Say it with me: verisimilitude!
What a beautiful word. One of the big responsibilities we have as writers is to do as much as we can to breathe reality into our inherently fictional worlds. Fiction writers must keep the reader enthralled by the spells we cast on the page; nonfiction writers have an even greater need to maintain the reader’s trust that everything they say is true.
The problem? “Write what you know” only goes so far. If every writer stuck to that mantra literally, we would have no science fiction. I don’t want to live in that world. From time to time, we must exceed the limits of our expertise and must do so in ways that don’t out us as inexpert in the milieu of the story.
Mystery and crime fiction are packed with potential pitfalls. Most of us writers who compose in the genre aren’t police officers or authorities in ballistics. The overwhelming majority of us have never committed the kinds of crimes we write about. How can we write about stabbings and detectives and shootings without sounding like big phonies?
If you read Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, you already know some of the answers. If you don’t, get thee to their web site. You can also order single issues or subscriptions for Nook. (And for Kobo and Kindle.) One of the regular columns in EQMM is Bill Crider’s “Blog Bytes.” Each month, he tells you about worthwhile blogs in the crime/mystery field. (While you’re at it, check out Mr. Crider’s web site and his works.) The February issue features two links that are of particular interest to writers.
BJ Bourg is responsible for Righting Crime Fiction, a very detailed blog in which he tells you how to write about police procedures and firearms with verisimilitude. This is a necessity for folks like me who respect the power of guns, but don’t have any around. Mr. Bourg is a gentleman after my own heart; he will sometimes illustrate his points with examples from his own work.
Do you know the difference between an automatic and semi-automatic pistol? Do you know what that thingy at the back of a revolver is called and how it functions? Do you know the most efficient and safest way to load a revolver? I know I don’t. Mr. Bourg is also kind enough to include videos that show you what proper gun operation looks like.
Mr. Crider also tells us about Law and Fiction, a blog that is written by lawyer Leslie Ann Budewitz. Ms. Budewitz is also a crime fiction writer and author of the award-winning book Books, Crooks and Counselors, a tome dedicated to informing writers about the way the law really works. She’s trying to help you with the whole verisimilitude thing, friends.
The Law and Fiction blog is dedicated to educating you about the law and how it may apply to your characters. She is also kind enough to suggest possible subplots for you. You never know; you may read her blog and hear your Muse whisper in your ear. Ms. Budewitz seems like a very good egg. She likes puns and spends a lot of time helping other writers. (Hey! Like me!)
Bill Crider, Crime Fiction, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, GWS Links for Writers
Title of Work and its Form: Red Letter Media, web site/media production company-type thing
Author: Mike Stoklasa
Date of Work: Um…for a long time?
Where the Work Can Be Found: Swing on over to the Red Letter Media site. It’s over here.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Mindset
Red Letter Media is the worst web site in the world. I haven’t been this disappointed in online reviews since my wife drove off a cliff because she was reading Rotten Tomatoes while she was driving a car after I severed its brake lines.
But seriously, Red Letter Media is an excellent resource for writers. Lots of folks contribute to RLM’s efforts, but it seems as though Mike Stoklasa is the primary force. Red Letter Media came to the public consciousness after its seventy-minute review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. With brutal honesty and film school attitude, Stoklasa (adopting the persona of the mumbly and homicidal Mr. Plinkett) dissects The Phantom Menace and explains in great detail why the movie sucks so much. (There’s no clear protagonist, the climax is cluttered and confusing, the dialogue sounds as though it was written by someone who had never met another person…)
Red Letter Media has created feature films (including 2010’s Feeding Frenzy) and a lot of creative shorts, but the Plinkett reviews are of particular interest to writers. What is wrong (and right) with Titanic? Why was Star Trek: Nemesis a kind of failure? Why shouldn’t we hate the 2009 Star Trek film? Mr. Plinkett lays it all down for you.
Stoklasa teamed with Jay Bauman to host an online review show called Half in the Bag. Mike and Jay are VCR repairmen who have been working on Mr. Plinkett’s VCR for roughly two years. In between fun interstitial scenes, the guys drink beer and review current movies. Do they hate everything? No. But when they do hate something, they have a reason why.
And there’s the rub. Stoklasa encourages the viewer to think about WHY they like or don’t like a given movie. Criticism is not a simple thumbs up/thumbs down. Real criticism considers the work in a social context, alongside other similar works and more. A real critic understands what the filmmaker set out to do and can elucidate how the filmmaker did or did not meet their goals. If you watch the Phantom Menace review, Stoklasa will nail home that Star Wars was effective, for example, because it begins with a silent representation of the Rebels’ weakness in the face of the Empire’s power. Without a single line of dialogue, Lucas let us know who the bad guys were and who the good guys were and that we were going to see a clash between powerful evil and plucky good. The Phantom Menace, by contrast, starts out with approximately six hours of dialogue about trade disputes and embargo proposals and interstellar negotiazzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Stoklasa and Bauman and the rest of the RLM team clearly have a lot of passion for storytelling and filmmaking. When creating their short films and features, they no doubt consider the very issues they raise in other works. (Although they have a lot less money than George Lucas does.)
What Should We Steal?
- Read with a critical viewpoint. It’s okay to turn off your brain once in a while, but you should have two tracks in your brain when you read. (Or watch a film.) Sure, you can simply enjoy the poem or short story or novel. That’s fine. At the same time, however, you should picture the writer at work and understand the choices he or she is making. The more you think about the choices of other writers, the better your choices will be!
- Conduct yourself with passion! I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think that Stoklasa makes as much money as he deserves as a result of his Red Letter Media efforts. (In a perfect world, Mr. Plinkett would keep the man in pizza rolls for life.) Because he followed his creative spark, he’s reached hundreds of thousands of people (if not a million) and it seems like he’s on a fun ride. Plus, he got to be in the room when his friend Rich Evans watched the Resident Evil series.)
Criticism, Jay Bauman, Mike Stoklasa, Mindset