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.

And now…

I need to go and see a man about a dog.


(And yes. I just illustrated my point, without even mentioning technicolor yawns.)


  1. And this is where magic happens. If the magic system and availability allow for them, these sorts of problems can be dealt with. Forget whether or not magic lets you launch fireballs; does it allow you to create a decanter of endless water that puts out 100 gpm of fresh water indefinitely?

    1. A DM I played with once gave somebody a joke item in the treasure trove we’d found. A +1 tea strainer. Wouldn’t hurt a monster, but it made a *really good* cup of tea.

      Everybody had a good laugh. Then they discovered it would purify water- -as long as you were making tea with it.

      It ended up the most useful magic item in the campaign. And we all developed a taste for tea…

      1. I will see your tea strainer and raise you… a spoon.

        The story of the spoon is a silly one. It came about almost purely by happenstance (and perhaps an excess of blood in the caffeine system) late one night/early one morning.

        The party had, as their usual, triumphed, if only by the slimmest of hairs. Pirates all dead. Unspeakable creatures summoned by the unsuspected necromage, dispatched. Water-trolls flambe-ed. Et cetera, et cetera. Party members still on their feet, hand and knees, or supine but breathing commenced to the ritual of gathering up the fallen and tending their wounds. Once it was apparent that no further violence was in the offing, *finally* the good part.

        The looting, that is. A pile of various stabby things, smashing things, and generally valuable looking things appeared as if by magic, and by magic I mean the detect kind. So here we have a nifty sword, a so-so cloak, some definitely magical liquids stored in potion shaped containers…. and a spoon.

        A what?

        A spoon. A magical spoon.

        So what does it do? And we tried to figure it out. We even poked it with a stick. You could eat soup with it. Or stir tea. That seemed to be about it… Until the halfwit got ahold of it. I mean the barbarian. And I really do mean halfwit- he was cursed, you see. Half as smart and wise as he should by rights have been- which wasn’t very smart and wise, going by what we could tell. He stuck it in the dirt and then stuck it in his mouth.

        Cue surprised look.

        “It tastes like bread!” He exclaims. And tries to get the rest of us to try it.

        “No, we are not eating any more of your freaking mud pies!” (full disclosure: we were desperate, and starving. We got better).

        But it did work, mind. The spoon removed poison and made anything in it edible or drinkable. Stir it in a cup of foulness, moments later you get fresh water. Or you could eat dirt. All the same to the spoon. Dropping it in a saltwater lake would be a bad idea, over time. Or a privy.

        The spoon was used for some I am quite certain unintended purposes. It was once used to eat a small gelatinous cube to death (improvised weapon. Only magical thing we had on us at that moment). One hit point at a time. It cured a water elemental’s insanity. It got the halfwit a job as a royal taster once, while his player was away.

        There were hints, later on, that the spoon might have had a darker history. As in cannibalism and suchlike. I actually miss that group and our games now- at the time we went from at each other’s throats to us vs. the world, but I’ll say this, those nights were never boring.

      2. Whatever the rule books say, there are a LOT of clerics in all D&D worlds. Maternal and infant mortality rates are down to a level where women can risk their lives on the front line.

        Not just healing, but crop magic, too. And water purification.

  2. Regardless of what idiots and savants say, nobody reads -fiction- to hear about Reality(tm). No one ever uses the toilet in fiction, except as a joke. The details of various ailments and conditions, like scurvy ferinstance, are enough to make an ER doc heave the book against the wall.

    People want to know “interesting” and “atmospheric” details about tuberculosis in an historic fiction, they do not want to know how it -really- is. I will spare y’all the thing that’s making me shudder right now while I type this, sometimes in education you find out stuff you really don’t want to know. Ew.

    1. It’s really a function of time.

      Sure, pour water into beer like a boilermaker, start quaffing immediately, and the alcohol won’t protect you much.
      Top off a half-empty keg in the evening, and drink it over the next several days, and you’re golden.

      1. It may be a function of the alcoholic beverage being a microculture until the ethanol gets high enough to kill off the yeast. Pickling and sourdough operates on the same principle.

        That said, there are records of water use and consumption. It’s interesting to note that pamphlets for settlers to the Americas stated the water had to be “corrected” by either adding a bit of alcoholic beverage or plunging in red hot iron.

        1. an evolving microculture: make your wine slowly,adding the sugar a bit at a time, and the yeast evolves to a higher alcolhol tolerance before it finally gets killed off. Or so I was told, years ago when I did play with such things.

