Wednesday 9 November 2016

Guest Post by Jacquelyn Benson: Shadows of Imagination - Making the unbelievable real in fiction

TITLE: The Smoke Hunter
AUTHOR: Jacquelyn Benson

PUBLICATION DATE: November 3, 2016

Amazon - Goodreads

London, 1898. Archivist Eleanora Mallory discovers a map to a legendary city . But is it the key to unravelling an ancient mystery or a clever hoax?

Compelled to find out, Ellie journeys to Central America - with a merciless enemy hot on her heels.

In a race to uncover the map's secret first, Ellie is forced to partner with maverick archaeologist Adam Bates, a man she's not sure she can trust. Together, they venture into an uncharted wilderness alive with smoke and shadows, where an even greater danger awaits them.

For what lies there whispering to be unearthed has the power to bring the world to its knees.

Shadows of Imagination: Making the unbelievable real in fiction

”... It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

All of my favorite books involve impossible things.

Whether it’s ghosts or psychic powers, myths-made-real or alternate worlds separated from our own by a veil a mist, the fantastic can add something profound to a great story. When handled properly, there’s a sublime sort of magic that takes place. The world gets a little bigger, a little wilder and more infused with possibility than it was before.

Of course, there are plenty of examples of stories with fantastic elements that fall far short of that mark. Some of them may even display all the essentials of good storytelling: tight plotting, authentic characterization, and a deft maintenance of tension. So what gives?

Making the impossible seem possible – instead of just presenting it to readers who then, if you’re lucky, generously opt to go along for the ride – means creating a very specific sort of marriage between the unreal and the real.

That marriage is based on facts. To blur the line between fantasy and reality means playing the part of some kind of crazy crochet artist. You have to knit a structure of believable things – true things – around the impossible nugget you’re trying to get your reader to swallow.

There’s all sorts of material you might use to accomplish this, based on the nature of your story, but I find these elements are pretty consistent:

• Make the science as genuine as possible. Sure, that can seem nonsensical when we’re talking about vampires or ghost ships, but try your damnedest. Research the characteristics of human blood, or the latest science behind pausing the aging process. Dig up dirt on mass hallucinations or the effects of scurvy. Sometimes it’s only a short step from the very facts that tell you that your fantasy elements are total crap to scenarios that might just make them seem within the realm of possibility.

• Stick to your history. Almost any aspect of the fantastic has a pedigree. Humans have been telling each other wild tales for a very long time, which means that whether you’re toying with dragons or magic mirrors, there’s an existing context you can draw upon. The longer things have been around, the more we tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. And of course, you’ll want any related historical facts you drawn upon to be accurate as well, whether it’s a reference to the Napoleonic wars or Queen Victoria’s experiments with cannabis as a cure for insomnia.

• Keep things emotionally real. The more outlandish your premise, the more vital is it that your characters react to it – and to your story in general – in a way that feels authentic and believable. That includes expressions of skepticism and resistance to seemingly impossible ideas. Don’t fall into the trap of having them just ‘go along with it’. Convince them, however painstakingly, and you’ll be that much closer to convincing your reader as well.

• My novel, The Smoke Hunter, revolves around the mythical city of El Dorado, something readers today would be understandably inclined to dismiss as downright silly. After all, who these days believes there’s a city of gold hidden somewhere in the jungles of South or Central America?

So in tackling El Dorado, I dove into colonial records and Mayan and Aztec mythology and archaeology, looking for truths I could connect to the legend—and I found them. I dug up loads of genuine (and, as it happens, totally fascinating) facts that I was able to weave around the unreal portions of my story, making the whole business that much harder to simply dismiss. I convinced my skeptical hero and heroine to believe in it. Heck, by the end of the process, I found myself wondering if I hadn’t inadvertently hit on something not all that far from the truth. After all, there were plenty of ruins that hadn’t yet been pinned down on maps in the years when Cortez and Sir Walter Raleigh were burning their way through the jungle in search of gold. And as the recent ‘White City’ discovery in Honduras makes clear, the Mayans and the Aztecs weren’t the only civilizations in pre-Colombian Central America.

Coleridge’s words in the quote at the start of this piece are often misapplied. The “willing suspension of disbelief” is taken to mean that readers are naturally inclined to put their common sense to the side when indulging in fiction, instinctively siding with the author on the reality of spectral hounds or sexy werewolves. (Though admittedly, I might be more willing to kick my common sense to the curb if the supernatural entity in question is a total stud.)

The point being, what Coleridge is saying here isn’t that suspension of disbelief is this naturally occurring phenomenon we get to take advantage of as creators of fiction. He calls it an endeavor, something that has to be procured. ‘Poetic faith’ isn’t something that just happens: it’s something we earn by approaching the supernatural in our work in such a way that we give it both ‘human interest’ and ‘a semblance of truth’.

So whether you’re tackling a sentient virus or the anthropomorphic personifications of a few high concepts, don’t take the credulity of your readers for granted. Weave those elements into a world that is as authentic as possible, and if you’re lucky, you might just broaden some horizons.

Jacquelyn Benson’s debut novel, The Smoke Hunter, is the tale of archivist Eleanora Mallory’s wild journey through 19th century Central America as she races to uncover the secret of a mysterious map that may be the key to unraveling an ancient mystery. Find out more at


  1. I like the idea of the adventure of the reservation is the time period it's set in. I never seem to get on well with Victorian era settings which is why steampunk is not my friend! Still, the story does sound interesting...

    1. It's not my usual time period either but I really love the sound of the story.


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