Friday, 4 March 2011

'Credibility is in the details'

I had a lecturer at university who used to tell me (among other things) that, 'credibility is in the details'. As his own credentials were impeccable, I took him at his word, and it is a lesson I remember in all my own writings.

When writing poetry or fiction it is important to supply specific details rather than generics. From Victoria Wood to the Coronation Street team of script-writers, this is proven to add pathos and humour in equal measure. Even Hemingway understood the value of the minutiae and, although I tire of his shopping-list prose, earnest (and Ernest) fans of The Sun Also Rises thrill to the knowledge that Bill and Jake bought eggs, bread, ripe tomatoes, soft cheese and white wine rather than 'stuff for a picnic'

Some years ago I read Rose Tremain's fantastic The Colour which I loved, not least because it is set in my new back yard, but mainly because Rose Tremain is a powerful wordsmith. Considering Kiwis generally love all things related to themselves, I was surprised that the book did not find more favour in these parts. One of the main criticisms levelled against it was that her research was insufficient.

The characters were well-drawn, the themes were grand, the writing was compelling, and the emotion was both subtle and palpable. Readers, however, could not forgive her inclusion of a vole in a river scene as such rodents do not inhabit New Zealand. This miniscule slip lead to significant ridicule and doubtless harmed book sales as well as public enjoyment.

One can be too hasty to make such pronouncements, however. I recently read Robert Harris' The Ghost, which was an entertaining political thriller. As it may or may not be (i.e. patently but not libelously) based on Tony Blair, many details are specific. Harris was a respected political commentator before becoming an author so you expect veracity, and it's easy to become swept up in his version of events.

At one point, before irrevocably setting out on a trail that can only lead to death and destruction, the narrator tries to calm his nerves by sitting in a car in a Martha's Vineyard forest where he observes a red squirrel. As a child I was fond of red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris); natives of Europe and Northern Asia. Their habitat was greatly reduced by the chopping down of trees and the introduction of the more aggressive American grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). So I was disappointed to read this error in a book I was otherwise prepared to trust in order to submit to the story.

I was surprised that Robert Harris, so accurate in other directions, would make this faunal faux-pas, so before rushing to condemn, I checked my facts, as he had obviously done before me. There are red squirrels in North America wherever conifers are common apart from the Pacific Coast. They are also referred to as Pine Squirrels, North American Red Squirrels, Chickarees, and, officially, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus. They may not be my red squirrels, but they are red squirrels nonetheless.

So, if there is a moral to the story, perhaps it should be that although credibility is indeed in the details, you shouldn't let a little fact get in the way of a good tale.

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