Faking It

Just so you are aware before you get pulled too far into the vortex, today’s post is brought to you by the wonders of insufficient sleep and excess brain flatulence. Or something. Aka I can’t think of anything sensible to say so I’m going to ramble a bit about faking it in writing.

“It” of course being the deep knowledge of thousands of interlocking specialties we writers pretend to have while we’re writing about them.

Of course, very few authors have that kind of knowledge, and fewer still can resist the urge to… hm… show off? The rest of us mere mortals might have a few areas we’re good on, but anything else it’s a shallow skin of knowledge, just enough to get into trouble with.

So, if we’re to write believably about pretty much anything we don’t know intimately, we have to fake it. Let’s say for the sake of argument that you’re intimately familiar with early Ottoman Imperial culture. You might know a lot about the architecture of new buildings, the manners of the Imperial court, the various courtly and administrative ranks. You’re probably also pretty familiar with the social structure and who ranked where. You may even be familiar with the military. That’s going to leak out in what your characters wear, what they say, how they say it – even if you’re writing in English, you’ll use approximations of the idioms of the times, perhaps.

But when you need to write about… oh, the intrigues and a possible murder mystery (I’m making this up on the fly, so it’s a pretty crap setting/plot idea. I’m trying to illustrate the point) involving an envoy from a different culture, like Russia/Kievan Rus (depending on precisely how early Ottoman we’re talking) or possibly one of the Khanates, or even Hungary or the Papal States, as well as said envoy’s retinue. In that case, you have to cover a second culture with enough depth that it feels real, as well as give the impression of the stranger in a strange land.

Which of course leads to faking it.

There are any number of techniques you can use. I personally prefer to learn enough about what I’m faking that I can drop a few evocative details in that give the impression of a whole lot more. Things like character A thinking that they really must warn the visitors that the fashions of their home city will give entirely the wrong impression, because in this part of the world only prostitutes show that much bosom. Or that the heavy fabrics the Russian ambassador favors will cause him severe health issues by summer. And so on.

One or two exotic ingredients goes a long way, and not just in the food. The startled visitor discovering new foods and beverages – and flavors, which are, thankfully, more or less impossible to describe because taste does not translate well to language, at least when the language is English. The clash between different styles of clothing and different levels of coverage. Just imagine the fun you can have when a group of women who are convinced that men will collapse if they see an uncovered ankle (but have no issue with necklines that only barely prevent fallout) run into a group of women whose culture tells them that proper maidenly virtue is preserved by concealing their hair.

Of course if your perverse muse-type-critter decides to throw you a military book and you know buggerall about military anything, you need to be a bit more imaginative to fake it. Taking the perspective of someone who isn’t part of said military and is mostly adjacent to the action is one way of dealing with it. Another, especially if you’re writing fantasy or far-enough-future is to create your own rank system – just make sure the bloody thing is internally consistent and take notes – and work out what the ranks mean. If you’re going for near-future, read up on one nation’s military and work with that, then have someone who’s either a veteran or a current service member fact check you.

As long as you get enough things right and you tell a good enough story with interesting enough characters, people will forgive the occasional oops – but if you don’t try to fake it well enough to look like it’s for real, you will have… displeased… readers.


  1. I am allergic to serious math, but I’ve learned enough tidbits of science to make my science-fiction sound like I actually know what I’m talking about.

  2. YouTube is a great resource for faking it. You can see how the blacksmith hold’s a horse’s hoof, how wild pigs run, and how mud can liquefy in a landslide. It’s annoying to take notes from, because you have to keep hitting pause, but my professors never paused, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain.

    1. Oh my gosh, yes – everything from a popular mid-19th century ballroom dance, to cutting hay with a scythe, to what a sudden flash flood in the desert actually sounds like! Just a few small telling details will do…

  3. Dear Kate:

    Seeing as you are an expert at armoring characters, what product do you use to get rusty chain mail to a clean and silvery shine?

    The Brownish Knight.

    1. There were knightly orders that wore brown. Or at least the lay sergeants of the Knights Templar apparently wore brown or black.

      This brought to you by my effort to learn enough to fake a strong level of research into medieval Christianity. (I was specifically trying to find out about Saint’s days and feasts days observed by the Teutonic knights, the Templars, and might as well throw in the Hospitalliers. Regular wiki has a listing of modern observances broken down by Catholic subgroup, but I haven’t dug very far yet.)

      Processing last night’s take, I’ve learned that one of my older vampire characters is Orthodox, but of a branch that denies some recent liturgical calendar reforms. And I’ve got a scene to add to the outline.

      1. There’s an interesting product that turns iron oxide into some kind of ferrous phosphate compound that prevents more rusting. I use it once a year on the frame and bucket of my tractor. Once formed, it’s black in color and kind of rubbery.

        1. I have some called Evaporust, which was excellent at removing gnarly rust from some antique plane blades and auger bits I had kicking around the place. chewed off even the worst pitting in 24 hours. Would work a treat on chain mail, for sure.

          There’s another one I used on the fenders of my 47 Ford “project” aka scrap pile, it paints on and stays on. Makes a nice hard primer, and works more like what you’re talking about. PolyRust? Polysomething? Not sure.

