The Fine Art of Faking It

Let’s face it, no writer can possibly be an expert in every subject she needs in order to make her project work. Sometimes, unless she wants to be severely constrained in the range and depth of what she wants to do, she has to fake it.

This is an art much more than a science. It takes a fair amount of education, and a whole lot of observation, and not a little intuition. Research is essential, of course, but knowing when to stop digging and start writing is a serious skill.

So is knowing how far you can get away with making stuff up. Guesswork is sometimes essential, but educated guesswork is, again, a skill. The real challenge is to do it well enough that it passes muster with a real expert.

Since this is the Horseblog, let me give you an example from a recent television show. I happen to like the show very much, and it’s well written. But a recent episode set off my Nope detectors.

The plot of the episode was standard. I believe every cop or mystery show has used a version of it at least once. Cops investigating a murder or suicide involving a barn fire. Horses are killed. Detective work ensues, with suitable number of twists and turns.

One of the twists, since this is a young show (only a few episodes in), is meant to establish character. The main character, it turns out, grew up around horses. “My dad was a farrier,” he says. Good, they know that word, which is appropriate for the area and the occupation. Now he’s trying to save the one horse that survived the fire. Good, he’s a horseman. He cares. Maybe too much: the horse is severely burned. More character development, and some conflict with other characters over it. Good writers, have a burnt cookie.

So far so, well, good. But this is where the show went off the rails into Nope territory.

First the horse is shown lying down, in the same position in every scene, apparently for days.

Um, no. A horse can’t stay down that long. The internal organs can’t take it. She would be lifted up ASAP and if necessary hung in a sling, because a horse is built and designed to remain upright for long periods. Supposing this was a writer and not a production decision, it could have been determined by calling a local vet clinic and asking them to describe the treatment for this specific kind of injury. The clinic would probably be glad to answer, especially in return for tv credits. (And from the looks of the set, they did use a real clinic; it probably had the equipment on site.)

Next, a key plot point is that the horse is supposedly a “champion show horse,” but there are signs of neglect that indicate that the owner has not been paying the kind of attention that owners pay to their show animals. Again, somebody paid attention and was trying to find a plot point that went down a level or two of expertise. But on the screen, it doesn’t go far enough.

One sign pointed to is “Teeth need floating,” i.e. horse is in evident need of dentistry. Good, but the actor (probably sensibly enough, but) just looks at the incisors. To check for teeth that need floating, you run your thumb up inside the mouth along the gum line, searching for sharp points that may be lacerating the cheeks and making chewing difficult. It’s a classic and familiar gesture to a horse person. The actor does not do this. The gesture he does use might be used to check a horse’s age (angle of incisors is indicative, though you want to open the mouth next and look at the wear on the teeth in general), or it might also be used to check the color of the gums (indicates health or lack thereof of the circulatory system, can point to dehydration or shock among other things–which would be germane to a horse with burn injuries).

The other sign, which allows the character to note his parentage, is that the horse’s feet have been neglected. “She’s a month overdue for the farrier.”

Foot neglect is indeed a clear sign of overall neglect, but a month (three or four weeks), while indicative of a trained eye (since it requires knowing how fast hooves grow, and what they look like when they’re overgrown versus, say, shod for a discipline that rewards or requires long or built-up feet), is by no means the huge honking hairy deal the show tries to make it out to be. Farriers are independent cusses, and sometimes they just come late. Or they miss an appointment. Or they shoe the horse long. Or the horse grows hoof exceptionally fast. Or…

So on the one hand it’s a good piece of research, but this one I think is on the writers’ heads. They miss, or gloss over,  a couple of cues. A month is a bit short; six to eight weeks would be more indicative. They might have had the character notice that the shoes are loose, for example (sign they need to be reset), or that the horse’s hoof has grown over the shoe. The shoe itself might be worn thin, which is another indicator of overdue foot care (and may also mean the owner has been having the farrier reset the shoes, rather than putting new ones on every time, which is cheaper). And he might have put in a call to the farrier to verify that he hasn’t been out there in a while.

It’s a tiny detail, almost imperceptible, but with the teeth-checking gesture and the permanently recumbent horse adds up to: “Nope.”

Now it might not have been the writers’ fault. Production, in the interest of time and budget, might have cut corners, and lines, to make the writers look as if they missed some cues. And the actor might have refused to make the correct gesture for fear of getting his thumb chewed on. But the effect on the screen is to make a horse person go, “Nice, but no horse cookie.”

So why does it matter, really? It’s a good show. The writers went a bit further into horse knowledge than usual. It’s a nice touch to have the character be a horse person. They’re unlikely to lose any viewers because of a small bobble.

But suppose this had been a story or a book, and the writer had in fact been faking it. She did her research, found out a couple of key facts, then wrote the story based on those facts. Her research didn’t go quite far enough. Still not a big deal, right? It’s just horse people rolling their eyes, giving her props for trying, and moving on. She might never know she didn’t get it right. It’s not as if any babies would die because she underestimated how long a horse can miss seeing the farrier before it becomes a case of clear neglect (plus all the ramifications that might have fed into the plot, if the writer had known more about the subject).

