Facts in Fiction
My current work in progress requires a description of a particular
mountain in Turkey. My goal is to make my scene reasonably accurate, but so
far Iíve not been able to find anyone who can answer my questions. As I keep
searching for someone who knows the answers, I canít help wondering if itís
worth it. In general, is it worth making an effort to get your facts right
when creating fiction?
I certainly want accuracy to matter, even in fiction. In some ways
Iím an idealist. But just because I want something to be true does not make
it so. And lately I feel as if Iíve been encountering more and more fiction
with facts that are just plain wrong. For example, the movie Angels and
Demons, based on Dan Brownís book of the same name, is apparently quite
loose with respect to its presentation of reality. A number of people have
voiced their complaints on the radio: evidently they have tried to use the
directions in his book to get around Rome, and they have failed, because his
directions donít work. As Iím not so familiar with Rome, these particular
inaccuracies donít offend me. However, I have been often to CERN (Europeís
nuclear research facility on the border of France and Switzerland) and I
laughed at his version of the place. Brown describes buildings which simply
donít exist, either in size or style.
So, do facts matter in fiction? After all, fiction is made up, so
Letís consider some of the reasons why an author might invent facts for
his or her piece of fiction.
Accidents and Mistakes
First, the author makes a mistake. A novel is an enormous undertaking,
and despite the best intentions, an author may not get everything right.
Jane Austen, who strived hard for accuracy, nevertheless has a passage in
Emma where an apple tree blooms completely out of season. Austenís
farmer-brother, Edward Knight, found the problem after the novel had already
been printed, but Austen did not seem to consider the error worth
correcting, for she left the late-blooming tree in a later edition.
Second, itís possible that he or she is simply too lazy to do the
research. I think this happens in some John Grisham novels. In his novel
The Broker he wrote about how he doesnít bother to do research for
technical aspects, excusing himself with the words, ďItís all fiction,
folksĒ Ė an apology in advance for his inaccuracies when it came to
satellites and espionage. Actually, for this novel Grisham did perform
significant research in Italy, but had not extended it to Switzerland. Hence
the protagonist uses Euros in a country which uses Swiss Francs.
Third, itís possible that the research is too obscure and does not occur
to the author even to ask the question Ė which falls somewhere between
making a mistake and being lazy. For example, in Grishamís The Broker
the main character gets out at a particular square in Zurich, Switzerland,
looks around and muses to himself that nothing has changed since the last
time he was there, eight years earlier, in 1998. Well, as someone who used
to commute through that particular square, I can say categorically that
everything had changed, for there was major reconstruction. Yet this was
an obscure point that would be difficult for an author to know.
Often the author knows what the truth is, and chooses to tell something
different anyway. In these cases Ė and they happen all the time Ė the author
is not making a mistake, but a deliberate, artistic decision. The reasons
for this are many; here are a few:
The author feels the information will confuse the readers.
Especially when writing historical fiction, where real people played real
roles, thereís a dilemma in how much information to convey. A novel is but a
model of the real world; it canít have as many parts. So, characters may
double up on roles. Time may be compressed. Names may be simplified.
The author is having fun. In the movie and book Forrest Gump
and in HBOís miniseries Rome, the creators have fun inserting their
characters into important events Ė and making them partly responsible for
them. Forrest Gump becomes the inspiration for the smiley face; Titus Pullo
is allegedly the ďrealĒ father of Cleopatraís son, Caesarion. Hopefully the
entire audience is aware that these are fictional overlays and enjoys the
The author wants to please readers. Some audiences demand a
hopeful, happy ending. Philippa Gregory somehow manages to make The
Constant Princess Ė the story of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIIIís first
wife, whose real life ended in despair and loneliness as her husband of many
years rejected and divorced her Ė positive, almost optimistic, at the end.
Perhaps she wanted this or perhaps it was demanded by her publishers. So,
often facts are rearranged or reintepreted to make them more acceptable to
The author is presenting an alternative. In some cases one version
of events is well known, but the author wants to present a what-if
alternative. This could be fantasy or science fiction. Readers suspend
belief, for example, that one can travel through a black hole without being
crushed. Or perhaps the author is presenting a different take on events, or
even deliberately courting controversy.
Selling ďThe TruthĒ
The truth Ė or claiming that it is the truth Ė automatically gives a book
or movie more sales potential. I admit that whenever I hear or read the
words, ďBased on a true story,Ē I am more intrigued. Iím usually
curious, too, as to how much is true and how much is not. The truth sells!
If you have any doubts, do some research and youíll see that the market for
nonfiction books is larger than the market for novels.
But what if it isnít true?
People can become indignant when something is sold as the truth but
isnít. Oprah Winfrey was extremely upset when she learned that James Freyís
A Million Little Pieces, a book that she had promoted on her show,
had sections that were exaggerated or even fabricated. She has since stated
that she overreacted. Weíve had other cases, too, where some enterprising
authors have tried to milk the holocaust. Misha: A Memoir of the
Holocaust Years was written by a woman who claimed to have survived the
holocaust by living with wolves. Misha Defonesca, the author, is not even
Jewish, yet this book became an international bestseller, translated into 18
languages, before it was discovered to be a hoax. Recently, Herman
Rosenblatís Angel at the Fence (another hoodwinking of Oprah Winfrey)
turned out to be fabricated, too Ė although in this case the author was at
least a Jew who had been in a German concentration camp. Angel at the
Fence was canceled by the publisher Ė but itís still being made into a
So there is some retribution in the publishing world when authors claim
to tell the truth while lying. But are there punishments for the authors who
incorporate falsehoods and inaccuracies in their fiction?
What the Readers Want: Personal Choices
Iíd like to believe yes, getting facts right matters, but I must
reluctantly admit that it isnít always so. In some cases a readerís reading
experience is spoiled by what seems like an egregious mistake by an author.
Instead of continuing to enjoy the story, the reader is indignantly
thinking, ďIt isnít so! I know it isnít so!Ē And sometimes that reader will
fling the book away in disgust. But many other times, the reader either
doesnít notice the mistake or doesnít care. As many bestselling novels have
mistakes in them, I have to assume that many readers donít care that much.
Or maybe Iím wrong. Maybe Iím too pessimistic.
Maybe the books that donít reach the market are those with even more
mistakes in them. There are successful authors who take their research
seriously. James Michener. Herman Wouk. Colleen McCullough. They are not
infallible, but they certainly do their homework. I respect these authors
because of it.
But respecting authors for their research doesnít always mean being
entertained by themÖ
On the other hand, facts donít always conflict with making a novel
entertaining. So, why not use well-researched facts whenever possible, to
deepen the reading experience? Thatís my preference, and what I strive for
in my own writing. So Iím going to keep searching for answers about Mount
Spil in Turkey. Iíve already made some progress, and found someone who knows
someone who has been there.
I generally attempt to fill my columns with advice and suggestions and
analysis about writing. Although Iíve included some analysis this month,
Iíve also been a little philosophical. And Iíd also love to hear what the
readers of this column think: do you want accuracy in the fiction that you
read? Does it matter to you or not? If you have ideas on this, please write
to me at grossackva at yahoo dot com.
Until next time Ė keep writing.
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About the Writer:
Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the
internationally published author of Iokaste: The Novel of the
Mother-Wife of Oedipus, and other books coming out in the series called
the Tapestry of Bronze (Tapestry
of Bronze.com). You can also read more of her
articles on writing by ordering the e-book, Levels of Structure in
Odes to Olympians poetry contest, featuring
Ode Form Contest.
Victoria was a moderator of a critique group
for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the
From Leaves to Forests
Historical Fiction workshops for Coffeehouse for Writers.