Elizabeth: Story Truth vs. Reality

My iPod is full of podcasts that I have saved over the years, intending to listen to, but never quite finding the time for.  I’ve deleted quite a few of them, but the remainder is rivaled only my tottering to-be-read pile.

I’m doing my best to change that, which is why I’ve spent the last few weeks at the gym sweating away on the elliptical while listening to some circa-2012  podcasts by a now-defunct writing couple.  The podcasts often include a segment answering listener-submitted questions and today’s dealt with how much research to do for a story and how important it is to get all of the facts right.

Answering the second part of that first, the response was that you should never let facts get in the way of your story truth.  “You’re writing fiction, not a documentary.”   That really resonated with me (and made me laugh, which garnered me a funny look from the person working out next to me).

As a writer and fan of Regency fiction, I used to belong to a Regency writing group.  I eventually wandered off because there seemed to be such a focus on getting the facts exactly correct.  I believe it was a discussion about riding side-saddle that finally put me over the edge.  All sides were so adamant about their facts but I couldn’t help thinking, “who really cares?”  As long as whatever scene the information was used in seemed reasonably plausible, I’d just happily keep reading right along.

There are also some facts I am just fine with leaving out of a story.  Take personal hygiene in Regency fiction, for example.  I prefer not to have to think too much about things like chamber pots and the non-existence of toilet paper, not to mention the accepted levels of cleanliness at the time or the exigencies of outdoor plumbing.  In those instances, I’m more than happy with a vague reference or a blurring of reality over cold, hard facts, unless those facts are intrinsic to the unfolding of the story.

I can’t help thinking of a great intimate scene that I read recently.  The fact that certain parts don’t actually bend that way or logistically speaking the hero and heroine would have to be some kind of mutants to reach what they were able to reach and do what they were able to do, had nothing to do with the enjoyment of what was a well-written scene between two fascinating characters that moved the story along. In that case, the “facts” were irrelevant to the story.

Back to research, the answer to “how much research should you do” was basically “enough to let you tell the story you need to tell.”

Possibly not as helpful an answer as the listener had been hoping for.

I get it though.  My current story includes a police detective, an FBI agent, a brain surgeon, two explosions, several murders, and an antique amulet.  I have no experience with any of these, though I may have seen an antique amulet at a museum once.  I could spend ages researching and still get something wrong or get everything right and still have a reader say “that couldn’t happen that way.”  So, I’ve done some reading, I’ve watched some crime shows, I attended two fabulous workshops by an FBI agent at the latest RWA conference, and then I started writing.  When the story is finished, I’ll run the medical parts by one of the medical professionals I work with.  If I find someone with a police or FBI background I may ask them to take a look at the criminal sections.  What I’ll really depend on for feedback are beta readers, since the story isn’t being written for academics or professionals, it is being written for readers.  If something throws them out of the story then, “real” or not, it’s probably something that needs to be changed.

While I strive for reasonable accuracy, my focus is on the story.  If it isn’t 100% factual, well, that’s why they call it fiction.

I’m okay with that.

So, how about you?  Does it bug you when something isn’t factually accurate in stories or do you just keep right on reading?

12 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Story Truth vs. Reality

  1. As with almost all other interesting questions, the answer is “It depends”.

    For most fiction, and for most “Wait, that’s not how the world works at all” moments, I toss such distractions under the suspension of the Disbelief Bus. Exceptions occur, though. When a book is described to me (again and again) as being chock full of hard science, as Seveneves was, the author’s scientific blunders throw me out of the story to a greater degree.

    Oh, and then there was one Laurell K. Hamilton book where the female protagonist used bath soap as an aid during an intimate scene. That not only threw me out of the story, it’s the only thing I remember about that novel.

    • Hmm. . . soap during an intimate scene? That gives a whole new meaning to good clean fun. Not.

      I get the “chock full of hard science” exception. I’m thinking of things like the forensics from Bones (some of which feels far-fetched, even if it is accurate), or the sciencey-stuff from McGyver.

  2. I’m with you. Sometimes I don’t like to think about all that encompasses history of a certain era, but I like to know that it could possibly be true. I’ve been known to look up a detail if I didn’t believe it, but most of the time it doesn’t bother me.