Now suppose the writer’s research in general tends to operate this way. Do some research, grab enough to push the plot forward, move on. Wikipedia and a couple of websites will do it. No need to delve into the subject, just get what’s needed.

Which is good enough for government work, right? Nobody wants to bog down so far in research that nothing happens on the writing front, especially if there’s a deadline and a publisher waiting. A few small bobbles noticeable only to diehard fans and lifelong experts can be expected and excused; nobody needs to be an expert in everything. Besides, it’s just a romp; it’s meant to entertain, not to be a treatise on the subject. The more so if it’s fantasy–isn’t that the genre that lets you make stuff up?

Well, yes. And fair enough.

But what happens if the writer really isn’t paying close attention, and really doesn’t realize how little she knows about a subject, and chooses a subject that’s a bit more fraught than a farriery schedule? What if she chooses a real setting, either contemporary or historical, and writes about real events, which living people may remember, or may have heard about in detail from their elders? What if she’s convinced that she’s researched enough to write with authority about the setting and the events–but she’s in fact missed significant details? Can she still claim the “it’s just a romp” defense?

There have been a couple of celebrated cases recently, with authors writing about subjects and settings outside their familiar world and culture, and actual natives of these cultures standing up and voicing objections. The writers’ defense (especially in the case of the mega-multi-award winner) has proceeded pretty much as you might expect: “I did tons of research, I studied the subject extensively, my book is excellent, it’s won every award in the business/it’s sold tons and tons of copies, I don’t understand why everyone is so upset about it. And anyway, can’t they tell the difference between history and fiction?”

That’s the thing. Yes, a writer has to write what she has to write, and writing only her own experience can be extremely confining. But the writer who misses basic details, or doesn’t recognize the difference between a lot of research and actually internalizing that research, is going to get called on it. And those calls can be very painful, writers being the sensitive, living-with-skin-off types that they are.

It’s a kind of arrogance to declare that getting it right doesn’t matter, it’s just a romp. And a kind of blindness to assume that one’s own culture and traditions and attitudes, right down to what people eat for breakfast, is universal and doesn’t need to be confirmed. The writer who gets it right will know what to include and what to glide over–and will have a feeling for what’s appropriate to the setting or the characters.

She will also recognize the importance of talking to experts in subjects that are key to the work, and above all, listening to them. Hearing what they have to say. Leaving assumptions at the door. Making no value judgments and being very careful not to assume that one or two facts and a Wikipedia article will be enough to pass–but also not assuming that ten years in a library, or several hundred books and articles, can substitute for a genuine understanding of the subject.

Sometimes too much research is even worse than too little. It creates the illusion of expertise, but too often it shows that the writer accumulated a lot of facts, lined up a lot of names and dates and places, but didn’t stop to think about what it’s really like to be a person who lives in those places. Worse, the writer doesn’t know, or worse, care that her own attitudes and beliefs and culture are not necessarily applicable to the time and place she’s writing about. When the facts run counter to her own cultural biases, she either tweaks them to fit, or else slants her characters and story toward her personal bias. Only the villains smoke or own slaves, for example, and the “good” characters think, talk, and act like modern suburban Americans who are considered to be of good character.

There are ways to make this work–angles to take that will both be true to the setting and the culture and be accessible to the modern audience. But in order to find those angles, the writer has to be aware of her own biases. That’s where the art comes in. Knowing what you know–and more important, what you don’t know. And knowing where to go to find the answers. It’s not just a point of honor. It can save the writer pain when someone stands up and says loudly and in excruciating detail, “Nope!

Get it right the first time, and the cookies are much better, and much more plentiful. And the writer only has to deal with the more ordinary sort of not-so-great review.

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The Fine Art of Faking It — 8 Comments

  1. In the film version of War Horse, this thoroughbred yearling colt is bucky and refusnik when taken away from his dam at the auction to be sold for owner’s profit. It’s really hard to believe he hasn’t been at least halter and lead trained, but evidently not. Then suddenly he is. Weird. Taken off to World War I, Joey is still an intact stallion. Not that I know whether the English fools riding in a cavalry charge upon their own mounts against gatling guns would have had intact stallions for such a job or not … but when Joey and his intact stallion buddy are taken off by the Germans to pull ambulances and then artillery — would they have employed intact stallions? IOW, their condition as stallions has no role in the heartwarming story of a horse and the many who fall in love with him — even enemies! — War Horseis telling, but it’s hard for some of us not to consider these issues, which throws us out of the story.

    Then there’s lovely Angus, Merida’s horse in Brave — this is supposedly the 8th, or 9th or 10th century, and Angus is a Clydesdale ….

    Love, C.

