it passes through the Panama Canal. As it happens there isn’t a hotel on either side of the Canal with a balcony that overhangs the Canal.  The Canal is fenced off for security. Mechanical mules on railroad tracks are used to guide the ship through the Canal locks. Ships line up in Gatun lake or the Bay of Panama to wait their turn to traverse the Canal. There is a very modern, air-conditioned museum and viewing platform at Miraflores. None at all at the Pedro Miguel locks and at Gatun. Again, fenced off. No ship can cruise so close to land to make that scene work. Yes, we want our readers to suspend belief and enjoy the world we create for them.  But! Common sense has to prevail.

Writers are always asking: May I use a real restaurant for a scene in my book, or real hotel or a real location or the name of a real person? The short answer is, yes. The long answer is, do not denigrate the site or the real person, dead or alive. One of my colleagues, now a retired university professor made up an entire city, university and urban police department as the backdrop for his books. He wrote fine murder mysteries and police procedurals. When I use a real restaurant in a scene, I often have dined at the restaurant, know if it has a hostess or a maître ‘d. At the very least, I know the decor, menu, and general clientele.

I’m not giving any writer advice about what to write or not. It’s your book. It’s my book. We make it work or we don’t.  I get comments often that my stories are so old-fashioned the reader is startled to find a character uses a cell phone or the kids in the story don’t have iPads. I wonder how when a single mother needs a set of new tires for her car, that a reader would complain her kid doesn’t have an iPad.

Perhaps I’m too old. But when I pick up a Chicklit novel that sounds cute as it can be and in the first paragraph learn the twenty-something character is gloating because she and her team have just stolen the Mona Lisa from the Louvre  Museum, my jaw drops. The last time the painting was stolen was in 1911. Too, I’ve admired the painting in the Louvre. I’ve seen the the security. Here’s a fact: That young adult character is NOT going to know how to reach a buyer. No way the character is traveling at that level in society. How’s she gonna sell it? An advert on Craig’s List? eBay? For one hundred million dollars?

I write fiction. Every fiction writer knows he or she is asking the book buyer to suspend belief in hopes the story entertains and will resonate with the reader.  IMO it is not a good idea to discount the reader’s possible knowledge of a place, an event or experience. There has to be some feature of the book plot anchored in reality. If we let that anchor slip away, we lose the reader.  I know well that when I’m inside a book, excitement can take over, a secondary character can move front and center and move the plot off balance. A good editor will catch this, a savvy proof reader knows the right questions to ask.  But the author needs to know the landscape and how his or her characters will function in it. Unless the editor has traversed the Canal, she won’t know there’s no hotel balcony overhanging the locks. Or anywhere along the Chagres River for that matter. If an editor’s only experience of jungles is National Geographic, a History Channel documentary, or Survivor, that editor is NOT going to catch an author’s flubs. Turning on a spigot in a jungle mission hut is gonna read ordinary as soap and water.

Lastly, could I be wrong?  Sure. That ersatz mission in the jungle could’ve had a water catchment.  What about a container ship sailing beneath a hotel balcony overhanging the Panama Canal? Nope. Not in the past sixty-two years I’ve been visiting the country.  Plus in 2016 the Panama Canal Commission completed an expansion of the Canal with new sets of locks at Gatun Lake and Miraflores.

This is prob’ly more than you want to know.  This blog is not gonna stop readers having their say.  Right or wrong, I respect a reader’s opinion. Their views are coming from their experience, as are mine. For me,  my recent reading experience is a reminder to double check everything. If I name a restaurant in a story, I’m gonna check to make certain it’s still in business and look at the menu. Same with a hotel, a street name or a product.  Top of the list is to be a better writer with every book.

@2018 Jackie Weger.  Comments welcome. Would love for you to add to the discussion, especially if you’ve had similar experiences.  Plus, reminding you if you’re struggling with distractions, finding time to get your story on page, or perhaps you need to pick up the pace, do check out Fiction Focus, a self-help motivator I used for years. Fiction Focus is especially helpful for the aspiring author who sometimes suffers dismay when surrounded by those with more of a list. Every author starts with one book. Learn to create at your own pace.

$3.95 on the audio producer’s site. 12.22 on Amazon. $13.97 on Audible.

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16 Comments

  1. Emily Kaplan says:

    Hahaha! Great post. I also had a reviewer tell me I was trying to hard to be edgy by using some Chinese in one of my Josie Tucker books. I guess she assumed by my married name that I’m not Chinese. Sometimes you just have to shake your head and move on.

  2. Good points, Jackie. Unfortunately, I’ve had readers criticize certain minor details that amaze me. My feeling is that once a reader is picking on the fact that, for example, you have served lemonade slightly before or after the usual lemon growing season, they are looking for things to criticize. I make a tremendous effort to get things right and often revise my book if I become aware that some detail is significantly wrong. In the end, however, you can’t please everyone.

