Yes, it has to be accurate even if it’s fiction

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I grew up in a journalism family, married a former journalist, worked as a journalist in the Navy, and taught journalism at the college level. So, I watch the daily news with dismay when I see how slanted so much of it is. Consequently, a lot of voters are making up their minds about candidates and platforms that are skewed by out-of-context headlines, manipulated interviews, anchors and reporters who argue with those they’re interviewing rather than asking questions and letting the facts go wherever they go, and panels of experts that are set up to exclude those who don’t agree with the network’s stance.

When I taught journalism, a lot of students came to class thinking that editorials didn’t have to be factual because the words represented a personal opinion (or the opinion of the newspaper). So, as we see on Facebook today where people say all kinds of political things without checking out their accuracy, students tended to say what they thought about an issue without making sure their views were based on the realities of the issue.

Such editorials get chopped a part in news organizations (the good ones) because an opinion piece is so easily discounted when the writer bases his or her thoughts on false facts. Readers who don’t see that the facts are false are, of course, being lied to when the writer feeds them falsehoods in support of whatever agenda s/he has.

What about fiction?

factsSome people say it’s okay to make up real world facts in a novel because the whole thing’s fiction. With all due respect, that’s one of the stupidest and most inaccurate opinions about writing novels and short stories I’ve ever heard. Obviously, fantasy worlds don’t have to agree with the realities of our world, though the author needs to make those worlds internally consistent. And, we allow some liberties in historical fiction, especially when such novels include conversations between historical people that weren’t witnessed (much less transcribed) by anyone else. Alternative histories, of course, show how things might have gone if a battle went another way or if some other factor was changed, so we don’t expect them to adhere exactly to the historical record as we know it.

Most authors don’t have the resources to have expert fact checkers look at every single scene to see if the scene would make sense to somebody who’s actually in the business/hobby/avocation/career that’s the focus of the novel. Major authors even get criticized by policemen, firemen, soldiers, lawyers, doctors and other professions who say that while the novels are page turners, they contain factual errors or ways of thinking that don’t match the realities of those who do the work.

Indie authors have more trouble with this, I think, partly because some of their mentors are telling them facts can be lax in fiction and partly because they don’t have the resources to read more, interview experts, or follow experts around on the job to see how a specific career works. There’s also a lot of pressure these days to write fast and publish fast. Many famous novelists spent (and, in some cases, still spend) many years writing a book. In contrast, a lot of authors try to copy the prolific Stephen King by turning out multiple novels on one year. (King, of course, often includes experts in his acknowledgements that will talk to him because of who he is but who wouldn’t give an unknown the time of day.)

My opinion, is that we owe it to our readers to get the facts right to the best of our abilities and resources. When the facts in a novel are wrong, they are very compelling to readers who have no way of knowing the facts: so it’s easy for readers to assume that the novel more or less is basing its plot on correct police procedures, how courtrooms really work, what a doctor actually might do in the operating room, and on the real beliefs of various minority religions, groups, and factions.

I write about hoodoo and witchcraft, so I am very conscious of the fact that the media, Hollywood, and a lot of commercial novelists perpetrate the belief that hoodoo practitioners are ignorant and that witches worship the Christian devil. Both are false. Yes, the lie is perhaps more exciting in a high-stakes thriller novel, but the result is just as anti-education and anti-truth as an editorial in a newspaper that bends the facts in order to make the opinion look stronger.

Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

At least, that’s what a lot of people say.  I always told my journalism students, that writing editorials and essays based on questionable facts was pure laziness and/or an intentional slanting of the piece. I see novels the same way. That is, I don’t think a skilled writer needs to subvert the truth in order to have an exciting plot that evolves through memorable, three-dimensional characters. Most of us have too guess a lot when we write about professions, situations, and places that we’re learning about through research rather than having been in those professions or situations or places. So, we have to accept the fact that no matter how much we check our facts, a “real life” person might say, “it would never happen that way.”

truthstrangerthanfictionOne way to combat that is to interview somebody in the group/profession/avocation you’re writing about. Before doing that, the author needs to do background research so that the questions don’t sound stupid and so clarifications of differing viewpoints uncovered in that research can be made by those you interview. I’ve found a surprising number of experts in all kinds of things that will respond to my questions via e-mail even though I’m not a big name author. I usually ask if it’s okay for me to include their name and/or organization in the acknowledgements section of the book.

Another way is to have a friend of colleague who’s conversant in your novel’s subject matter read through some or all of the manuscript.  If you have a presence on Facebook, the odds of finding somebody in the profession/avocation/group you’re writing about is certainly higher than our “real-life” circle of friends. Many people like the idea of being beta readers or in reviewing portions of the book relating to their own professions. Another source of information comes from bloggers who specialize in accurately covering their own hobbies and work. They’re often enthusiastic about authors who want to cover their areas of expertise correctly.

Finally, you can avoid some kind of “that doesn’t sound right” issues in your choice of your novel’s point of view. If you write the story in the first person, you’re going to be closer to the protagonist and his/her thoughts than you are if you write in restricted third person. It’s one thing to get procedures and techniques correct–via your research–but much more difficult to get the protagonist’s thoughts correct. How an individual lawyer, policeman, minister, hoodoo lady, doctor or CEO thinks about what s/he is doing is very difficult (unless you have a beta reader from that profession). Needless to say, using a character’s internal monologue about a subject you’re not totally conversant with is more likely to expose gaps in your research than a simple statement followed by the words “he thought.”

When I wrote Sarabande, a fantasy novel with a female protagonist, I found that with some advice from women, I could accurately portray a female character in a believable fashion. One reason for this was that the character came from a different universe and was reacting to our universe; what she might say or do or think was easier to “fake” because she came from another world.

However, when I wrote Conjure Woman’s Cat, about an elderly Negro conjure woman from the 1950s, I didn’t tell her story from her point of view. Why? Because I didn’t think I was capable of getting inside the thoughts of my character. So, I had her cat tell the story. This way, I never had to show her thoughts directly because, quite frankly, I wouldn’t know how to do that in a way that rang true. My wife and I have had cats in our house for an entire married life, so I’m fairly used to how they behave and figure it’s unlikely a lot of cats will read the novella and say, “We would never think something like that.”

We have to use our skills as writers and part-time researchers to get around the things we don’t know when we’re telling a story. I’m interested in super natural subjects, so I’m much more attuned to writing about them than, say, police investigations or espionage. So, I avoid the problem of lack of accuracy by staying away from stories I can’t do justice to and which–when it comes down to it–aren’t my cup of tea to write about.

Bottom line, I think accuracy makes a better novel. That’s my opinion. What’s yours?

–Malcolm

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7 responses

  1. I suspect that there is more fact in your fiction than one will find in the media news. Whatever went wrong with journalism? How did we let it get that way?

  2. Enjoyed reading this and it is a mess. I think it happened slowly over a couple of decades starting maybe in the 60’s, back when we thought the media was telling us what was happening Then some writers led us unknowingly down the wrong path as we were blinded by what appeared to be wise words. One where things sound good but have no substance. It is hard to come back from a trip like that.