How Do You Get Readers to Trust You?

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by Jacqui Murray

I went to my bi-weekly writer’s critique group last night. We get submittals ahead of time, gather our thoughts and comments, and then each of us gets 5 minutes during the meeting to share our suggestions. This week, we were reviewing the work of one of my favorite group authors–we’ll call her Mari. She is writing an amazing piece about a family coping with Alzheimer’s. It’s character-driven fiction, but could also be classified as creative non-fiction so detailed and realistic are the scenes.

The setting is a suburban town, a care facility for patients with Alzheimer’s. In one particular scene, a favorite parakeet of one of the residents escapes and a hawk swoops down and grabs it before anyone can return it to its cage. My comments focused on Mari’s ability to community the emotion experienced by all those involved. To my surprise, other group members shared their beliefs that this was impossible–a hawk wouldn’t be found in a suburban community (it was more detailed than that, but the gist of the objections were that this was not realistic).

Which got me thinking about the willing suspension of disbelief we all afford to fiction writers. Why had I accepted a hawk in a suburban neighborhood without questioning the veracity of that occurrence? It did sound odd on its face. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a bird of prey swoop down on potential food in in a populated area. So why didn’t I–like my fellow group member–think Mari had pushed the envelope a bit too far.

The simple answer: I know Mari’s writing. She’s always detailed, accurate, well-researched in her plots and settings. As such, I love her submittals because I always learn from them.

The problem is: Few outside of our tight critique circle will know this about her. Many might react as this other woman did and reject the premise. So how do authors overcome that lack of intimacy?

I considered authors who often teach me through their writing–Stephen Hunter, Carsten Stroud, Michael Harvey, James Tabor, Ben Coes–and analyzed why I trusted them when I didn’t know them (well, Ben and I are Goodreads buddies. Yeah, we’re tight. OK, we belong to the same forum) and realized that they established their creds early and often in their writing.

They often shared details that were both enlightening and believable, many times on subjects I had enough knowledge of to nod my head in agreement as I read the passage. They established themselves as an authority on the subjects they were writing about. Therefore, by the time I got to an off-the-wall scene–like hawks in a suburban area–I was inclined to trust the author and believe. It was that simple.

This is important. How many people do you talk to who list one of their first three reasons for reading as ‘to learn something’. That long list of readers includes me. I stop reading stories that don’t teach me–about life, emotions, facts, history, something. Educate me! But I don’t start out trusting an author. S/he must earn that trust by being right (almost) all the time. If s/he throws a fact out there I know is false, I’m jaded toward her/him. A second–I move on to someone new.

In Mari’s case, I’ve read her work for years. She’s accurate and I learn from her. So I trust her.

Here’s your takeaway: If you’re going to weave a plot piece into your story that strains credibility, set up your characters so readers will trust them (and you) and willingly suspend their disbelief. My fiction deals with the fascinating bits of science that few know but most would like to. Think: Jurassic Park. By the time the plot reached living 21st century dinosaurs, you were onboard, completely buying that stuff about DNA in amber (or whatever it was). How about Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak? I mean–why not?

How about you? How do you decide whether you trust an author or not?

 

 

 

 

Guest post contributed by Jacqui Murray. Jacqui is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman  and is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, and Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers. You can find her book on her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.  


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18 thoughts on “How Do You Get Readers to Trust You?”

  1. I agree that credibility is vital. I also will stop reading something (or read angrily, looking for more errors!) if I find inaccurate information in a book or story. That being said, Mari’s plot piece was actually not that far-fetched. Perhaps it depends on which state, but here in Florida, we have hawks all over the suburbs…and my aunt’s cockatiel in Virginia actually did get caught by a hawk right in front of her in her neighborhood. As I was reading this piece, I was liked, “Oh wow, that happened to my aunt’s bird!” And then I read the reaction of the group to it. Lol. Anyway… It does happen! But I suppose if so many readers reacted that way to it, then perhaps the presence of hawks needed to be established earlier in the story or something, since it seems it’s not a widely-relatable experience, even if it is realistic! Thanks for this post; I enjoyed it.

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  2. Gaining readers’ trust is a particular problem for indie authors because some readers automatically assume the indie author is wrong anyway: Use a scientific term the reader is unfamiliar with? You must have just made it up — or worse, aren’t using it right. Use one homophone when the reader thinks you should have used another? YOU are the one who is mistaken. (“The Bering Straight”? *shakes head*)

    (We had hawks in the suburban area where I used to live. In fact, there was a Cooper’s hawk who used to hang out in the tree in my front yard. This was on the outskirts of Cincinnati, so it was a rather densely populated area.)

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    1. I recently started reading Blasco Ibañez “the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalyse” and I found many opinions about WWI that were inaccurate (historically), however, I enjoy his style of writing [despite long diatribes against the Germans] so I continued reading, but I was angry at some passages, not because of my desire to defend the Germans, but as a reaction against using literature to advance (or perpetuate) false beliefs. WWI is my one favorite historical period so I am particularly sensitive about it.

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  3. Interesting piece. It’s one thing to write something for your peers, but it’s a whole different ballgame to have other writers trust you with your work.

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  4. I was in Milwaukee, downtown Milwaukee (back when I lived in Milwaukee Wi) and I remember a hawk, at the base of a tree, -it was panting, overcome -I believe- by the heat –as scores of people walked back and forth by it–. So maybe the critics in the group were wrong…

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  5. Not sure where you are in the world Jacquie, but I would trust the writer on this one. We are forcing more and more species away from their natural habitat and any animal/bird will go where there is food. We don’t give our natural world the space it needs to thrive, we think that we own the earth when we don’t. Even the most microscopic being will survive in the right environment. I live in West Yorkshire UK very close to a town and we do have hawks hunting regularly in our skies. Off my soap box now.
    Back to your question about trusting the writer. I get quite cross when there is a glaring error in a manuscript and I do lose a bit of faith in the writer. I think that they have not paid enough attention to detail and so I think why should I waste my time reading their words? If you are going to base your work on facts then the least you can do is make sure that they are correct. In the case of sci-fi and fantasy then you might get away with hoodwinking the reader, but otherwise for me, it’s a no-no.
    Happy Christmas.Norma

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  6. It’s not about trusting the author, but trusting the work. Horror and SF authors get us to believe all kinds of crazy things. We read on because we’re engaged from the start. The only time a scene – like the one you describe – doesn’t work is because the author didn’t set up the situation, didn’t get us absorbed.

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