JM Williams

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The Insecurities of Authors Using Real-World Settings


Happy Holidays to all! Being in the Far East, Christmas has already fully passed for me. So it’s time to get back to work.

I am currently working my way through Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. It is a fun little story, but the writing irks me in places. I have never done a Gaiman book before, so I did not know what to expect. It’s a work that is not comfortable being what it is; it tries to be a grander, more constructed Lit piece. What’s wrong with simply being Fantasy?

It probably doesn’t help that the version I am using is the audiobook read by the author. The way he reads sets me off a bit. Gaiman’s story telling voice is a bit too haughty, a bit too sure of the perfection of his work. He is slow and precise, making sure yo hear all his fancy little sentences and cute word choices. But he falls into many of the same cliches and tropes that the rest of us do.

I don’t trust authors who are overly proud of their writing. A good author believes his stuff is rubbish until the public proves him otherwise. If you already think you’re perfect, you have fully cut-off any room for accepting criticism and thus any possibility for growth. Every author can improve, and that begins with having doubts.

The issue that has come to mind as I go through Gaiman’s quirky novel is the tendency for authors who set their stories in the real world to feel the need to prove their knowledge and authority. Real-world authors tend to over-describe locations and over-rely on landmarks in a way that new-world fantasy and SF writers don’t, and in a way that can obstruct the story. Neverwhere is not nearly as bad as The Historian, which I have commented on elsewhere, but it still does this.

It has been a while since I enjoyed the classic Sherlock Holmes stories, but as I remember, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never felt the need to insert landmarks unnecessarily into his work. He told his readers the story was set in London, then proceeded to make his work live and breathe London. The way people acted, what they did and wore, how they spoke, all of it showed his setting to be London.

The modern writer seems to feel the need to prove what usually doesn’t amount to more than a tourist-level knowledge of the place, or mini history lessons that break the flow of the story. A passage that should read:

Sarah heard the thundering chimes of the giant clock tower striking the hour, urging her to hurry. 

in modern writing usually ends up like this:

Sarah heard the thundering chimes of Big Ben, the giant clock tower that has rested at the north end of Westminster Palace since 1855 and is now known as Elizabeth Tower, urging her to hurry.

Gaiman has his characters mention Big Ben for no necessary reason, and also goes into a history lecture on the WWII underground tunnels, amongst other bits. This kind of knowledge insert seems to happen a lot in modern writing and it wholly unnecessary. In the case above, the identity of the clock tower has no bearing on the story. I am a fundamentalist believer in the idea that if something doesn’t have bearing on your story, it shouldn’t be part of it. Second, when you say “this is London” and “there’s the giant clock tower,” everyone in the world will think of Big Ben. You don’t need to explain it, or even drop its name.

Here’s the thing, I wholeheartedly believe that if you tell your reader the story takes place in London, they will believe you until proven wrong. If your story is just about people talking, or having steak at a restaurant, you could place it in London, or Paris, or Tokyo and it would not matter. If there is some part of your story that relies on it being in London, then describe that place or that cultural mannerism as much as necessary, then move on with your story. And weave it in so it becomes a fundamental component of the story, rather than a tacked on bit to make yourself feel smart. And don’t rely on one generic bit of trivia, such as “they looked at Big Ben” or “they ate fish and chips”, to sell your setting. If done wrong, it actually comes off as less authentic.

New-world fantasy doesn’t have this problem, which is why I prefer it. Due to space constraints, such writers will always find themselves limited to only describing those bits of the world that are relevant to the story (perhaps with the exception of humorous asides by writers like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, but those serve their own purpose and usually aid the story by generating humor and context).

Maybe its just me, and maybe I overestimate the intelligence of readers, but I still think anything that doesn’t directly aid the story needs to be cut. The purpose of fiction (well, non-big-L-Lit fiction, which is all that matters to me) is to tell a story, not show how great of a writer you are.

But that’s just my two cents. Put them in your Christmas stocking, or save them to put on my eyes after the mob murders me for acting like I know something. I don’t really. But I don’t think anybody does really. Were all floating in the icy ocean, gripping a shattered piece of floorboard and trying to describe the sinking…we’re safer if we come together rather than drifting apart.

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