Friday, June 25, 2010

Perception of Truth

This past week I took a photography tour of the Bay of Fundy. Many of you know I'm a musician as well as a writer. Few know of my truly dismal talents in the visual arts. I can't even draw a convincing stick figure.

Still, I've been taking vacation photos since the age of six when my Dad gave me a Kodak Brownie. After college I bought myself a Minolta SLR, adding different lenses as I could afford them. I used that camera for 20 years, until they stopped making the light meter battery. Right now I've got a very unfancy Olympus digital whose limits are finally forcing me learn something about visual composition.

I took the tour mainly because it promised to visit all the kinds of natural places I love, not because I'm a serious amateur photog. Yet I did pick up some great tips from our guide, Lance Timmons (check out his cool portfolio at Beyond that though, he talked a bit about the perception of truth in a photo, which got me thinking how that applies to writing.

People assume photos are truthful little moments frozen in time. Or at least, snapshots used to be truthful, before Photoshop, right? Well, no. Photographers have always shown us only their interpretation of scenes. Before digital technology, they could manipulate photos in the darkroom during processing, or by posing what ends up looking like a spontaneous shot, or even simply by cropping out details so the viewer sees only what the photographer wants them to see. Regardless of the technology, a good photographer can sway the viewer's sympathies to each photo.

When I write historical fiction, I do my best to make the history factual, but I'll be the first to admit that I'm not showing everything. For one thing, I'd have to do a decade of research for each chapter. Writers don't have that kind of luxury of time. Even if I did, I don't want to show that many details. Like a good photographer, I need to zoom in on the subject and crop everything else. Too many historical writers spend too many words showing off their research. Do we really need a minute description of 1860s ladies' undergarments in a book about the Civil War? No. It stops the story. Only show what's necessary to bring the era and the story to life.

Also like a photographer, the details I do show ought to sway the sympathy of the audience. In BY BLOOD POSSESSED, my goal wasn't to present the Civil War from a North or South point of view. I wanted to show how war, any war, effects families. In HANG MY HEAD AND CRY, I was aiming for a perspective of Reconstruction through the eyes of a nine year-old freed slave.

The above applies to any kind of writing, not just historicals. You have to look through a viewfinder at the world you're writing about. Move around, back up, zoom in, until you have in the frame only what the reader needs to understand the story. And even after you write it, chances are you'll need to do further cropping.

The photos with this blog are from my trip, taken with my dippy little Olympus digital (the rubber ducky is my first mate, Smee).

So maybe I learned something.


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