Keep your research within your character’s knowledge base
When you write in the third person, your characters’ thoughts and actions are not only stated from the person’s point of view, but are also constrained by what that character can possibly know.
Unlike an omniscient narrator who can show what others are thinking, in third person, you can’t place your protagonist, let’s call him Jim, in a conversation with, say, Bob and in the middle of it show what Bob is thinking. Jim doesn’t know that. And in third person, you–as the author–can’t come in out of nowhere and tell the readers what Bob is thinking.
Likewise, main characters are a product of their time, their education, their skills, and their attitudes. If a character suddenly knows something outside of their realm of experience, it’s disconcerting. Sometimes when this happens, critics and reviewers will say that the author is letting his or her research show. That could be showing off or maybe it took time to gather the research and so the author adds it to the book.
Here’s a short paragraph from my novel “Eulalie and Washerwoman.” In this 1950s story, Eulalie is a conjure woman who lives in the piney woods and who uses folk magic and herbs based on what her mother taught her. However, her cat is the one telling the story. Here’s the snippet: “We didn’t have long to wait. Eulalie brought the deacon’s chair out on the porch, aligned it carefully at the top of the steps and sat down in it with her hands in her lap. She was dressed for church, a dark floral pattern dress with a wide-brimmed hat perching at a jaunty tilt on top of her granny knot. She wore a brass pendant, the sixth pentacle of Jupiter, highly polished and drawing down the light that conjured the cross within circle into the sun.”
Pentacle of Jupiter Talisman
Like many hoodoo practitioners, Eulalie believed strongly in talismans. Strange as it might seem, these talismans contained a lot of renaissance-era magic that one might not expect a backwoods conjure woman to know. However, curio catalogues and mail order houses did a brisk trade in ancient wisdom. They sold inexpensive tracts that basically told the benefits of old spells, Bible verses, and magic ascribed to Moses and Solomon. A lot of what was known came from materials that originated and/or were translated and edited by the well-known Hermetic organization The Golden Dawn.
While Eulalie could have easily sent off for a pewter or brass pendant such as the one shown in this post, she probably wouldn’t have had a copy of the Golden Dawn leader S. Liddell MacGregor Mathers’ The Key of Solomon. So here are the decisions I made about that paragraph–just as a sample of one writer’s way of looking at the information.
- I could have said “a mail order brass pendant,” but I think that would have cheapened the thing and made it less mysterious.
- While it’s likely Eulalie would know that the Hebrew names on the cross are the angels who govern the four elements (Seraph, Cherub, Tharsis, and Ariel), saying that would have made the paragraph longer and slowed down getting to the action that came after it. The same can be said about the verse in Hebrew around the edge from Psalm 22. Plus, mentioning it might give readers the idea she spoke Hebrew which, of course, she wouldn’t have.
- I definitely think having a statement in the scene about Mathers or the Golden Dawn or ritual magic from the renaissance could push on the readers’ notions about what an ancient 1950s conjure woman would know. Plus, if she had known it, she wouldn’t have said it here because she didn’t need to say it. That is, she believed the talisman would work without having to cite references for it.
This paragraph could have been handled many ways. However it was done, it needed to fit what Eulalie knew and would be likely to say or think during the scene. (For those who have read the book, Eulalie’s cat tells the story, but in general the readers see that when it comes to magic, the cat more or less knows what Eulalie knows, but would be even less likely than Eulalie to cite reference books.)