How much Detail is Too Much?

So, Suelen:

If you’ve read it already, what did you think about the level of medical detail? This story was fun to research — I did a TON of research, in case you wondered, mostly focusing on medical practices in Classical Rome and Greece. Of course this kind of research leads to the desire to share all the cool details with the reader, a desire that should be reined in. On the other hand, a protagonist who is thoroughly focused on his specialty is going to think about his work A LOT, and should be allowed to do so. I very specifically asked beta readers whether I’d put in too much detail, and they all said no, the medical stuff was good, they liked it. I thought I’d be cutting a painful amount about wound treatment, but no, I wound up only cutting a tiny bit.

The line I had in mind while writing my protagonist is actually from The Beacon at Alexandria by Gillian Bradshaw, in which an important secondary character says of the protagonist something like, “I tried to bribe him, but it was hopeless. He doesn’t want anything but books about medicine and he’s got plenty of those. As far as I can tell, he spends all his time talking about medicine and thinking about medicine, and at night he probably dreams about medicine.” That’s definitely Suelen. He probably does dream about medicine.

The above is not an exact quote, by the way, because I don’t have the book handy, but it’s fairly close. The Beacon at Alexandria, as you may know, is about a young woman who disguises herself as a eunuch so that she can study medicine in Alexandria. This is in the period when the Roman Empire is going to hit a rough patch and start its final decline, but this story isn’t about that, fortunately. It’s about Charis and about medicine, and because the story is by Bradshaw, it’s got a strong romantic element, though that’s not nearly as important an element as Classical medicine. So guess what book I picked up to look at medicine as it was actually practiced at the time? Yep, I had this novel on my coffee table while writing Suelen. Along with stuff I printed out about the history of sutures and antiseptics and wound care, plus anatomical diagrams of the knee from every angle.

I don’t think Beacon is available as an ebook, but even if you thoroughly prefer ebooks, as I do, it’s well worth picking up in paper. A great novel, one of my favorites by Bradshaw, who is my favorite author of historicals. I’ve read it many times.

I was also influenced a little bit by another of Bradshaw’s books, The Sand-Reckoner, in which the protagonist is Archimedes. He’ll drift away from practical life into the contemplation of mathematics, and also we also see a lot of detail about how to design and build catapults. Too much detail? No, not at all! Bradshaw is such a good writer, she really is, and part of that is knowing how much detail to put into her stories. This is another of my favorites of hers.

If you like novels with a medical emphasis, by the way, one that is far less well known than it should be is Nick O’Donohoe’s novel The Magic and the Healing, about a veterinary student who finds herself on a rotation caring for mythological creatures, centaurs and unicorns and of course who could forget the amazing griffin, probably my favorite griffin in all of fantasy literature. What a great book this is. I’m biased because (a) the griffin, and (b) I like medical stuff very much, and (c) this is the single novel that clarified for me how to write a character who is intelligent and perceptive. I mean, as opposed to the author just declaring the character is intelligent and perceptive. BJ really is, and this is indicated without the author making any assertions or being at all heavy-handed about it. I think O’Donohoe was an important influence on me when it comes to this kind of characterization.

Camille, if you read this post, you REALLY should read that novel if you like fantasy AT ALL. When I loaned it to her many years ago, my own veterinarian loved it and said O’Donohoe handled the medical details — of which there are many, it’s that kind of story — just right.

Oh, and nobody should be put off by the cover, which is currently hideous.

Only a radiologist could like that cover. The original cover was much more appealing.

Anyway, I hope you all enjoy the level of detail in Suelen, though of course I’m sure opinions will vary and that’s fine. I personally enjoy lots of detail if the protagonist is an expert in anything — medicine, martial arts, opera, forensic anthropology, mechanical engineering, doesn’t matter, if the protagonist is an expert, I’m almost certain to enjoy reading about details of that specialty, even if I’m not inherently that interested in mechanical engineering or don’t know anything much about opera.

If anybody’s got a book they enjoy that fits this category — expert protagonist, lots of details about the area of expertise — by all means drop that in the comments!

And if you’ve reviewed Suelen (or any of my books), thank you! Now that Amazon allows ratings without reviews, I see that only about 15% of people who rate a book leave even a very short review. While ratings are nice, particularly positive ratings, reviews influence Amazon algorithms more strongly and can make all the difference when running a promotion. I appreciate it very much when someone takes the time to write a review.

