What Rings True

When an author tries to write about a subject that is unfamiliar, research is called for. Within the body of what is read lies two types of knowledge: not only what happened or would happen, but also the exact terminology used. The more general level is essential not to make mistakes that critics will cite with contempt. Yet words matter too, and you can gain belief from the reader because they sound so right.

Compare this laborious approach with the natural authenticity that, say, a former Amazon warehouse worker turned writer possesses. They know from experience what procedures are mechanized and what happens during the Christmas rush. Yet they can grab the reader at every step by the recall of what the workers would say and how they would say it.  

How can hazy notions be converted into exact prose? Let's say you're writing about a change of scenery in between the acts of a Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar. You write it out and realize the language is flabby. It's time to do some research.

Say you decided that a portion of the scenery walls—most people know they are called “flats”—painted to represent a temple in the Roman Forum, would be mounted on a “rolling platform.” Yet that’s not the correct term. It is a “stage wagon” or “scenery wagon.” Maybe you know that the wheels underneath the rolling platform can be stabilized temporarily by sticking wooden triangles next to them. Research discovers that they are called “carpenter wedges.” Further, you watch a video of three techs on the National Theatre stage moving a platform by pushing on horizontal bars sticking out from the back of the flats. But they aren’t called “bars”: they are “push poles.”

How much space did the scenery change take up in the manuscript? Probably a paragraph. All that scouting for a few sentences. Yet you can see how much authenticity is added by getting the terms right. You just had to read about people who make a living in the theater. Now that character moving the scenery sounds like the real deal.

Exercise: The key to this hunting and pecking is the willingness to stop. Read through a text to get the general sweep. Then read a second time looking for exact phraseology. When you see something interesting, write it down in a list. When you turn to writing, you may use only a third of what you have, but every one of them will strike the note you want.

“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” ― Neil Gaiman

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.