You’re lucky I am posting at all tonight, as I have at the moment it seems insufficient blood for my brain for much thinking. Most of it seems to be hovering around my Gastro-intestinal tract. We have a nasty batch of Gastric ‘flu that has swept the island (and Melbourne for that matter. It was in the papers a few days ago, illustrating the subtle difference between Oz and the US.) As I’m a Volunteer Ambulance Officer, and my wife works in the Doctor’s surgery (and yes, it hasn’t skipped him, either) it’s one of life’s inevitable issues. Only people with toddlers in pre-school are more in the target zone.
Now, as my main thought tonight is “how far am I from the porcelain throne, and have I brought a big enough bowl along?” I thought I’d write about something derived from that, seeing as my American cousins blanch at the idea of describing gastro – but will cheerfully write the most detailed description of oral sex. British humor is more scatological than American. For British colonial, multiply that by two. It can cause some confusion. I remember some American visitor of youth asking for ‘the bathroom’ – and being conducted to it. There was no flushing convenience in there…
And yet… if we’re talking fantasy-worlds with horses and knights and whatever… well, let’s put this way: the bloody flux killed more people than any battle ever did. And every time I read fantasy about people drinking water – or filling water bottles in villages and towns – I go ‘Oh shit!’ for good reason. I often wonder if some of the more insane deeds of yesteryear owe their doing to the fact that the street was the sewer and washed down into the river, from whence came all the water. You drank alcohol not just because it made you see toothless women through beer-glasses (quite common before oral hygene – the fan flirted behind was in no small part to hide the state of the teeth in high society that could afford sweet things but knew little of oral hygiene. Even I blench talking of the dentistry of ‘the good old days’.) Alcohol was literally safer to drink than water. Small-beer or watered wine – or just a mug of porter or goblet of Gascony got you going in the morning. It was that or water, which could really get you going.
I often wonder if the popularity of tea might have something to do with the boiled water involved.
Anyway, I wasn’t actually going to post about the potty-details. I was simply using them to make a point, and not just about the traps and pit-falls of different cultures within the Anglosphere.
That point is that realism in fiction – often praised… is actually seldom sought.
Here’s the thing. Reality is FULL of TMI. And a lot of it, if it isn’t revolting, is BORING. Kind of like the twitter account that details every single thing, reality actually comes largely as something skipped for the exciting bits. Now, SOMETIMES readers actually want realism in these exciting bits. But they want the good realism or the bad realism and not the actual thing. Trust me on this. There really are limits. There are ‘exciting’ bits of my life as a Medic you really don’t want to go through, even vicariously. And there are far worse things.
What you’re trying to do is a very difficult balancing act no one ever tells you about or explains. You’re trying to distil time and distance, and the reality of the human condition into ‘the interesting bits – but not the wrong bits of that.’ And what is the wrong bit? Well I’m stuffed if I can tell you. I just know it when I see it – by the fact I’d rather not. Graphic sex that literally reads like an IKEA instruction schedule comes to mind. When you actually sit down and STUDY books praised for their realism, you’ll pick up a constant pattern – no matter how different the books – of the authors tricking the reader into believing they’re giving a detailed and often graphic description of a real event. Often with what would be termed ‘gritty’ details, bordering on the TMI line.
If they’re good it is crafted into a seamless package, that feels ‘real’ (even if you have never experienced that reality). The key is in having enough very precise but often discrete details – some at least of which the reader will recognize and identify with – so they believe and accept AND FILL IN THE BLANKS. Really. It’s not damn IKEA instructions. The writer pictured – and smelled and felt and feared/loved it in his head – and gave you details so you can produce your picture (which may well not be his picture).
Take your favorite piece of realism. Read it sentence for sentence, from the end to the beginning. Learn how to do this. It’s largely something writers to instinctively, but understanding it doesn’t make you worse at it. It makes you better.
I need to go and see a man about a dog.
(And yes. I just illustrated my point, without even mentioning technicolor yawns.)