Monday, September 05, 2005

Accuracy in Fiction - or - How Real Should Fiction Be?

A few days ago I came across a comment in one of Miss Snark's posts. Aside #1 - I'm sorry I'm not giving the exact post permalink but Miss Snark posts often and has so many comments to each of her posts that it would be hard for me to track down the exact post. Aside #2 - Miss Snark's blog is one of the best agent blogs around. If you're interested in the subject of agents and writers you should definitely read her blog daily, and even then I doubt you'd keep up. Aside #3 - this is not to say that Agent 007 isn't one of the best agent blogs. Quite the contrary. If interested in the subject, you should read this one too.

Okay, back to the subject at hand. So I came across this comment about how it irritates people to find inaccuracies in fiction books they read. Let's be clear about the kinds of accuracies I'm talking about here - accuracies about facts from the real world, not plot inaccuracies. To my astonishment, most people felt the same way. They were annoyed if historical facts got confused, annoyed if car models were used inadequately, annoyed if geographical tidbits were wrong.

I say 'to my astonishment' because I could never care less. If I read fiction, I assume everything in the book is fiction, including scientific, historical and geographical facts used to tell the story. (Maybe that's why I couldn't understand what the big deal was with The Da-Vinci Code, it was fiction after all.)

Naturally, I started thinking. Why is my attitude different from so many others, and what is the right attitude if at all.

With regards to the why part of the questions I decided that it's because I'm coming from the science-fiction genre in which authors easily change history or the laws of physics. In fact, these changes are the basis of many books. It might not be called "changing facts" per se, but authors use devices such as time travel to change history. Similarly, authors don't "break" the laws of physics, but have scientists develop past these laws. And so on.

But what about mainstream/mystery/romance novels where the characters are fully integrated in our world? What about historical fiction where characters live our history? How correct should the facts be in these genres? How real should the fiction be?

As far as I'm concerned - not very. For example, I'm not deterred from watching shows which supposedly are based in real life like House and Traders, even though they don't really depict what's going on in real life. However, as far as most people go, fact accuracy does matter. I don't know how aggravating inaccuracies would be to most readers, nor the point at what point they would put the book down saying, 'enough with this crap.' Maybe it's something authors should consider. Then again, maybe it's not. Depends on the author I guess.

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ME Strauss said...

Hi Melly,
I don't make any claim on knowing all of the rules, but one good rule is anything that could distract the reader from the story is BAD. I used to live in Austin. It never snows there. I read a book that had the main characters ride in a sleigh--it made the author look ridiculous and felt like an insult.

Gosh I guess I care a lot about this. (blush)

I'm working on a novel, where I just drove up to Milwaukee only to find the place I'd remembered was significantly changed from how it used to be. There's a whole scene I'm rewriting.

I guess what I would say is Imagine that an author got your favorite place all wrong--how would you feel as the reader?

Gina said...

I think it might be "what you are into" (ie a history buff) I over look dates and cars and real life people, I'm just not that much into history...

BUT, I frown on health and science rule breaking. I hate it when I read (or watch) something that is just wrong or greatly exagerated (like the really bad email depictions that TV shows...I mean come on, almost everyone has used email and none of us get the flying letter that fills the whole screen!!)

So I'm a science nut and (out side of science fiction, as long as it's not retarded use of science) I hate to see bad science.

Melly said...

Yes, I know what you mean, Liz, and this is exactly what I expected too.
Me? If someone wrote something wrong about TO, like having a nice winter for example, I wouldn't care. I would assume it's a fictional Toronto in which winters are nice, I wouldn't think the author got the real TO wrong. Unless it was non-fiction, in which case I would flip.

I guess what I'm saying is that for me fiction is fiction. Somehow people find it easier to read about elves and vampires rather than a warm Toronto winter.
People like reading about impossible romances with an alpha male that doesn't exist than about a car model that never was.
People would even accept some babble about tachion beams (whatever these are), but not... well, you get my drift.

What I do agree with you fully, and I must stress this point, is what you said about "anything that could distract the reader from the story is BAD." In which case fact checking is of utmost importance. (Unless you write for yourself.)

And I'm not really trying to convince anybody, nor do I think anybody could be. It's just a question of which buttons one is more sensitive to. I guess I have that button on 'off', but I can understand those who have it 'on'.

Melly said...

Gina, you bring up an excellent point.

I guess that if a novel presumes to be historical fiction, then the historical facts better be accurate.

