That’s sort of what this post is about, as in it’s not quite true, but there is some truth in it. Rather like posing the title as a riddle, “How is a DIY project the same as writing a story?” Answer: It isn’t. Except when it is.
No wonder I have trouble with titles. Regardless, and I will get to the point eventually, let’s start with home improvement. When we moved into this house there was a sunroom that had been only partially renovated. That is, it had sheetrock, but no window sills, door/window casing, trim, paint or flooring. There were several other priorities to deal with first, but finally it was the sunroom’s turn. Painting was no problem, as I’ve done a lot of it over the years. I was equally confident that I could redo the floor, since I’ve had experience at that as well. However, I’d never done the finish work on windows or doors. So I did a bit of research and then got to it. I had two of the windows completely finished and then First Reader took a look at my work. She then said (and I paraphrase slightly):
“Wow. It’s almost like you knew what you were doing.”
Bear in mind that First Reader is a perfectionist and doesn’t praise lightly. What I thought but didn’t say was “Of course. I’m a fiction writer. I know how to fake it.”
Which in this context is referring to the process of writing and writers in general. We do our research, which for some of us is the fun part. A history geek or a physics buff is going to get to read what they might read for pleasure anyway and then apply it to the project at hand. You use specific knowledge to lay down the society in broad strokes using the occasional telling detail that places the reader in that time or that place. Yet at some point you’re going to hit something that wasn’t covered in any of the texts. It could be something big or something small, but you’re on your own…only you’re not. If you truly have done your research, you draw on it to fill in the gaps. For instance, you may not know if the asobi class in Heian Japan were doing z, but you do know they were doing x and y, so z is a reasonable extrapolation, but you only know that because you did your homework. It may or may not be true, but in context it’s plausible, which for story verisimilitude is even more important. Otherwise your assumption is no more than what my old polymer chemistry professor referred to as a “WAG Factor.” i.e. Wild Ass Guess. The problem with those is that there’s a good chance they’ll not only be wrong, but so very wrong that everything after them falls apart. You do not want that.
So a finished window that works is a lot like a finished story that works. You look like you knew what you were doing even if that’s not quite true. Ever. But if you do your homework, it’s true enough to get the job done.
Quick Reminder: Since I’m now on a weekly schedule with the Story Time page, on Wednesday the 27th of September, “Crack’d From Side to Side” will be replaced by something else. If you haven’t read it already, time is ticking.