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7 thoughts on “How much Detail is Too Much?”

  1. I just finished Suelen, and I thought it was fantastic. I don’t feel that there was too much medical detail; it was fascinating! It’s a joy to read about someone who is shown to be extremely competent at what they do (and dedicated to it).

    I also loved the Invocation of the Sun. My mind being what it is, I couldn’t help but wonder who would have been the first to discover how to do that? And how did they discover it?

    An absolute pleasure to read.

  2. I just finished Suelen (BTW, how do you pronounce the name? To avoid sounding like Sue Ellen I sort of slurred the u&e together to make something like ‘swaelen’.)

    I did find myself thinking of Charis from Beacon sometimes while reading. And the level of detail seemed just right. I also wondered if the Ugaro will now try something similar with the Moon, now that they have the concept. As with Robert, I wonder how someone comes up with something like that in the first place. I suspect a desperate and very competent & ethical battlefield surgeon.

    I must get around to rereading the O’Donohoe, I’ve had it on my ‘get to it now list’ for over a year.

    I really liked Tasa and the outside look at Ryo. Like someone else who commented here yesterday I thought the ending was a bit sudden, but I can’t think of much more you could have actually done – the story was over. Maybe round off with him heading home, the way it opens with him heading out.

  3. I haven’t read Suelen yet, so I can’t comment on it, but I usually like details about everything :)

    The Last Cato by Matilde Asensi has a lot of details about history, art and architecture with characters who constantly think and talk about their field. The story is a bit similar to the Da Vince Code, published 2 years earlier though :). A paleographer nun, an archaeologist and a Swiss Guard (with a degree in Italian literature) are investigating stolen relics for the Vatican using Dante’s Divine Comedy for clues (I read the Spanish original, so I don’t know, but some English reviews complain that the translation has errors, plus that the storyline is not tight enough for a thriller, which might be a cultural thing as it was a bestseller in Spain.)

  4. Maria, thanks! I’ll have to look that up. If I like the characters and the setting and writing, then I don’t usually care whether the plot is especially tight.

    Elaine, I usually think of darau diphthongs as blurred into one vowel sound, so darau is close to dar-aw and Suelen is close to Soo-len. But that’s me and if other people prefer to take the vowels apart, that’s fine too. I never thought of the Su-ellen pronunciation myself, though.

    I guess I could have put in an epilogue, but we’re hearing a little about how the events in Suelen are impacting Ugaro and (more slowly) Lau society in Tasmakat, so that seems to me to do that job.

    Robert, I bet you’re right — a desperate battlefield surgeon makes a lot of sense. Perhaps a surgeon who had a cousin or friend who was an astrologer. I believe that for the Lau, astronomers think about “astronomical” things one way, but astrologers are much more heavily into the religious aspects of “astronomical” phenomena. Not sure, but I think we are going to find out a little more about that in Tasmakat. The overall form of the Great Invocation has almost certainly changed over time, too, the first version was probably quick and dirty in comparison.

  5. Those metal disks are clearly part of a system of how the Lau understand magic to work, probably connected with astrology. Either they figured out how invocations were theoretically possible and went from there or, perhaps more likely, the astrologers tried to systematize a surgeon dedicat’s unexpected miracle and have had some degree of success.

    The side effects are pretty brutal — the depression backlash is bad, but 12% blindness for career dedicats is worse. I bet a lot of the theoretical work is trying to get that number down.

  6. This was one of things I noticed first about Suelen, and I love it! I think you hit just the right balance. After Tuyo, it’s my favorite in the series. So I kind of want all the repercussions to be in a book of their own, and not part of Tasmakat at all, so I can properly enjoy the ramifications, as well as Suelen and Tasa!

    Tehre is also a great character for this reason. As you said, the competency of a character who’s proficient in a specific field (specifically one that’s unfamiliar to me so I can’t nitpick!) is always engaging to read. Suelen is a very believable character in that sense (especially his flaws / mistakes).

  7. Mona, I have a dim idea for a follow-up story from Suelen, but no promises. I know for sure there will be references to Suelen in Tasmakat though.

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