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.