  3. This is one of the things I considered about my nonhumans, who are not all that far removed from their hyena-oid ancestors, and to this day can occasionally be found living rough in the woods. Their digestive tract can handle bones without difficulty; it probably also kills off just about everything that lives in water. They’re highly resistant to pathogens in general.

    Which is probably why the one plague-level disease (which is to say, the only one tough enough to beat their immune systems) also has a high mortality rate.

  4. That’s one reason I emphasized the clean water that made Vindobona so unusual in the first four Colplatschki books. Because it WAS unusual. You could drink water in the city and not get the trots, even in summer. Now, do not drink from the river. But (spoiler) I modeled Vindobona’s water system on Sienna, Italy’s Roman system, with a bit of Cologne’s tossed in. If you really start looking into hydro-engineering in Medieval Europe, it turns out that more people were aware of the importance of boiling or brewing with water than we used to think. However, opportunity was the problem, along with fuel. And if you are with an army, you’ll drink what you can find and hope they watered the livestock downstream.

    1. There was a point in time (in the 1200’s?) when London had really wonderful water. The city was piping in spring water or something. Had a nice new sewer system too.

      But then the city outgrew the water supply, and things got crappy again.

      1. …and London had (from several major underground aquifers, I think) a fairly large number of wells at major street intersections.
        One of the classic bits of epidemiological history was the detective work necessary to figure out, in 1854, just which well was the source of ‘bad water’ that was causing a much higher than normal rate of cholera in that area.

        1. Something doesn’t quiet square here, and part of it comes from an ancestor’s comment on water and the Civil War. Yes, there was water borne illness. Hoo boy, there were water borne illnesses. Yet there was also water consumption, from directly at the stream to springs to wells to in the cup. Yes, they drank a lot of ale; that’s a point of history. But I’m starting to suspect something besides realizing the water wasn’t so hot was going on. Maybe the higher caloric intake from ethanol? Maybe just liking a slight buzz? Maybe the soft drink effect: “Things go better with ale?”

          I don’t know, but there’s a feeling of not getting the full picture.

          1. Diversity of safety of water sources – the locals knew which were sweetwater and safe. But people choose to live in, or travel through, many places where there are no sweetwater springs or streams, so knowing how to make water reasonably safe is important too.

            Another factor might be a diversity of immune system robustness between populations due to genetic, environmental, stress factors, so that some groups of people can drink the water and others can’t.

  5. Stop giving away all our trade secrets!

    Seriously, you can tell some writers exactly how to do it – and they still can’t. There is some artistry still involved.

    I run on a knife’s edge: my heroine is chronically ill – and deals with it. The trick is to never let the reader forget she’s dealing with it, while not rubbing the reader’s nose in it so that it’s boring or exhausting. When the reviews indicate they think she’s heroic for dealing with it, but comment how hard she tries to not let it affect life, I’m on the right path.

    But it’s not decoration or a character trait – it’s integral to the plot, and that’s the more important part: how do you reveal the parts of the plot that matter when many of them are grim? Without chasing readers away? The advertising copy give me nightmares.

    1. I can see some folks seriously making that argument. The thing is, and I have no data to back this up, that the market for good books is far from saturated.

      Well, the ones *I* like that is. There’s plenty enough diversifantasy of all genres, far as I can tell. But how many of us have said, FavortieAuthor, write faster! I need my fix! *chuckle*

    2. After I finished Isabelle and the Siren, I went around telling everyone in hailing distance that I was never doing THAT again.

      THAT being write a story where the point of view character is depressed, so that I have to convey to the reader that the character finds life dull and miserable without making the story dully and miserable.

  6. “I often wonder if the popularity of tea might have something to do with the boiled water involved.”

    In the California Gold Rush, cholera was a continual problem. Except for the Chinese miners, who preferred tea. (Not that other miners learned from that, but it was noted.)

    1. The Gold Rush preceded by a few years both the John Snow’s experiment during the Broad Street cholera outbreak and the widespread adoption of the germ theory of disease.

  7. “I often wonder if the popularity of tea might have something to do with the boiled water involved.”

    The author of the book “Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain” mentions much the same thing in the her chapter on Drink. Prior to tea and coffee, people in Britain mostly drank alcoholic beverages of one sort or another which tended to be safer than plain water. In Roman times at least people were also aware that water that had been boiled was better for drinking.

    While I’m on the subject, I strongly recommend that book for anyone interested in learning more about the eating and drinking habits (and a bit about the trade networks required for supporting those habits) of a society on the frontier of a per-industrial civilization. I found it to be both very enjoyable and very informative. I’m not sure if it’s okay to include an Amazon link for this sort of thing… not really sure *how* to include a link to be honest, just cut and paste I imagine? At any rate, the particulars: Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain by H.E.M. Cool

    1. It’s not just that they were safer. It was also that, pre-refrigation, you had a beverage, then you would in very short order have an alcoholic beverage (or a spoiled one, of course).