  2. I had the same reactions to the episode! And it would have been so easy to fix it — OK, the actor didn’t want to stick fingers into the horse’s mouth, drop the line. Change the shoeing remark to “way overdue for shoes”, or “that horse is wearing the wrong kind of shoes for a cuttin’ horse.” A farrier’s kid would know that.

    Oh well. They really are trying. Take-away: be less specific when you’re faking it.

  3. I drive my husband crazy with fact-checking horse stuff, but I figure it evens out when he starts muttering about tanks and planes. 🙂 I think he’s finally stopped rolling his eyes after “300” (“That’s a Friesian. The Persians wouldn’t have had Friesians.”), “The Wolfman” (“There’s no way a London cab horse, even a pair-in-hand, would have had manes that long.”), and the latest Sherlock Holmes movie (“They used real driving bits! They didn’t just shove in any old bit when those are supposed to be Gypsy cart horses.”).

    I’ve always thought that historical fiction must be pretty touch to write because of the too much/not enough research problem you state here. My mother has a whole shelf full of historical romances featuring kings and queens of England that are… okay. There are definitely some research issues going on there!

  4. Oh yeah. Big sighs are the name of the game when you know about a subject, and it’s being mangled in print or on the screen.

    There are writers who seriously believe that “It’s just a romp!” is a full and complete defense. I gave up on educating them years ago. But the writers who want to have it both ways–who want to write what they want and have fun, but who are seriously hurt and offended when called on their (sometimes egregious) mistakes–in my mind don’t deserve a pass. Nor do the ones who are Absolutely Sure it’s right, and when corrected, refuse to accept the corrections.

    It is hard to both get it right and have fun, and make sure the readers have fun, too. But then, if it’s that hard, maybe the writer needs to stick to her own time and culture? And as Beth said, when she does have to fake it, walk the delicate line between picking the right detail and being just general enough about the detail to avoid triggering the Nope! response.

  5. The longer a scene stays on the screen, or the more words it takes, the better the chance that someone with specific knowledge in those areas will notice the clinkers. After ten years of IT support inside two major urban hospital systems, I picked up enough information by osmosis to spot a number of fakes that could have been avoided with ten minutes of talk with someone who knows their job, and is open to a bit of schmoozing.

    Severe burns are a major crisis for humans, but we have specialized burn centers for the critical stuff. Unfortunately, medevac, ORs, and treatment rooms are sized for people, not horses. Those types of facilities are pretty much limited to elite veterinary teaching hospitals. In my neighborhood, that would be Michigan State University.

    Severe burns require lots of saline IDs to restore fluid to damaged cells. Plenty of antibiotics to fight off potential infections when the horse is so weakened. Burn dressings to protect the outer skin. If flames were inhaled, the horse would have to be put on a ventilator. I’ve seen things like that for people in burn units, along with around-the-clock nursing. A horse would need the same thing, but lots more of it.

    This works wonders with the budget, or word count. Editors and producers would say to just fake it with some “rubber medicine” because who on earth would ever notice something obscure like that?

    My grandfather was drafted into the Austrian army in WW1 at the age of 17. By law, he could not be sent to the front until he was 18, so the first year of his service was spent well in the rear, doing support work. As a farm lad, he went into cavalry. His particular job was to look over all the incoming horses, and pick out good-looking ones and train them as mounts for officers who had little or no equestrian experience.

    He saw what modern weaponry did to horses and men operating at basically the Napoleonic level. He decided he wanted to be as far away from the battle as he could get, so he joined the artillery. Even there, draft horses were used up like ammunition, just not as quickly as line cavalry.

    He also started a family tradition where my father and I both volunteered for the artillery rather than something more “up close and personal”. Ammo is cheap, life is precious.

  6. In my writing classes, I always tell pupils that there are several areas where they must, MUST be absolutely correct: horses, guns and fashion. Because in all three fields there are maniacal experts who will call you on any error. (And the gun nuts are heavily armed!) It is easy enough to get expert input on just about any subject in these Internet days; if there is not a chapter of the National Rifle Association in your region you must live in Soho. And most experts are happy to give advice, if you tell them you’re a writer.

  7. Sometimes the only way to fudge is to have a non-educated POV observing the thing in question, whether it’s horses, guns, military uniforms, court etiquette, or how to bake a seven layer cake. Because our lives aren’t long enough to get every detail right, much fun as it is to splash around in history.

  8. I think for me the hallmark of good research is that it’s research all the way to the bottom. Surface facts – however many – will never give a feel of authenticity. It’s the ice on the inside of windows, the mice in the cupboards, the flimsyness of doors that will make (or break) a story for me. And often little things – or things that are specific to this time and place – will provide plot opportunities that history-aware writers use, and surface writers ignore: ways to slow down or spy on an enemy, hiding places, reasons to slow down a journey deliberately or ‘coincidentally,’ opportunities for characters to show their true colours, good or bad…