On the Mating Habits of Possums: A Literary Library Challenge
I know absolutely nothing about the mating habits of possums. Since I know nothing about the mating habits of possums, I should not write about them. This point is less obvious than it seems. It astounds how many people who do not know anything about science, sex, or policing are willing to write science fiction, erotica, or mystery. Genre writing requires genre-specific knowledge. If it doesn't, there's good odds that it shouldn't be genre writing. Write what you know.
I can limit my extent of knowledge about possums to three facts. One, while visiting family in the country, I would often discover them sleeping on the other side of the window when returning to my room at night. Two, the first time an ex-girlfriend saw one, she immediately ran to her parents, thinking she saw a monster, and wanted to enlist them in getting photographic evidence so that her family could be rich. Three, possums were introduced via the land bridge with South America. Possums are the only North American marsupial, arriving after all the other North American marsupials had died out. They are one of the biggest success stories out of the formation of the Americas, at least in an invasive species sense.
None of those facts is worth writing about. Okay, the second is fairly cute, and might make a good sort of background story. But background is not story. An interesting history is not any more of a story than an interesting breakfast. A story is about what happens. It is not explaining what happened.
Wikipedia makes things more interesting. First, I am conflating "possum" and "opossum." I do not know which lalalaleigha intended. I have at least seen with my own eyes the results of the mating habits of Opossums; I cannot say the same about Possums. I am also not entirely correct about opossums being the "only North American marsupial." Opossums are the only marsupial north of Mexico. I also learned the proper name for the migration of animals that happened because of the joining of the Americas: the Great American Interchange. The word "opossum" comes from the Algonquin word wapathemwa, which really took me a few tries saying out loud to hear.
This is why I think the saying "write what you know" is flipped. Don't write what you know; know what you write. If I did use any of my examples to write a story, anyone who actually knew the difference between the possum and the opossum would have thought me an idiot, or at least critically misinformed. Pretend it is journalism, and always check your facts. If you cannot check your facts, cut that part out.
"But my story isn't about Possums or Opossums," you say, "it's a charming coming of age story set in the Upper West Side. The accuracy of a supplementary fact is irrelevant." As the joke runs:
Q: How many lit fic sci fi authors does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Who cares? I wanna talk about how the characters feel about sitting around in the dark!
A fiction author must establish credibility. If observation is the basis of good writing, factual errors cause readers to consider your other observations suspect. A reader who you give cause to not believe you, will have cause to not believe your characters. There is no excuse for wasting your credibility so. Do not assume that no one is paying attention, because someone is. That someone might control whether or not your story gets published.
Okay, more likely than not the one who stands to determine whether your story gets published. However, that person knows that there are people – sad, lonely people – who will notice when the characters in 12th Century France are eating New World foodstuffs (my personal bugbear) and will write tersely worded letters. Publishers and editors hate tersy worded letters. Therefore, editors and publishers know to keep pedantic troglodytes on the payroll to note these sorts of issues, which consequently provides the world the public service of letting them vent about issues in a constrained setting, so that they refrain from boring people at dinner parties about whether or not Joan of Arc should be considered a proto-Protestant.
Remember there are always two routes through bad information. The first is to correct it, the second is to avoid it. In the age we live in, with facts at near constant hand, investigating something is as difficult as using Google. In fact, we could even discuss the "Google Standard" of accuracy: any fact that can be proven incorrect on the first page of a Google search is necessary to change. Any fact that can't, isn't, and damn whatever pathetic worm is complaining that the prosecutor's table in a courtroom is not fixed by rule, but judicial custom.
However, do not forget that, most of the time, you can avoid it altogether. One of the lines from a book that is forever burned in my memory is "it was Cabrini-Green, a violent housing project on the south side of Chicago." Cabrini-Green is located on the north side of Chicago. Now, there are lots of reasons why this line in particular irritates me, but heed this one: the author included the information extraneously. It's a double sin of unnecessary and incorrect. Plenty of the time you can get away with this through omission. Unless the story needs it, we don't need to read that it's set in Delaware. The rest of the time, you can get away with it through creation. Planning on setting a sci-fi tale on Arcturus V? Then you have to worry about what Arcturus is like in reality. If instead you set it on the planet Esperanza in the Bootes Quadrant, no one can fault you on underlying facts because they're all made up.
I have however omitted one fact that I uncovered when looking at the Wikipedia article. Opossums were intentionally introduced to the American West during the Great Depression as a food source. I'd love a better citation on this. What happened? Was it a well-meaning philanthropist who'd heard about the plight of the Okies? Did a very irregular petting zoo break down in Kansas, whereupon someone started this fable to explain? Was it a United States certified New Deal project, with some lowly bureaucrat tasked to go and hire several stout Virginians to load up a truck and drive to a field in Colorado, upon whence the gates were loosened and the pests of the future set free to scamper across a dusty plain?
To contradict my previous position, that is a fact that is a story.
A lot of stories, especially novels, have a didactic edge. Pay attention to this the next time you are reading. Even straight Lit Fic will contain some bundle of information about papermaking or the Huguenots. The adventure thriller genre is practically based on it. Why? To risk redundancy, interesting facts are interesting, which makes them worthwhile to read. Stories are rarely about uninteresting things, but things and facts somehow out of the ordinary, (at least, the reader's ordinary) that stand to captivate and interest us as we read.
A fact isn't a story. But some facts stand out so much they naturally lead to a story. Either they are so weird and interesting that it is hard to not tell others about them, or they contain all the elements of a story, and are only waiting for a telling. The Opossum's introduction contains both.
Ultimately, this is why it's so important for any writer to never stop learning, to follow the news, and to consume as much information as possible, alongside of keeping up with other people's fiction. The prompts here are great, but the world itself has the best prompts. They exist as nuggets of information, stranger for the telling because of their truth, and there is a world of them out there.
So know what you write, make sure you know what you know, and never forget that what you can learn is the muses' own bounty. And that is how the mating habit of possums can improve your writing.
(This is written due to lalalaleigha's challenge, though the specific inspiration was out of a discussion with and out of the nudging of aquarius_galuxy.)
- On The Mating Habits of Possums