Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Setting and Subculture for Suspension of Disbelief

Question of the Week: "How important is research in your stories, and has an error ever made it into print?"


When you send your character off on an improbable adventure, it's important to keep all the ordinary world details precise (or at least highly credible) so that a reader feels grounded in the familiar while they suspend their disbelief. While the series I write isn't realistic—in the real world, no twentysomething undercover cop would get fun assignments with cool wardrobes as often as Clare Vengel does—I do my best to keep the world around Clare accurate in two important ways.


When Clare visits a new city, I want people who have been there (and ideally people who live there, too) to feel like it's an accurate replication. In the name of setting accuracy, I have:

  • emailed a Manhattan restaurant to ask what kind of linens they use
  • phoned the River Rock Casino to ask what kind of coffee makers they use in their hotel rooms
  • walked the streets in Paris, New York, and Toronto using Google street view
  • studied floor plans of University of Toronto buildings online, so when a character walks around inside, the bathroom is in the right place
  • driven to Whistler to suss out where a character should build his backwoods mountain cabin


In each novel, Clare is undercover in a subculture where she's unfamiliar—and generally uncomfortable. Often it's a group that I've been a part of in my wayward past, but there are always extra details that help flesh out the world and modernize it. (Since I'm not 23 anymore, and the lingo has certainly changed.) To get the culture right, I have:

  • listened to podcasts where poker players dish about strategy, gambling pitfalls, and their social lives on the tournament scene
  • gone to an extreme snowboarding weekend (as in, everyone was a million times more advanced and adventurous than me) to learn about young mountain culture
  • taken advice from some cool dudes in Fernie about how snowboarders talk to each other
  • lucked out with an editor and two pre-readers who live in the States, so they can correct any Canadianisms in the US parts of my novels (Like there's no such thing as Smarties south of the border. Who knew?)

And as for part two of the question: YES. Errors do make it into print. And when readers email me to let me know, I thank them and make a note so that if and when there's a next printing, I can correct the mistakes then.


Catriona McPherson said...

Great post, Robin. And good for you in using US readers to iron out the potential mistakes - I don't know why everyone doesn't use a local to check the glitches. There are US writers writing about the UK - good successful writers - that I can't stand to read because I know that ten times in a book I'm going to be faced with the illusion crumbling.

Susan C Shea said...

You're so right. At times it isn't the literal truth but the credibility of the setting as a whole. I moved a hospital in Santa Fe but no one screamed at me because if it had been on that block, the surroundings would have looked precisely as I wrote them. If someone took major liberties with "my" Manhattan, it would yank me out of the story in a New York minute!

RJ Harlick said...

Sounds like you have great fun doing your research, Robin.

Paul D. Marks said...

The social subculture is the hardest part. Slang changes so rapidly it's hard to keep up. Great piece, Robin.