On the other hand, what do you think of CSI or MacGyver though? (Sorry to revert to shows, but it's easier to pick on them than on books, it's just that much more obvious). Half the stuff in these shows, that presume to use science for their plots, is absolute crap. Some is scientifically correct and very cool, but the rest...
And somehow, these shows are more accepted - why?

Well, the world is a mystery to me. If I understood everything and human nature, I would probably... have nothing to think about.

Yzabel said...

For me, it depends on the fiction and on the kind of inaccurracies. If they're discrete enough, I'll close my eyes on them; if they distract me from the story, or are in a domain that I know well (and thus hit me more), it makes me cringe. I can let some scientific matters pass because I just don't know enough, but if I find some enormous history inaccuracy, such as people travelling 200 kms a day in the mountains on a horse, this doesn't work with me. I suppose I'm of these people who feel that there's a need for a solid, real basis to extrapolate on, since it'll make said extrapolation more believable.

To take the example from a previous comment about riding in a sleigh in Austin, there'd better be a good reason for snow to fall there, as well as a display of how this is a surprise to the inhabitants.. else I'll just laugh at it and think "what bulls**t is that!". When it's blatant that the author hasn't done any research and is just throwing a hack in "because it's fiction, nobody will notice it", it speaks of laziness to me, and I'm not so prone to take his/her book "seriously". Of course, the inaccuracies may be wanted, but in this case, the intent is usually easy to notice, too--in the case of alternate universes, for instance.

Lee Carlon said...

I think getting your facts right builds credibilty with the reader, a lot of people might not know what the weather is like in Austin (I certainly don't) but some people will.
I started to read a book recently and the author made a glaring error in the first page - it was about the size of the Sphinx at Giza - and i stopped reading because he'd failed to build his credibility in the first page, and who knew what other bloopers he might throw in later on.
As for car makes and models, I won't even notice, so they'd get away with that one, at least with me.

Melly said...

Well, I knew I was the odd bird.

Yzabel, you make a good point about laziness. Even for me, a reader who doesn't care about facts, as a writer, my research and fact checking is very extensive.

Lee, you said it. If a writer's intention is to keep the reader reading, it's best to get the facts straight.

ME Strauss said...

I agree with you, Melly, Yzabel, and Lee, some of it comes down to what the reader perosnally notices--key point that everyone seems to be making in their own way is that when the writer gets it wrong, the reader who notices feels sold out.

I want to feel like the writer is working for me. I certainly feel that way when I write. I think credibility is easy to lose and hard to keep, so why risk it?

Like Y, I don't mind minot details that are in the background, but when the plot or a scene centers around something wrong, when the writer puts it in my face where I cannot ignore it, it's the same to me as the writer choosing to misspell a word consistently for no reason--distracting and annoying.

Melly said...

Yes, I can definitely see that Liz.

I'm trying to think of touchy subjects for me, ones that if the writer got wrong, I would be annoyed. I may have found one or two, so I can understand you all better.

Pat Kirby said...

I remember an X-Files episode in which there were Saguaro cacti in New Mexico (Roswell). Kapow, it drop kicked me right out of the story. And I'm very fussy about horse details.

Both my ongoing novel projects and the one I sold are contemporary fantasy, set in New Mexico. Since I love the juxtaposition of the extraordinary with the mundane, it's important that Albuquerque (or Santa Fe) feel real. I wouldn't dream of setting a story in your neck of the woods; at least not without serious research.

I often play a little loose with details and facts in the first draft, making notes as I go: "Check spelling for solfeggio; Where is Palace of the Governors in relation to...?" I don't want to get out of my zone to do research. Revision is where I fix the details. (Of course, this is why I rely on first readers and critique groups. New eyeballs to find all the stupid sh*t I missed.)

As a reader, anytime I find myself nitpicking the author's treatment of details, I know the story has failed elsewhere...usually in characterization. Sweep me up in the character's story and I may not notice the little stuff.

Melly said...

Two excellent points, Pat:
1. My treatment of facts as a writer is very different from my reaction to them as a reader.
2. Yes, you're probably right, if the book fails elsewhere that's when most readers would start nitpicking. Otherwise they would be more forgiving.

Shirazi said...

Great point here. Taken.

Melly said...

Thanks Shirazi, and thanks for visiting :)

Jean said...

It was the blatant factual inaccuracies in Digital Fortress that have turned me off forever to anything Dan Brown writes.

Melly said...

I guess that proves the point then, Jean.

Of course, being me, I didn't mind so much his inaccuracies, but I did mind his one-dimensional characters. But then again, he made millions and has millions of readers and I...

Jewell Whitehall said...

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