Reality, research, and verisimilitude

A friend in a Facebook writer’s group is doing NaNoWriMo, and she’s plowing through her word count in one window, while in another window, making a “grocery list of research” she will do after the November purge. I commend her mighty efforts. I don’t have the fortitude to do 50,0000,000000,000 words in 30 days.

Her research has to do with explosions and armaments and Big Issues. Certainly, if you want readers who have ever been on the receiving end of a speeding bullet to read your stuff–and keep coming back for more (<–important part)–you’d better get it right.  Look at our bookshelves, and the examples are everywhere: medical examiner protags like those in Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series and Patricia Cornwell’s (older) Kay Scarpetta series have to get it right or their readers threaten to throw books against walls. That’s why help abounds for writers who need to keep the details in order. Police procedurals, for another example, are full of necessary technical information, explored in-depth by Lee Lofland working The Graveyard Shift.

But my question as a writer remains:  How much is procedural or statistical or technical accuracy necessary in novels?

As a writer + wife + mother + full-time faculty + owner of a needy Jack Russell, I want to know: Where is my energy best spent?

And–while I’m asking–What about the literary principle of verisimilitude? How can we achieve verisimilitude in our reader’s hearts and minds, even if we, ourselves, have never dissected a corpse that was in the water for 3 weeks?

“Verisimilitude” is the quality of being “like reality.” Literature convinces us that it is “like reality” through our emotions. When we make our readers laugh and cry over the trials of characters who have never breathed air, we have achieved outstanding verisimilitude. We have made those characters behave and feel and think “like real people,” and even more, like real people who are important to our very real readers, and that is, ultimately, the goal of fiction: mimesis, or the rendering of the appearance of nature. Accuracy in technical matters is great, and pushes the mimesis up notches at a time, but arguably, recording facts correctly is not the goal of a novel. The goal of a novel is to achieve a verisimilitude of emotional tension about nature. A specific kind of nature. Human nature.

Famously, Plato banned poets from his Republic. He criticized poets for creating a “likeness” of reality in their works, and he argued that a false representation of reality that relies on mimesis does not, cannot show Truth. Looking for Truth within a poet’s orgiastic rambling is trying to understand the shadows on the wall once removed. If we cannot comprehend Truth ourselves, then filtering it through a poet’s mimetic version certainly isn’t going to help.  In fact, Plato said, doing so can be a hindrance to a true, USEFUL education about the world.

And this has some bearing on Cornwell and Slaughter and us.

A few years ago, I read the last of Karin Slaughter’s Grant County novels, Beyond Reach, and I didn’t come away with  any more knowledge about determining cause of death. Didn’t know a bit more about pediatrics or medical malpractice. A novel is not a how-to manual. Instead, I wept openly in the novel’s last pages, and I read the final paragraphs over and over again. I put the book down and looked at my one and only true love in a new way, comparing us to Sara and Jeffrey and wondering how and what if and why.

I earned an emotional experience of fear and horror resulting in Aristotelian catharsis through Slaughter’s words. That’s because the verisimilitude in that book is not about Sara Linton’s pediatrics practice and work as a medical examiner. I’m sure that Slaughter has done her research–after all, she coined the term “investigoogling,” but that’s not where the reality is for me. Further, the verisimilitude in Beyond Reach is not about police procedure and Jeffrey Tolliver’s work as Chief, although I understand that events in his work life constitute the plot.

But instead of being about the reality of the characters’ medical and legal professions, that novel renders the long-term love relationship (stand-off) between these two characters and slams us with its resolution. Slaughter tapped into the night terrors that we all have, and through Sara Linton’s reaction at the end, Slaughter brings each of us a version of pain we have imagined a thousand times, and it feels intense and real and true.

So, as I consider whether or not research creates the reality we want in our novels, I’m inclined to say that while research will help you to keep your reader happy inside the fictive dream, the real focus of any plot has to be the emotional, interior verisimilitude of the human experience as perceived through one character’s take on the world. Rendering the universal through the particular is our job as writers. The rest is Googling.

Write on,



Filed under The writing life

4 responses to “Reality, research, and verisimilitude

  1. Audra,
    Great points! I think you are right in your conclusion. If I’m invested in a story and the characters (and their world view), I’m inclined to forgive a lot of tiny procedural errors. (assuming its a subject where I have first-hand knowledge) Loved your line that a novel is not a ‘how to’ manual. 🙂 Good stuff! Thanks for sharing.

  2. You’ve got a good point. Nobody wants to ready pages and pages of police procedure. They want to know about the characters. It’s something Donald Maass talks about in WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL – people react and bond to characters when they sympathize/empathize and can see what happens to those characters happening to them.

    At the same time, if you’re going to dig into a legal thriller or police procedural, you have to get enough of the details right that you don’t yank your reader out of the story (what Lee Lofland refers to as “believable make-believe”). I’ve talked to enough lawyers, doctors, and cops who say, “I wanted to love the characters, but they were just to stupid – we don’t do things that way!” So clearly, it’s a balancing act. =)

    • A lot of balance goes into it, Mary, you’re right. I have a novel on the back burner that’s more of a stand-alone, set in New Zealand. I’ve done a huge, did I say H U G E amount of research on an aspect of NZ life that’s not familiar to many people, and a lot of it will appear in the story. But, more importantly, I have the grounding so I feel like I know what I’m talking about–and, as we know, confidence is 3/4 of the needful. (The last 1/4 being perspiration and persistence.) Thanks for taking the time to stop by!

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