The reason I write fiction is so I can make things up.

Suddenly, especially with TV getting so much wrong apparently (I don't watch a lot, so I only know what I read about watching TV), everything in fiction has to be real.


The only people who can write fiction anymore without fear of criticism about what they've made up, it seems, are those who write "Speculative Fiction." The rest of us can make up people, places, maybe some situations, but not things, unless one of our characters is an inventor, and certainly not a lot else. Everything else has to be true and factual or the reader is "pulled out of the story," and then "throws the book against the wall." Something I think is rather violent for a gentle reader.

This leaves us writers scrambling for the facts. And defending ourselves when we get it wrong. And wanting to throw the gentle reader across the room when the reader was wrong and told the whole world we were wrong.

What's wrong with this picture?

We writers are often to blame for this state of affairs. We're a picky bunch ourselves, especially if we are professional people who write about our professions. We insist that WE never do things that way, the way the author has written it. Without regard for being in a different place, in a different time, or in a different mindset.

I don't mean we should put Nashville in New York State, or spell the names of real people wrong. But the people who go ballistic when someone gets a fact about a gun wrong is astonishing--scary that some of those people carry. And the people who are with police departments and insist it's done a different way because that's the way they do it is legion. And the people who are "experts" at dialects and how people say things in different regions of the country certainly can bury us in words about the matter, often themselves totally wrong. And that's just a few examples. Everyone is an expect at something, and many seem to expect the author to become one too. When would we have time to write?

If a novel is loaded with errors, I would have to put it down myself. But if you come across one error, and then maybe one or two more, remember one thing:

It's fiction. Would you rather the author spend hours looking up one tiny fact or just write the thing and get it published? And then write another one, supposing that the story is really good and the writer a really good writer. As long as it's believable, it's okay with me. And it can either be believable because it's true, or it can be believable because the writer is so good at writing FICTION that I don't care if it's true or not.

Let the arguments begin!

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Comment by Dana King on January 14, 2010 at 6:59am
I agree completely. Drives me crazy when some really insignificant thing gets pounded on when it makes no difference to the story. Like when people would write to Ed McBain to say Street A was one block west of Street B fifteen books ago, and now you say it's one block east. (In a fictional city, no less.) Get over it, folks.
Comment by Jan Christensen on January 13, 2010 at 12:43pm
Dana, in my last two novels I use guns but did not tell what kind they were. Exactly right--don't use the details if you can't be sure of them. That's what does get people in trouble with mentioned guns. The problem is that we think we know a lot of stuff, and it's wrong. But it goes in the book, and then we find out it's wrong. And some readers are very unforgiving. Instead of judging the piece as a whole, they pick some detail and go ballistic about it. This is what drives me crazy.
Comment by Jan Christensen on January 13, 2010 at 12:40pm
I.J., (hope I got that right--it's hard to tell with the font used if what I think I'm seeing as a J actually is), I've seen cases where editors also don't believe things an author has written and researched, and so rejected the book, without even checking. Must be part of human nature, I guess, to find fault.
Comment by Jan Christensen on January 13, 2010 at 12:37pm
J.E., this is an excellent example of what I'm talking about. Circumstances can be different in different places. It doesn't surprise me at all that some schools don't do background checks. Not everything works the way it should (look at airport security for instance). And again, it's fiction, so if the school you're writing about doesn't do a background check, then that's the way it is there, darn it. Now, if a beta reader made that comment, I MIGHT change it to have an incompetent employee not make the check for this particular case, but then, again, if it works for the story better, I'd leave it the way it is.
Comment by Dana King on January 13, 2010 at 4:30am
This is what led me to create a town for my WIP. It's the first time I've written the main characters as cops, and I didn't want to get bogged down in how that city does it, or that city does it. This is large part of why Ed McBain created Isola.) I did some research on how these kinds of things are done generally, how some different jurisdictions do it, and cherry-picked what worked best for me.

As for detail, when I doubt, use less. If I'm not sure whether a certain gun has a specific characteristic and I can't find out to my satisfaction, I either change the type of gun, or just say he had a gun. Such details are important for keeping readers in a story, but what those details are rarely matter. (Safety/no safety? Hammer/no hammer? Specific type of ammunition? All of these can usually be changed for accuracy's sake without changing the story. It it can't, then you have to dig in and research.)

It also depends on how invested the intended audience is in what you're being factual about. IJ has a high bar to clear, as many of her readers will have knowledge of Japanese history and may take her to task for flaws, real of perceived. The average Dan Brown reader didn't know Opus Dei existed until he read THE DA VINCE CODE, and probably trusts everything Brown told him.
Comment by I. J. Parker on January 13, 2010 at 1:03am
Yup, readers get it wrong and tell the whole world you don't know your stuff. Happens all the time on Amazon.
Comment by J. E. Seymour on January 13, 2010 at 12:26am
Facts are important. It's important to get things right, but I do think that things are often done differently in different places. For example, in my novel coming out this year, I have a guy who is a fugitive get a spot on his local school board, and coach basketball. One of my beta readers said that would never happen, there would be background checks. Well, I know for a fact that there would not be background checks in this small town, because I've coached basketball in a small town and there was no check, and I know members of our school board who assured me there is no check for that either. So things are not always done the same way in every small town or big town. It has to be believable, but let's not obsess over the small stuff.

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