1. Ponzu
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    Ponzu New Member

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    Writing and Credibility

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Ponzu, Oct 25, 2012.

    I'm currently brain storming some ideas for my next writing project, but there is something I'm struggling with. A lot of ideas I get, I'm reluctant to use because I have no real world experience with them. For instance, I might feel kind of funny to try telling a war story, even though I've never been in the armed forces or in war. I can't relate to what its like for a soldier to be on patrol, or to go through basic training, or be a POW, etc. So it almost seems wrong to try to write about something like that and expect to be taken seriously.

    I could do massive amounts of research, and try to achieve a level of believability or authenticity to get around this problem. I'm not averse to that, but then how much time do you devote to researching the subject matter VS actually writing? I've heard some writers researching their stories for up to a year or longer. Since I'm writing just for fun, and have no plans on publishing anything at the moment (and I have a lot of life stuff to do outside of writing) this wouldn't be very practical for me.

    In my own attempt to resolve the issue, I thought for some reason of Star Wars. Star Wars obviously tells a war story. There are soldiers, battles, death, etc. Lucas couldn't have researched how a blaster works, or how accurately Greedo spoke his alien lines in the famous bar scene with Han. Its pure fantasy, and appreciated at that level. Lucas is never called out for depicting war without having any military experience. (According to wiki, he was drafted for Vietnam but got out due to diabetes.)

    So how about this rule: The extent to which a writer's credibility is questioned should be equivalent to the seriousness of the story being told. So if I write a story on the sophistication level of a G.I. Joe cartoon, maybe I could be forgiven if I don't get all the details right, or I'm describing a battle that evokes a feeling of playing in a first person shooter level. But, if I tell a story about one soldier's experience fighting in Afghanistan, then I better be willing to do a ton of research, or maybe be extremely vague in some areas? I don't know. What do you think?
     
  2. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    First of all, congratulations for recognizing this issue -- it comes up a lot, and there's a lot of disagreement with the advice "Write what you know," but I think it is a solid rule.

    I don't think it's so much the 'seriousness' of the story, but how similar it is to the real world that differentiates it. You are right that I think it would be very difficult to write a war story if one has never been involved with a war. You're right that you could do very intense research -- read every account of war you can get your hands on, interview soldiers who were there, watch documentaries, etc., and if you've got the right mix of other skills, that could get you close enough.

    A story like Star Wars, however, is different enough from our world that their depiction of battle is not really the same as that in our reality. The whole premise is that the universe is different -- people live on different planets, the enemies are different. The weapons and fighting mechanisms are different. So although it's analogous, it's not the same. Plus, the focus of those stories is more on the good versus evil kind of battle. The interpersonal relationships are not really based on the experience of war. It's really not at all the same type of story as one focusing on one soldier or a group of soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.
     
  3. JamesOliv
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    JamesOliv Senior Member

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    I agree with Liz. But also, consider how "high level" the view of the war is in Star Wars. The focus of the story is on generals and commanders. There is very little attention paid to the typical entry level enlisted soldier.

    You see the same thing in Star Trek.

    I served n the Navy. I know that an "ensign" is the lowest ranking commissioned officer. But they are still officers. They outrank anyone with chevrons on their sleeve. Yet, Star Trek fans who haven't served in the Navy think that ensign is the lowest navy rank, period. Star Trek is almost embarrassingly devoid of enlisted people. We're it not for Senior Chief O'Brien on DS9, I would have lost all hope.

    Star Trek, unlike Star Wars, borrowed a rank system that is familiar to us. So when I get together with my crusty former shipmates and watch Star Trek, we can only gripe about weird little navyisms we pick up on throughout the series. Even though it is set in a fictional future universe, we can gripe about how a lieutenant junior grade is speaking to a commander or the type of work that an ensign is being asked to do. Or we can observe that a real life away team would likely be composed of all enlisted people and a planet would be well secured before the CO even thought of setting foot on it.

    As Liz says, Star Wars is so far removed from what we know that no one can really challenge the credibility. No one is going to sit there arguing that the princess of a destroyed world would never say what she says to the admiral from an aquatic planet. But for a few titles, there is no consistency with any present world or military structure. So Star Wars gets to avoid being the object of derision for a bunch of former sailors with too much time on their hands (which I am certain is a relief to George Lucas).