      2. I’ve seen claim, origin very uncertain, that mal was put in tubs of sand and the tub rolled to get the rust out.

    2. Soak in vinegar for 2-3 days. Scrub with clean water and a piece of chainmail. Sand the bits of rust that are left in the crevices. Oil everything very well when finished.

  4. I agree, but to play devil’s advocate…
    There have been at least two generations steeped in the eternal now/culture is skin deep globalist/multiculturalism bilgewater. They react to Kipling like a vampire confronted with a cross.

    1. Those unfortunates are not really our target audience, or not mine anyway.

      But a quick bit of wading through the various sewers of SJW drivel like TOR, the MarySue, the Vilebog, and you can easily pick up enough buzzwords to fake your way to victory.

      The problem there is that last year’s Woke(tm) is next year’s RAAAACIST!!! Moving targets can’t be tracked by a book. They don’t change with the times, they stay as written.

      1. Oh, there’s no use bothering with that lot.

        The problem is that normal people have been heavily exposed to this poison, and tend to embrace the logical fallacy of argument to moderation.
        Worse, they do so reflexively, rather than bother thinking through the problem and the consequences thereof. While, I might add, bowing to the fallacious argument from authority.

        So, the concern is how to reach those who go along, and get along.

  5. On faking it, the one that aggravates me is an author making a character left handed if they don’t at least have a couple lefties that do similar things to your character and can comment on things you as a righty or not having done the tasks will miss.

    Reading about a lefty shooting a right-handed revolver, pistol or any type of rifle or light machine gun without problems is usually frustrating. Today in particular as I’m nursing a nasty, ejected down my shirt’s neck, case burn on my belly.

    1. “Today in particular as I’m nursing a nasty, ejected down my shirt’s neck, case burn on my belly.”

      Crew necks, not V-necks! ~:D I also generally go cotton not synthetic, because you never know. Weird shit happens on the range, and synthetic fibers melt and -stick- when they go on fire. (I watched the video of that guy who burned himself up in Washington, so very nasssty!) Cotton will burn, but it won’t stick.

      Gentlemen, warn your girlfriends about the hot brass and the cleavage issue or they will leave you. I have seen it in the wild, as it were. Didn’t happen to me, but I Was There.

      I shoot pistol rightie and rifle leftie. Machine guns can be an issue depending how they eject. FAL is roughly

      Bullpup rifles are a huge Left/Right issue, because a left-hander shooting a right-handed gun will get brass ejected into his ear. This is very bad, Preciousss. We hates that, we does. Of note, the FN P-90 ejects straight down, thereby obviating the left/right ear problem.

      Which begs the question, why mention dominant hand unless its a pivotal issue in the plot?

  6. There are bits of a poem stuck in my head, but my search-fu has evidently become weak. I’m relatively sure it’s Kipling.
    Thought I’d pick your brains.

    Includes the line approximations:
    “they made a hell on earth”
    “Once there was a people: there never will again!c

    1. Rudyard Kipling

      Macdonough’s Song
      “As easy as A B C”–A Diversity of Creatures”

      Whether the State can loose and bind
      In Heaven as well as on Earth:
      If it be wiser to kill mankind
      Before or after the birth–
      These are matters of high concern
      Where State-kept schoolmen are;
      But Holy State (we have lived to learn)
      Endeth in Holy War.

      Whether The People be led by The Lord,
      Or lured by the loudest throat:
      If it be quicker to die by the sword
      Or cheaper to die by vote–
      These are things we have dealt with once,
      (And they will not rise from their grave)
      For Holy People, however it runs,
      Endeth in wholly Slave.

      Whatsoever, for any cause,
      Seeketh to take or give
      Power above or beyond the Laws,
      Suffer it not to live!
      Holy State or Holy King–
      Or Holy People’s Will–
      Have no truck with the senseless thing.
      Order the guns and kill!
      Saying –after–me:–

      Once there was The People–Terror gave it birth;
      Once there was The People and it made a Hell of Earth
      Earth arose and crushed it. Listen, 0 ye slain!
      Once there was The People–it shall never be again!

  7. My rule of thumb is that you should avoid mistakes that could be fixed with one minute of googling.

    1. I usually go with five minutes of googling and a perusal of the Wikipedia article. That will usually avoid any mistakes that 90% of your readers will notice. For 95%, read a reputable, scholarly book on the topic.

  8. The big trick is to first read a lot about other societies — preferably primary source — to knock your block off so that you don’t just assume things are done the same.

    I remember a movie set in ancien regime France where a noble if not wealthy young man was talking to his father about the woman he had fallen in love with, and his father gives him his mother’s ring to pop the question.


    If the young man wanted to do something so scandalous as to marry for love, what he would do is go to his father and say he wanted to marry her, and then his father goes to the woman’s parents and discusses whether they can arrange it.

    I’ve read a précieuse fairy tale in which a noble young woman ends up the foster daughter of a shepherdess, and when a prince talks of marriage to her, she blushed and is ashamed of herself when she finds it attractive, when she KNOWS she should just send him to her (foster) mother. She collects herself and does the right thing. Even when he begs to her to tell him if it would make her unhappy if her mother agrees, she answers that a man who talks like that is virtuous, and with a virtuous husband, a daughter can not be unhappy.

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