Camille Seaman in one of her happy places – the Lemaire Channel, Antarctica. Photo by Dawn Garcia.
Antarctica does not have any polar bears. Yet, I felt pleased to discover on a recent voyage that this polar continent does boast a Camille Seaman.
Camille’s a strong and striking Native American woman from Long Island. She once roamed the streets of New York and New Jersey with her scooter gang. Acting upon a challenge from her daughter, she transformed herself into a world-class, National Geographic photographer by chasing tornadoes in Nebraska and icebergs around both poles. Nowadays she gives TED talks and lectures and publishes lush photo books and works as a nature guide and expedition photographer on Norwegian cruise ships.
Camille Seaman is a character nearly impossible to imagine. Luckily, God has already finished that job for us. But I would not have been able to place her happily at home among ice floes and penguins and humpback whales and leopard seals had I not gone Ground-Proofing in Antarctica. You see, I wished to set a few scenes from a new novel down there. And the proper way to do that was for me to go and absorb direct impressions of that remote and remarkable landscape, and to learn as much as I could from the folks who love it.
Prove Your Claim
My trip underscored the importance of hands-on, feet-down, sense-engaged, site-specific visits that I call Ground-Proofing. When any fiction writer seeks to cast a spell, it helps greatly to have relevant and vivid wherewithal. By which I mean those telling details of personages and locales that can make your scenes leap to life.
Today’s digital age provides a ton of ways to do research. Street views on Google Earth have allowed me to describe embassy buildings in cities that I’ve never visited. Weather data easily scored online helps me set up a typical day in some far-flung location. Wikipedia histories and links offer a quick scan of a topic, which then sets a writer up to make a deeper plunge via other media. YouTube videos from various periods, image searches, and news archives can all be of great value.
Yet such boosts are nothing compared to leap made when you hike near the krill-pink poop-stained trough of a penguin “highway” with someone like Camille at your side. Will I need to describe the sights, sounds and smells of a penguin colony? Now I can really do so! Seeing the sapphire glow deep in the crevices of an iceberg will prepare you for attempting to recreate it in your prose. Buying hand-woven articles from an Indian man with a pushcart on San Martin Avenue in the frontier town of Ushuaia might let you add him as a realistic side character who illuminates your tale, and perhaps passes on some crucial bit of local intel.
Presence in the Present
That’s why I recommend planting your butt right on your primary sites whenever possible. Linger there. Open your senses. Converse with the locals.
Writers must love most language. Naturally! Yet we’re certainly allowed to play favorites. Occasionally, we come across particular words that we adore. In my case, one such is, “verisimilitude.”
I like it for its pleasing mouth-feel, if you will. The slinky progression of its six syllables with the minor accent on the first and major accent on the fourth. I like its precise Latinate genetics, from “veritas” (meaning truth) and “similis” (similar). And I particularly like the way it sums up a writer’s primary mission. Whenever we tell a story, we must model a world. It could be based on the reality most of us believe we already inhabit, or it might be a world we seek to imagine or conjure,
But in either case, it must be believable enough for the reader to invest his or her credulity in its existence, even if that belief is provisional. Pull that investment off, and the printed page disappears, even walls of the room where your book’s being read can vanish, whilst a spellbound reader trundles off to live in an enchanted elsewhere.
My dictionary defines verisimilitude as, “The quality of appearing to be true or real.” That’s what a writer must invoke to slurp a reader deep into a prose dream. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously described “the willing suspension of disbelief” as a vital ingredient for communication between a writer and reader. A major part of that spell is your provision of realistic or at least credible elements. It’s not so much that a reader wants to be fooled, as that he or she wishes to be charmed. A writer must stand ready to provide every assistance in this process.
That’s why verisimilitude should be served up at each opportunity.
Molding a Model
As I winged down on my research visit south, I read a new book, “The Accomplice,” by Joseph Kanon. He’s an award-winning mystery/thriller writer, published by Simon & Schuster.
The penultimate climax scene of Accomplice takes place in La Recoleta Cemetery of downtown Buenos Aires, at sunset. This is a great necropolis, one of the finest aggregations of tombs and mausoleums ever built. It sounded like a stunning place for Kanon to set a major scene, so I fit a visit to the place into my overall trip south of the Equator. I was curious to measure Kanon’s representation against my own impressions and check how well his described action fit the actual location.
After my tour, I judged that his description worked reasonably well. His fictional Recoleta showed verisimilitude of deep enough quality to provide a reader with a sense of place, and to allow a reader to visualize the interactions of his characters there.