    I agree that you should write about what you know, but that doesn't mean you have to live everything you write about. I have written stories about naval officers even though I was not an officer. I write stories about monks (having been a monk this kind of makes sense) but I also write about priests even though I was not ordained. But I am familiar with the culture of these worlds and I feel comfortable writing about them.

    Sometimes you need to screw convention, anyway. You can create a whole new universe around your concept if you need to.
     
  4. Langadune
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    Langadune Member

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    Above all remember you are a writer. Write. We all question our skill and we all strive to improve our craft, that's part of becoming a better writer. While it's true that someone who has fought in a war will have better first-hand knowledge than someone who hasn't, don't let that intimidate you. As an example, I doubt Dean Koontz was ever a circus clown or that he ever worked in a traveling carnival or lived in a monestary yet he has written about each with vivid detail. Also, many of the war-story authors have not been in a war. They've been in the military and have good first-hand knowledge of military protocol and such but have never been in a situation where they've had to take the life of another human being.

    Do your research, but enjoy it. If you're writing for fun, remember that. YOU'RE WRITING FOR FUN. Don't stress too much. Write as well as you can. Edit. Re-write. That's how you improve. You will never write your stories if you wait until your "good enough" to write them.

    You'll find that research can be quite fun and sometimes too easy to get lost in. The important thing is that you have a story to tell. If you don't write it, it doesn't get told. Flesh out the necessary details, research what you must.

    As for Star Wars... George Lucas had team of people who wrote for him. He created the universe and the story, his people helped flesh out the details. He orginally described the Millenium Falcon as a hamburger with a bite taken out of it, his people took it from there. Also, he didn't write the novelizations of his movies. He wasn't a writer. He was the lead story teller with a team of story telling helpers.
     
  5. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    how much time do you devote to researching the subject matter VS actually writing?

    ...as much as it takes to make what you write believable...
     
  6. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Think of The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane who had never seen a war or battle and
    yet he wrote a book about war. Amazing! How did he do it?
    He tapped into the mc's feelings of fear, cowardice and heroism and by making these
    feelings the drive of the novel, managed to produce not only a believeable depiction of
    war - but a bestselling, award winning novel.

    That to me is one of the greatest lessons in the write what you know 'rules'
    it's not so much write what you know - but write what you love - write
    what you can tap into. Find the proper angle for your story. If research
    becomes grueling maybe you're going about it the wrong way.

    I've read a lot of historical romance and sometimes I feel like the authors
    have wasted a lot of time trying so hard to sound authentic when I was more
    interested in the characters and romance, not the backdrop. One writers
    'authentic' can be another readers 'dull'

    Start with believable, relatable characters with exciting goals and choices. They'll
    help cover a readers doubts a lot easier than a world of research.
     
  7. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    THIS!

    You mention "Star Wars". Writers faced with the issue you raise sometimes choose to write of fantasy worlds, where they can make up their own rules. But even in doing that, you have to either keep things close to our normal experience or else you find yourself explaining why things are different. So, instead of doing research, you end up doing a lot of world building.

    If you care about getting something right - and that's a decision only you can make, even (especially) when you are "writing for fun" - you'll do as much research as it takes for you to be comfortable with the finished product. I'm currently writing a historical based in another country, one I can't get to and with which my country is not on friendly terms. I've already researched the general history and the specific topics my story touches upon, and yet I find myself going back and double- and even triple-checking certain things. Now, it's true that I have real hopes that this might get published, but even if I didn't, I would still be pretty thorough. But that's just me.

    Good luck.
     
  8. Ponzu
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    Ponzu New Member

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    Thanks for the replies, it definitely cleared it up for me. I think I can find a good balance between research and artistic license and probably be okay for now. :) Didn't know the millennium falcon was originally described as a bitten hamburger, that's pretty funny. Also appreciated the bit about the Star Trek ranks. I always did wonder how ranks and titles were supposed to work in the Star Wars / Star Trek universes.
     
