Is it important to get your facts straight when writing non-fantasy fiction?
I’m not talking about the internal consistency of the “facts” you make up, although that is also important. Nor am I talking about improbable events that require some suspension of disbelief (although I do favor keeping wild improbabilities to a minimum). I’m referring to objectively verifiable facts from the outside world. And the answer is … drum roll … “well, it depends.”
Most (here, here) writers agree that factual accuracy is important in fiction, although it all depends on the context and writer’s expressed intent. In historical fiction, for example, there’s an obvious argument that factual accuracy is especially important because it is purportedly based on real people and events, but an author can disclaim that intent at the beginning and all is well.
Additionally, authors specializing in subgenres such as medical or legal thrillers had better get their terminology and procedures correct or they will come off as posers. The same holds true for any specialized job, whether it’s a pilot or a fisherman. A book based in a real place should accurately describe it, including climate and culture, although specific locations within a place (e.g., a seaside bar in a coastal town) are usually fictionalized.
But beyond these rather obvious situations, do fiction writers need to be scrupulously accurate with facts, or is there literary license to make the real world conform to their fictional world? Put another way, should a fiction writer’s goal of accuracy apply to all facts or just big facts?
Whether because of my legal training, academic background or just OCD-ness, I advocate that fiction writers make every reasonable effort to get external facts correct, including All the Small Things (a Blink-182 song my rock cover band plays, good tune).
(Footnote: Perhaps surprising to non-lawyers, in most legal cases, facts are more important law. In law school I had a professor who screamed at us at least three times each class, “It’s all about the effing facts!” Except he didn’t say effing. He used the F-word. Definitely got our attention. William Blackstone, a famous English jurisprudential scholar, said that for every case resolved on a point of law, one hundred will be decided on the facts.)
Why is beginning-to-end factual accuracy important in a made-up story? Because even though “fake facts” as to tangential matters may slip by many readers unnoticed, some readers will notice. Some of them may even post reviews criticizing the book on that basis. When I spot factual inaccuracies in a novel, it detracts from my reading experience because I start to question other things. Credibility is damaged.
Verifying facts and accommodating your novel to fit them takes a lot of time, but it can be done. Thanks to the internet, the answers to most questions are usually just a few keystrokes away.
Examples from The Hiding Girl
I recently completed my second novel, The Hiding Girl. (I’m seeking representation for it, so hello agents! The manuscript was a semifinalist for the 2017 Publishers Weekly BookLife Prize, where it received near-perfect scores and critique comments such as “extraordinary,” “without peer,” and “absolutely amazing.” Read the Publishers Weekly Critic’s Report.)
I would conservatively estimate the number of internet and other research inquiries I made to fact-check The Hiding Girl to be in the several hundreds. Did I go overboard? You decide. Here are a couple of examples:
Of Trains and Buses
• The protagonist, Emily, is a twelve-year-old girl on the run after escaping a home invasion in which her family was killed. She travels mostly by bus or train. I researched the rules for minors traveling alone and found they can’t travel unaccompanied on Greyhound or Amtrak unless they’re at least sixteen. This greatly complicated Emily’s traveling and, hence, the storytelling. She has to persuade adult strangers to accompany her before finally seeking a false driver’s license.
Some writers would ignore this obstacle, either because they didn’t research it or didn’t think readers would know or even care about the age limits for minors traveling alone. And maybe that would be true of most readers, but not all. I think some would wonder and look it up. When they learned the truth, they might discredit the whole storyline.
• Then I got carried away and decided that Emily’s travels had to fit actual bus and train routes, including departure and arrival times.
This led to rewriting a major event after I Googled Greyhound bus routes and discovered that Emily’s necessary bus trip from Memphis to Lafayette, Louisiana didn’t depart until 3:20 am. Not only that, it had to go through Little Rock, Arkansas (the opposite direction), then Texarkana and Shreveport to get there.
Couldn’t I have made up bus routes and times, had the bus leave and arrive where and when I wanted it to without detours? Yes, and this is where even the most careful writers might begin to question my premise and perhaps sanity. (In fairness, Emily’s arduous journey is part of the story, so I couldn’t just have her pop up in a new place at the beginning of a new chapter.)
Why waste time worrying about trivial facts like these? Two reasons. First, where do you draw a line once you have granted yourself the liberty of making up verifiable facts? Why not just have Emily take a train from Memphis to Lafayette even though no train goes there? Few would notice.
The Beauty of the Real World
But here’s another reason, one of those unintended “good news” consequences. Using the bus route example, conforming the plot to this little piece of the real world, where she couldn’t help confronting new places and people, led to new ideas and scenes that would not have occurred to me. Forcing yourself to confront the real world, I learned, with all its complexities, can move you out of preconceived notions and allow the story to unfold on its own. That’s my favorite part of writing fiction, when the story tells the writer what’s happening rather than the other way around.
Beware of Guns
One area disproportionately represented in mystery/suspense/thriller fiction, where you need to be particularly painstaking in your research, is when writing about guns.
If your novel has scenes featuring guns or gun violence, be sure to get every detail correct, even the most minute, or you will hear an earful from gun aficionados. Gun folks love their guns and know a lot about them.
I know this from both academic and personal experience. Instead of letting this knowledge make me overconfident when writing gun scenes, it has the opposite effect. I know I need to research the heck out of every word. In The Hiding Girl, for example, I did not know important details like how to remove a magazine disconnect safety from a Browning Hi-Power pistol or the impact of an incendiary round from a BMG .50 caliber rifle.
As it turned out, YouTube videos answered these very questions. And that’s the best news of all for writers pursuing factual accuracy. The information is out there. You just have to pursue it. The age-old advice to “write what you know” is still valid, but it’s much easier these days to learn about what you don’t know. If you’re willing to do the research, I believe you can write intelligently about almost any subject.
(As an aside, Rory Miller’s Violence: A Writer’s Guide (2d ed. 2012) is a good advice book for writing about violence. For The Hiding Girl, it not only explained how to write effectively about sharp object violence, but stimulated a couple of plot ideas.)
Let me know what you think about the premise of this post: that it is worth striving for maximum accuracy even as to fine factual points when writing fiction.