Facts in Fiction
     Victoria Grossack

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 why bother?

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.

Deliberate Falsehoods

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 joke.

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 readers.

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 movie.

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.

Conclusion

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 Fiction from  www.booklocker.com.  

Odes to Olympians poetry contest, featuring Poseidon/Neptune, at Ode Form Contest.

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the From Leaves to Forests and Writing Historical Fiction workshops for Coffeehouse for Writers.