    That being said I did read a book where the time traveling heroine went back in time to the Middle Ages where she met the hero. She then returned to present day pregnant. She decided to return to the hero of the past and the father of her child to live in his time, which I found distracting seeing as having a child back then was dangerous. But it was after all fiction.

    • Hmm. . .given a choice, I think I’d avoid having a child back in the Middle Ages 🙂 I’m with you on looking up the occasional detail, but I try to avoid that since it often leads me down a rabbit hole of research.

  3. I don’t want my fiction to read like a documentary, and I have stretched the limits of credulity without hesitation in my own writing , but I need to know that something could be true, even if it isn’t usually true, or even likely to be true. I don’t mind when historical facts are misplaced in fiction so that something could happen earlier than it actually did. But I do get bugged when something is obviously wrong or not ever true, and it’s the fact or occurrence that underpins the next section of the book, or heaven forbid, the whole book. I find that really annoying.

    • I do seem to remember a gargoyle book :-). I don’t particularly mind mildly displaced historical facts, as my knowledge of some parts of history is hazy, at best. I do sometimes get thrown out of a story by word usage though, if a historical character uses a definitely contemporary word. That might just be me though.

      • I have a whole host of words and phrases highlighted in my Victorian novel. On my last pass before handing it to betas, I’ll spend probably at least a day on etymology websites to make sure I’m not letting modernisms creep in. But I agree, I’ll let a lot of details slide as long as it’s not jarringly anachronistic, like phones or antibiotics in the 19th century.

  4. Well, the important thing is: does it make you happy? You are allowed a few weak points, so as long as everything else is ringing bells and making the reader (or just yourself) happy, maybe it’s OK.

    I went through a pagan phase when I was a stay-at-home mom, and I paid a lot of attention to the moon for gardening purposes. So, if someone writes about the beautiful full moon in the western sky just after sundown . . . I’m going to notice that’s wrong. Whether it will throw me out of the book or not depends on how well-seated I’m in the book to begin with.

    The next thing we need to ask as writers is who is our audience? Do we really want readers who will read our stuff and say, “Oh, that lace wasn’t produced until 1859; how dare it show up in a Regency!” Or, “Full moon in the west? At that hour? Was the planet hit by an asteroid and knocked off course?” Maybe the kindest course would be to suggest that that reader choose a different book next time.

    One just never knows what exactly is going to trigger a reader, so maybe it’s not worth the time to worry about it. Sure, fix things the beta readers have problems with if they are problems and easy to fix. But I think we can go crazy (and stop writing altogether) if we worry about triggering every single possible reader.

    • I picked up a novel once that began like this: “She grew up on a farm east of Sheboygan.” I’m from Wisconsin, and I know without checking a map that if your farm is east of Sheboygan, it’s in the middle of Lake Michigan. I didn’t get to the second sentence.

      • LOL, if your character is a mermaid, you need to get that fact up front before you put her out on the algae farm.

        Then again, nobody could possibly get mad at the author for writing fictional nasties about their hometown. Unless there’s a drowned city in Lake Michigan. (Or a bunch of literary mermaids.)

        Gosh, I’m loving this far more than I should. Did I mention I just found a lady who has written a book about the mermaids of Lake Michigan? It’s got four stars on Amazon, and the woman lives in Japan . . . .

        (Aside from the fact that I’ve had mermaids on the brain for an awfully long time.)

      • LOL, Kay. That’s a fact that wouldn’t even have registered for me, not being from Wisconsin. I did however recently read a cozy mystery located in San Francisco and the characters drove through Wine Country at one point – or at least a geographically rearranged version of Wine Country. I just pretended it was an alternate reality and read on :=)

    • Excellent points, Michaeline. I’m willing to overlook or ignore many things if I’m reading a story that is making me happy (or writing one).

      One of the interesting issues that came up on the Regency writing loop is that there are certain incorrect “facts” that writers have included in their stories for so long, that when a writer tried to put in the correct fact, readers really caller her out on it. Sometimes there is just no winning.

      I think you are correct in suggesting a reader choose different book the next time, if the writing of a specific author triggers them.

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