      There’s a reason why the Bible talks about “new wine.” not grape juice.

  8. We should keep in mind that even during the mid 1860s, there was a poor understanding of sanitation. When the Confederacy had to use horse hair as suture, doctors noticed the wounds had a lower incidence of infection. We now know that it was because the hair was boiled to make it pliable, and somewhat sterilized it, but back then it was a mystery.

    1. And WWI, for that matter.

      It took a while for the concept to spread, and a lot longer before people quit hooting in derision. “Invisible bugs that make you sick! Pull the other one…” And the always popular “We’ve always done it this way.”

      1. And “that’s a Prussian idea. We’ll go with the Bavarian theory, because Prussia!” (See, Hamburg Cholera Outbreak vs. Koch’s germ theory)

  9. On the subject of TMI and taking advantage of it, if your characters ever need to sneak into some place, disguise them as sewer technicians here to deal with a serious backup in one of the toilets. Readers will not find it unrealistic that no one asks them for any details…

    1. Aye, take on the “crap” (even merely figuratively) jobs and you get left alone, lest any interloper get drafted or you decide that if they have such ‘better ideas’ they can bloody do it themselves.

      1. There was a short story, probably from back in the 1970s, about a troubleshooter sent to an asteroid. The man who ran the sanitary facilities was on strike, because nobody else on the asteroid would talk to him or his family – a stigma against waste handling had developed on the asteroid, and talking to people on other asteroids (who weren’t shunning him) via radio/video was insufficient reaction.

        The story ended with the troubleshooter being persona non grata socially on the asteroid, both for having personally talked face-to-face with the sanitation engineer, as well as for having pushed the button himself that started the processing.

  10. I’ve stopped reading authors who use rape as a literary device to show how gritty and realistic is their made-up world.

    Don’t care. Don’t want it. Don’t want to empathize with the main character as she gets raped. Don’t want to empathize with the main character as his love interest gets raped. Fills me with anger. But not at the characters in the novel that are committing the rape, but at the author who decided I needed to read something like that in the midst of a book I was, up to that point, enjoying.

    I find my feelings towards that character never recovers, I keep an emotional distance as I’m reading and I go from being invested in the character and riding along with that character’s life as if I’m part of the character to being a clinical observer.

    It may or not be realistic, don’t care. It pushes me away.


    1. Okay, I admit to using attempted rape off-screen. The intended victim ended up with a sore foot and commented the perp screamed like a little girl.

    2. Which is what put me off the Thomas Covenant books – the rape scene in _Lord Foul’s Bane_ made me dislike the protagonist so much I had absolutely no interest in reading the rest of his story.

      Note that I’m not saying that it’s impossible that some writer could include it in a book in a way that made sense (and didn’t disgust a large group of potential readers) – just that Donaldson managed to turn me away from his first major series (and, to a lesser extent, anything else he writes) with that scene. Granted, I’d *already* got tired of Covenant’s self-pity, even if it was, to a large extent, warranted.

      But I might have slogged on through if he hadn’t been moved from my “self-pitying and whiny” to “I won’t say I don’t care if you *die* – I want it to be slow and painful” category.

      1. Oh, for real fun try his Gap series. It’s basically the same theme, but more of it: How far can you degrade a human being??

  11. I think time-bound stories are a bit different. Both 24 and The DaVinci Code were supposed to be taking place in real-time and the characters never ate, used a toilet or got stuck in traffic. I suppose 24 has an excuse: It happened during the commercial breaks.

    Or when it advances the plot. I’m thinking about a great scene in which a cowboy comes to Denver and encounters his first flush toilet (and promptly gets kicked out of the boarding house for trying to flush ever larger things down it).

    But, that having been said, I agree: The trick is to throw in enough to make the reader _think_ you are describing everything without actually doing it.

  12. Adding in these sorts of gritty necessities can be useful plot-wise. I needed the _nice_ good guy to shine a bit, so disaster struck while the bad-ass good guy was taking a dump. So the nice guy shone, and the bad-ass got a moment of character development when he threatened to damage the nice guy if he ever told his girlfriend he’d been caught with his pants down.

  13. A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage. Recommended to everyone who’s talked of beverages here.

  14. Dave, you need to pull out the part beginning “Here’s the thing” and polish it a bit as an essay. It’s really good advice, and helpful

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