stumped.

In the short story that I’ve been writing (albeit slowly), I’m planning to have the main character read about a topic that she needs to understand quickly, and I want to include small snippets of text in the story, because the topic is one that readers might not know much about, and I want them to learn along with the main character. I’ve never done this before in a work of fiction and I can’t figure out how to handle it.

The nonfiction writer in me wants the information that comes in these brief blocks of text to be as accurate as possible…even perhaps quoted from an actual real-life source. But I kind of want to write my own blocks of text to better suit the flow of the story. The problem with this being… I don’t know enough about the topic to convincingly write in the voice of the type of book that she’ll be reading. (It’s a scientific topic.) I have tried writing a couple of sentences to this end, but kept coming up against my own lack of knowledge.

Have you ever done this? Is there an accepted way of handling this, i.e. is it more appropriate for me to write my own blocks of text and make up the names of the books that they came from? Or should I simply quote existing books?

I’ve been trying to look for help in published fiction, and it’s not necessarily helping. In Anthony Doerr’s About Grace, the main character is enamored of a book of his mother’s:

The only thing he still had of hers was a book: Snow Crystals, by W.A. Bentley. Inside were thousands of carefully prepared micrographs of snowflakes, each image reproduced in a two-inch square, the crystals white against a field of black, arrayed in a grid, four-by-three, twelve per page. Bound in cloth, it was a 1931 first edition her grandfather had bought at a rummage sale. (p. 45)

I don’t know why, but I assumed that the book was made-up. It’s not.

There are plenty of books out there in which a character is writing
something, and quotes from said writings appear in the story. About Grace also does that. So does A Confederacy of Dunces, for example. But I can’t think of any other works of fiction right now in which a real-life book is quoted to advance the fictional story (although surely there are plenty of novels that quote the Bible. But that’s different, isn’t it? I don’t know.)

Ideas?

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4 thoughts on “stumped.

  1. I think you could do whatever you want–but it would depend on your manuscript. it’s more unusual to quote a text in fiction, but then again, why not? (especially if you’re writing it in 3rd person, which might make it easier to do). And there are myriads of other ways to communicate what the character is reading–they could discuss what they read with a friend in dialogue, someone could look over their shoulder and “read the text aloud”–the possibilities are there. :)

    Just think about what happens in real life when you read things–do you discuss them over dinner with a friend later, does someone look over your shoulder and read it aloud, do you read a book review about it later, do you mull it over in your head, etc. etc.!

  2. I asked my aspires-to-be-on-Jeopardy sister if she could think of one, and she said “1984.” It’s been long enough since I’ve read it that I can’t corroborate, but she’s often right about things like this.

    The only ones I can think of involve fake non-fiction. In Roald Dahl’s “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” the main character learns to “see without eyes” from a book he picks out at random in a friend’s study. The reader reads much of the book along with the character.

    The forthcoming Coetzee novel “Diary of a Bad Year” looks like it’s going to be built around fictional research and writing of a non-fiction book. Excerpt is here, if you want to have a look.

  3. Rodrigo Fresan’s Kensington Gardens touches on Peter Pan quite ingeniously.

    You can also take note of Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork, just published, where a whole people and their culture are created for the sake of one character’s anthropological research, and which inspires (in the book) many academic articles and investigations into this culture. The story about these people was so real to the editor that it was an utter and delightful surprise to find out that everything—the people, the customs, the anthropological research and scientists, the superstitions—had all been made up. For me, the lesson/challenge from this is how to put forth a point of view that both opposes and supports the main one at the same time.

  4. Wow, thanks so much for the great ideas and encouragement! I will definitely dig up these book suggestions. It’s great to have a forum in which to pose these kind of questions. Thanks!

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