However – in my view – Kanon’s rendering of this cemetery in The Accomplice could only work for readers who’d never actually seen or toured the place. For people who had been there, trying to suspend disbelief would just give their credulity gland a hernia.
The problems begin on page 241, when the old Nazi villain, Dr. Otto Schramm, strangles the guy guarding him with the handcuffs that Otto wears, tugging the chain between his cuffs around the guard’s neck. Anyone who watched the (far more believable) scene of Javier Bardem taking out the deputy in the film “No Country for Old Men” will never believe that a scrawny and aged Nazi could pull off a remotely similar feat – nor should they.
Next, in La Recoleta Cemetery, a meandering gunfight ensues between our hero, Aaron, and Otto and an assistant. The place is closed for the night, but the trio wanders its avenues and alleys, trying to suss each other out by the sound of footsteps and brief glimpses. The action occurs in less than an hour. That might seem realistic in the book. But after you walk the claustrophobic net of lanes, alleys, and byways in the Recoleta graveyard, which covers 14 acres and boasts nearly 4,700 tombs, you realize that three men could hide from each other here for a week – if not a month.
The penultimate climax occurs when Hero Aaron climbs up atop of the tombs, dislodging a roof made of tiles en route. During my own tour of the place, I saw precisely zero roofs made of tiles. I did see a few decaying tombs made of bricks and mortar, but these were in the distinct minority.
Gunfight at Not-OK Corral
Aaron next lays his body out atop an angel made of stone, who leans out over the streets. Well, this cemetery does sport flocks of angels, but none I saw leaned out over any street. And when you think about it, creating a stone angel who does that is an improbable task for any sculptor, not to mention a tomb architect. You’re trying to cantilever an image of solid stone, well enough that it supports the unexpected burden of an adult male suddenly lying on top of it?
Finally, Aaron shoots Otto’s nefarious assistant. He aims for a shoulder, but hits him in the neck instead, since the man flinches away from the sound of Aaron’s gunshot. This is utter hokum, because – in our current, post-musket era – a round almost always travels faster than its sound. That’s the reason for the cliché, “You never hear the bullet that hits you.”
It’s true even in the case of a .45 ACP pistol round, which is one of the few remaining sub-sonic bullets (flying slightly slower than the speed of sound), since at close range the bang and the blow both arrive well inside the half-second neural reaction time of a typical human being. (Author Kanon does not specify the weapon that Aaron uses.)
None of this is meant to seriously detract from the overall achievement of The Accomplice, which is composed in deft, spare, lapidary prose and succeeds on its own terms as a Nazi-hunting thriller.
Every writer can decide for her or himself what level of verisimilitude to strive for, of course. In this case, I wish Kanon had made his cemetery description more believable for people who’d been there, and his ballistics more believable for people who’ve handled firearms. For his part, Kanon might wish that I would just mind my own business. He might say, “Easy to criticize others. How well can you hit such marks yourself?”
Antics in Antarctica
Soon I’ll have to go mano a mano with my own verisimilitude issues. I don’t doubt there eventually shall be a few readers, perhaps many, willing and able to cry bullshit upon my results. But one thing I’ll make sure of is that they won’t be able to accuse me of failing to give deep research of my tale that good ol’ college try.
Perhaps I’m setting myself for an artistic fail of hubristic proportions, since the Antarctic is a stranger and vaster hunk of real estate than downtown Buenos Aires – and by a huge margin. I’ve got a mountain of impressions to recall, reams of notes to consult, thousands of photos to examine. Characters to calculate and evaluate. A plot that I must make both astonishing and believable, while using all relevant counters.
But the more accurate, truthful and sensuous details I can pour into my narrative, the fewer readers will be bounced out of it, clutching their hands to a sprained or ruptured credulity. That’s why Ground-Proofing is such an invaluable procedure. It’s the wellspring of verisimilitude.
Good Bits – Use or lose?
One thing I still need to figure out is whether to challenge my readers with a character based on Camille Seaman. On one hand, it’d be fun to present a native guide with a love of nature so profound and abiding that if a visitor even thinks about disturbing a nesting penguin in any manner, she’ll fix him with a stink-eye, get way up in his grill, and threaten to send him slinking back to the ship, with shore-visit privileges thoroughly revoked. On the other hand, I don’t know yet if my plot will require a character who can do that.
In the meantime, let’s let that vision remain a benchmark of some benefits of Ground-Proofing. Amid my month-long journey, I managed to learn a few things I never could have imagined on my own.
Like, okay, the Antarctic doesn’t have any polar bears. But as it turns out this region does have a mama-bear to brag on, and her name is Camille.