Monday, April 06, 2009

Clearly not horse people

I understand that I’m writing a very technical story. As such – there’s a lot of information that needs to be conveyed. So far I’ve tried two approaches … assuming people KNOW about something (FAIL) … and having the characters talk about a technical aspect of the story in dialogue. (Also FAIL).

It’s become quite frustrating figuring out how to inform the reader without losing them. Sometimes I’m just flabbergasted at what people don’t know … and I wonder how come I knew so much before writing this story.

For instance … the main character is an engineer. Besides having innate mathematic skills there was something that led him to pursue this occupation. That “something” was going to the opening of the mint (coin mint) in Charlotte, North Carolina when he was a young boy. The process fascinated him. Not so much the gold blanks being stamped into double gold eagle coins of the time, but the huge machinery that carried out the process.

No one in the critique group had a CLUE what I was writing about in that scene. So I had to totally rework to describe the stamps, weights, pistons and cams in a stamp mill. They liked it better.

Now I’ve been writing about soil types and conditions (clearly a RIVITING TOPIC). Again, something I knew a little bit about before starting this story – but not much. Maybe I grew up around weirdo’s (strong possibility) but I can honestly say if I’d overheard a conversation like this, I wouldn’t be lost.

Purdy had been combing his fingers through the snarled mess trying to make it more seemly. "Well if it ain't normal flood silt, what is it?" he asked.

It's damn slick, is what it is," said Edwards. I was walkin' along my hop poles just before the ground was all dried and I lost my footing. It's like algae on the rocks in the creek. Slicker'n snot." A couple of the men laughed. "I had that happen to me once before. When I was up at the mercantile at the Alpha and Omega hydraulic diggings. It'd rained about two days before I got up there. A real gully washer. And that little stream on the other side of the road, just up and overflowed the banks. There was red clay silt on everything. I jumped down from the wagon onto the boardwalk. It was muddy, but it didn't look like that sticky goo in the street. It was just like I'd stepped on a bunch of ball-bearings. I fell there too. Had to wear muddy pants all day."

Given the context, I think I’d be able to puzzle out that Edward was talking about a type of soil or a characteristic of wet dirt. It was disconcerting when the feedback on this portion of the story was “felt like I was drowning in technical jargon” … because really, there is no technical jargon here. I’m not talking about soil particle size, ability of different soil types to retain moisture or anything. Just about how this dirt is damn slick.

But, okay. Maybe I wasn’t SHOWING very effectively what “slickens” is like. Or maybe choosing to have him walking along “hop poles” (ie: the poles that support hop plants as they grow) is what confused the reader. Something to keep in mind and work on as I move forward.

But later in the story I wrote, “Afternoon shadows from the cannon rim were settling on the fourth damn. It was intact. Hobbling my horse Zach, I removed my rod to catch dinner.”

And got to this comment … ???? next to the sentence “Hobbling my horse Zach…”

I mean … is this just because the reader doesn’t know anything about horses? Or western tack?? I didn’t think the term “hobble” was that unknown.

How the hell do I know about hobbling a horse? I’ve never hobbled one myself. Never been on a trail ride or cattle roundup where we’ve used hobbles. Yet I know you hobble a horse so they don’t wander off when you’re in open country (thank you Zane Gray).

I don’t believe Zane Gray gave long technical descriptions about tack in his stories. Maybe something like, “Bill drew the two-leg hobble out of his saddle bag. Kneeling down he placed them below Smoke’s fetlocks.” From that brief description I figured out there were like handcuffs, but for horses.

I want to use historical details to my writing more “real” and “grounded” not less accessible and full of undecipherable jargon. Which makes me wonder again about the things I think are common knowledge, yet apparently aren’t.


Leslie said...

A couple months ago I read James Clavell's Shogun. If you haven't read it, Clavell does this amazing job of explaining the intricacies of Japanese custom, and even a bit of language without being boring. It's really long, but it's a complete page turner. And it's historical fiction.

In case you're looking for inspiration!


Anonymous said...

Your audience is Eastern, I assume, and you were raised by Western farm people. Maybe you need MORE details?

And you were raised on western stories and authors. Would you be as knowledgeable about Eastern customs in a story ? AND, you are a voracious reader, so that puts you beyond the average reader. tp

Robert said...

I think normal people know what silt is, can relate to silt+water = slicker than snot, and it isn't much of a stretch from there to imagine falling on your butt when you step in the mud, or why that could be both funny and damn inconvenient.

I'm guessing your test audience is at least part of the problem here (they need to look up the definition for jargon for one thing). Maybe those particular people won't like this story but maybe that's ok.

Bob said...

I think it is a mistake to write for the lowest common denominator. If your reader didn't know what hobbling a horse was, they should have opened a dictionary. That being said, if the reader has to keep the dictionary open beside them as they read, well - that could still be them reading something over their head.

It seems to me that you've included examples here that point to both situations. I was able to follow the selection on silt (I didn't know what hop poles were, but it didn't detract from the narrative, as far as I was concerned) your writing group came to the conclusion that it wasn't very clear to them. As for the other selection - if only one or two people didn't understand hobble, then - as you say - they should look it up instead of critiquing your word selection. Some jargon is necessary when writing genre fiction.

All I can suggest is that experience - and a good writer's group - will teach you the boundaries.