    • Jackie Weger says:

      Suzanne G. Rogers…I hear you. And get this. Lemons are in season somewhere in our world. The last time I was able to get near a lemon tree, I harvested two bushels and froze the juice in pint bottles.

      No. we can’t please all. I was just alerted to a lovely review minus .5 because of minor errors…the reviewer made an issue of being an English major. Here’s the thing. The editor of the book is also an English major. Be lovely if they got their heads together and fixed my book. LOL. Jackie

  3. Too true – even fictional characters and settings need to be realistic.
    (Says the science fiction writer who invents aliens and their worlds.)

  4. I think some readers just look for things to complain about. I my angel series I have a movie star who dies in an auto accident. He is justifiably upset by this turn of events and uses some coarse language. The reader gave me one star because they said no angel would swear that way!
    I have to question how they would know this 🙂

  5. Donna Fasano (@DonnaFaz) says:

    I love the researching part of planning my stories. I’d like to think readers appreciate the time and effort I invest in research.

  6. laurieboris says:

    Yes! Excellent points, Jackie, thank you. Do your research. It matters. After a reviewer (privately, thank you) tagged my first book for having an iris blooming out of season, I make sure to check my facts. I know how ticked I get when I read a totally inaccurate description of a place or subject I know well, so I want to make sure I get my own facts right!

    • Jackie Weger says:

      Laurie Boris: What I’m learning is oft times the facts I get don’t mesh with another’s facts. Or perhaps one or the other is an opinion or a firmly-held belief. Embedded in our brains. I go for primary sources. I’m looking at your comment about an iris blooming out of season…our climate is changing. Here it is November and I’m still harvesting fat purple figs. In California the season runs through December.

      Still, I enjoy an adventure book. I don’t catch things about guns and firepower that he does. Those mistakes make him put a book aside. His comment is: If the guy doesn’t know his guns and what they will do or what to load them with, he doesn’t trust the remainder of the plot. It seems each person has a pet peeve.

  7. srmallery says:

    Wonderful post, Jackie! Thanks. Putting fictional characters alongside of my historically real people is not an easy feat, but I work hard on making them authentic. That’s where my great beta readers and an eagle-eyed editor come in handy. They keep me “honest’. 🙂

  8. Loved this post Jackie! As I write historical adventures set on pirate infested waters of the West Indies, I have to research and research and research some more. Thank goodness one of my beta readers is excessively critical. And nothin’ inaccurate gets past that pair of eyes! 😉😁👍

  9. Insightful and entertaining, thank you. I always strive for authenticity. Plus, everything goes past my husband who’s the world’s strictest critic! Even then, I still managed to be accused once of writing something preposterous: a reviewer once said she was around in the 80s in Corfu and never saw anyone sitting on the beach at night eating pizza. So, the relevant scene that I put in my book (as an original memory from my old summers in Corfu actually!) could not have possibly happened, or so she reasoned. I guess I am unlucky to have had a reader who is actually omnipresent and can vouch for these things haha

  10. Jackie Weger says:

    Frossie! I hear you. I once wrote an article for a travel magazine and spoke to crab feasts or boiling crabs, our catches at night on the beach. The mag’s photographer came and wanted a get a photo of crabbers sitting around a pot of boiling crabs on a beach. Huh? Those events are impromtu and anyway, he came out of crabbing season. I took the fool to my favorite crabbing spots and finally found a dead crab I could hold up for him to photograph. I had some great shots of crabs, but the mag didn’t want to use those. Done!

  11. Jackie Weger says:

    What astounds me is that many Americans don’t really know our small towns and back roads because we travel from point A to B on Interstate highways. I once lived in a tiny farming community. We had our own telephone system. A PBX board in a neighbor’s house. My phone number was 37. My phone was battery operated and wind-up–no number dials. It was impossible to call home from out of town because the telephone operators refused to believe such a system was in existence. I don’t dare use that in a book. Moreover, we had to provide out own telephone wires from our house to the PBX board. And during harvest with those huge machines rumbling on our dirt roads from one field to the next, we had to dismantle our phone systems and had no phone service at all for weeks. We had to drive 21 miles to the nearest pay phone.

  12. I appreciate your take on this subject, Jackie. I’m reminded of a scene I once wrote about a character with icicles growing from his ears (b/c his girlfriend was giving him a cold shoulder, putting him in deep freeze, etc). One of my critique partners said, “It doesn’t get cold enough in San Diego to have icicles on his ears.” Go figure. (And BTW, was just in the Panama Canal in September. Still no hotels on either side).

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