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?