Fact in Fiction

Why writers in every genre need accuracy

 Randall MacDonnell, 2nd Earl of Antrim, Wikimedia commons public domain

Randall MacDonnell, 2nd Earl of Antrim, Wikimedia commons public domain

As a journalism student in college it was drilled into me that any facts I intended to include in a story had to be confirmed by at least three sources. Otherwise I risked damaging the credibility not only of myself as a writer, but also of the institutions I worked for. Now that I’m an author of historical fiction and I work for myself, my personal credibility is paramount.

I always strive for accuracy, but my first lesson in going the extra mile was when a reader questioned a tree mentioned in my first novel, Sharavogue. It was a minor detail, and I had confirmed that the tree was native to Ireland. But I hadn't gone far enough. When trying to defend my tree, I found in another source that it was considered native, but it didn't exist in Ireland until 50 years after the period I was writing about. Score one for the reader, black eye for me.

More recently I was writing in my third novel about an important historical figure, the Earl of Antrim, in the year 1639. His earldom was inherited upon the death of his father in 1656, according to one historical journal. But wait, a biography I had read put the event at 1636. If I called him an earl before his time, undoubtedly a reader would contest it and, if I were wrong, I would lose that reader and potentially others.

I checked three more trusted sources—two scholarly history books and Encyclopedia Britannica—that all put the inheritance at 1636. Two things happened: I now gained confidence in calling the earl an Earl, and I lost confidence in the historical journal, even though I realized it was probably just a typo.

Every genre at risk

My friend Linda Reynolds, an award-winning thriller author, has similar concerns about accuracy. She carefully researches specific locations used in her story that may be familiar to readers, but also uses those details make her scenes more real.

 “The town of Marblehead is so well-known to New Englanders, the yachting community, and lovers of early American history, that any deviation from fact would probably generate a firestorm of protest and derision. Thus, describing the locale accurately was important. In one scene, the main character pilots a small Boston Whaler across the water between Beverly and the west shore area of Marblehead, in the middle of January! People have asked me if I spoke from the experience of actually having done that. (Absolutely not!) But it underscores how such passages can make readers feel that they are living the experience.

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“Marblehead is an old, historic town that has not changed much in the last few decades, so I can use Google Street View and Satellite View to refresh my memory and help with details. I do take liberties when I think it is appropriate to do so. One character lives on an actual Marblehead street, but the house is not identified or described in any detail. Another home, destroyed by an explosion and fire in the novel, sits on a fictitious street and does not resemble the house that inspired it. I write fiction, after all, so literary license is allowed.”

Readers love to immerse themselves in a story, and authors can generate a sense of realism through the selective use of fact and description. It becomes more difficult, whether you are looking at the 17th century or 20th century, when the landscape has changed. Google is no help and you must search for alternative sources. For me, paintings, portraits and letters provide a helpful window to the past.

To accurately construct scenes that took place in Tehran in 1978-1979 during the Iranian revolution, Linda had to dig deeper also, but fortunately had personal experience to rely on.

“The city has changed in the intervening years and streets have been renamed (to eliminate any reference to the Shah), so current maps and photos were of little value. With a lot of digging, I was able to find old photos, maps, and websites that helped fill in some of the gaps. But if I had not traveled to Tehran around the time of the revolution, it would have been exceedingly difficult to reconstruct the sense of the place for readers.

Nobody’s perfect

As with my tree episode, Linda found that even her best efforts did not prevent her from an unfortunate error.

“The only time that I have been called out was when I referred to the ‘ropes’ on a boat rather than calling them ‘lines.’ Admittedly, I'm not an avid sailor. But the passages were read by a highly-experienced and well-respected yachtsman, and he did not catch it. I can hold my head up because I go to great lengths to ensure my stories realistically reflect the time and setting of the events taking place. If I make a mistake it only proves that I am human, as are we all.”

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Even fantasy authors must contend with accuracy. Though the word “fantasy” may seem as if they can just make things up as they go, these authors are bound by the laws of nature and/or whatever constructs they may establish to build their alternate reality. If they are not somehow grounded in a believable way, and consistent to those constructs throughout their work, these authors also risk credibility.

E.J. Wenstrom, award-winning author of fantasy and science fiction, says, “I have to confess that I got into fantasy writing because of the freedom to make it all up, but when I started writing book two in my series, I quickly learned how very important accuracy is even in this genre. In fact I would go so far as to say that accuracy in your fantasy world's details is the key difference between a world that jumps off the page and one that never connects. Those details are what make your world feel real to readers.”

I’ve seen the look of dismay in some writers’ eyes when they realize writing will not be all fun and games. Frankly, the attention to detail and accuracy is what marks the difference between the hobbyist and the professional. And some of us actually enjoy the research. If you are writing to be read, there are no shortcuts. Linda sums it up:

“Accurate reconstruction is an important concept, because there is always someone who will have more knowledge than I about a particular location or era. But if I am accurate in painting the setting, they can swallow and appreciate the fiction of the tale. If I am inaccurate, they will dismiss me as not credible and I will have lost them as a reader.