  9. James Berkley
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    James Berkley Banned

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    instead almost everyone makes fun of him for episode 1-3
     
  10. Kinch
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    Kinch Member

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    I have a suggestion. Providing that the writing style can accommodate this, use your lack of knowledge in the field your writing involves to an advantage. For instance, there are a plethora of misconceptions about the military that pop culture, public opinion, etc. have ran with. If this is a fiction work whose narrator or protagonist is not in a position where they would know how things really work, they can stumble into things and misinterpret mannerisms, etc. as a literary device.

    I have found that at times, honesty is the biggest bull of all. (Especially when you're the only sober person in a room, but that's another story...)

    Hope this helps.
     
  11. Thumpalumpacus
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    Thumpalumpacus Contributing Member

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    How important to your story is the detail? If it is crucial in order to make your point, then you need to make sure that the detail is accurate.
     
  12. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that in part, it depends on what the important truths of your story are. Harry Potter isn't about "what would it be like if there were real magic in the world?" It's about friendship and the longing for a place in the world and, well, stuff like that. Rumer Godden's "doll" books aren't about "what would it be like if dolls were sentient?" but about, again, a longing for a home and a place in the world, and often about the transformation and sacrifice and help that may be required to fulfill that longing. (Actually, that's what all of her books are about, IMO, the doll books are just sometimes less direct about it.) The setting needs to be internally consistent, but the truths are about emotions and relationships; the setting just provides a place to act out those truths.

    On the other hand, if your story is "about" a present reality, it had better be consistent with that reality or at least with its core emotional elements. Harry Potter _is_ in part "about" schools, I think, and therefore it's important that it rings true, emotionally, about that society and that experience. It doesn't really matter that the school is teaching magic instead of composition, but the nature of the social hierarchy, for example, had better feel familiar.

    Going further, if your story is actually about modern methods of teaching things like composition, then it had better actually ring true in those details. If it's about the modern US army and the experience of a desert war - about that, not using that as a setting to say something else - it had better be very, very right, and odds are that you indeed shouldn't be writing that story unless you have some personal experience. Getting a modern desert war wrong in a coming-of-age story is a significant flaw; getting it wrong in a story about a modern desert war is beyond a flaw - it means that the whole story was a waste of words.

    That's not to say that accuracy in matters outside those core truths doesn't matter. It just means that the closer to the core you are, the more accurate you need to be.
     
  13. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi,

    As was said you should write what you know, an oft abused phrase which I believe works well. But to know something you don't actually have to enlist or become a monk (an odd range of careers James). Research is good enough. My advice would be to read. If you want to know what the life of a battlefield soldier is really like, read a 'good' autobiography of one. Then adapt it to your story.

    As for blasters and the like, yeah to an extent you get a free ride with these sorts of things. Since they don't exist no one knows what they're like. Therefore your ignorance is matched by everyone elses. So simply make up rules for them and be consistent. And don't forget many others have got even real world guns very wrong. How many times have you seen a guy being blown backwards by being shot. It doesn't happen. The transfer of momentum from a bullet weighing only a few grams to an eighty kilo target, makes that impossible.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
  14. sharonwagoner
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    sharonwagoner Member

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    Have you considered visiting with war veterans at the local VFW or nursing home? Some will not want to talk about their experiences. Respect their wishes. Some may talk to you.

    My uncle shared some amazing stories with me. Is there a family member or friend you could interview?
     
  15. Ponzu
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    Ponzu New Member

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    No, but thats ok, I was just using a war story as an example, still deciding what kind of story to work on.
     
  16. Fife
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    Fife Senior Member

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    You may want to decide how much credibility plays a role in your story. In my opinion, people who want to see things exactly as they are in real life, are not looking to read it in fiction. People who read fiction want to be taken away to a place and time that never happened (but possibly could have). Therefore, you do not have to convince the reader beyond a reasonable doubt, but you simply need to convince the reader within reason.

    The easiest way to borrow experience is talk to someone whom may have experienced it personally. The next thing you can do is read about testimonies, articles, books; watch movies (take Hollywood with a grain of salt), documentaries, etc.
     

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