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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hey, Someone Put Facts in My Fiction!

© momius -
by Alton Gansky

One of the most pervasive myths in the literary world is this: fiction is all make believe. It ain’t true. There is often more fact in fiction that reader’s realize. True, you wouldn’t use a novel in a footnote to document a point in your PhD dissertation, but that doesn’t mean everything between the covers of a novel is suspect. In fact, the best novelists do copious amounts of research to get the facts correct.

True, the plot of a novel is fabricated, the characters are made up, and the situation is contrived (in a believable way), but that does not mean it contains no truth and should be distrusted. I have learned amazing facts from novels.

The difference between a novel and a nonfiction book (I write both) is this: a novel is designed to help a reader experience something; a nonfiction book helps the reader learn something. Novels are about exploration; nonfiction works are about education. Both require rigorous research.

As a novelist, I cannot allow myself to say, “Eh, nobody is gonna care about that detail.” Yes, yes they are. At best, you might get letters; at worse, readers will write you off as careless and not worth reading.

Of course, we all make mistakes. In one of my Perry Sachs adventure novels I refer to a jet-fighter as an F-2. There is an F-2 fighter aircraft but it’s made for the Japanese Air Self Defense Force, not the US Air Force. Of course, I meant an F-22 but for some reason the second “2” didn’t show up in the final manuscript. I blame my keyboard.

In a novel I did with Zondervan a decade or so ago I have a character shipping out on a WWII submarine. He recalls watching The Milton Berle Show with his wife. Unfortunately for me, I was a couple of years too early for the Berle show and a reader called me on it. The odd thing is, I don’t recall writing that line. I may have meant it to be a placeholder, a name for me to double-check later and then failed to do so. That’s more of an admission of guilt than an excuse. I have many more mea culpa examples but I won’t bore you (or humiliate myself) with them.

I have a friend who writes historical fiction and was reminded by readers that his character couldn’t have tied her shoes. Women were still buttoning shoes in the year when the story takes place.

The lists are long. We all make such literary boo-boos. Even the most famous writers have dropped the ball on the details. I catch them at it all the time. It happens in nonfiction books as well. One of my favorite books on church history has been around for decades and is in its fourth printing. It has the wrong year for a particular pope’s death—a simple transposition.

Okay, so it happens to every writer, journalists, writers of screenplays, novelists, and nonfiction writers. Still, it is incumbent on all writers to do their best to get the facts straight, if only to avoid driving readers away.

There should be another reason, one more noble than avoiding gotcha letters: the duty to put out the best book we can. Writers of Christian material have—yes, even (maybe especially) novels—have a duty to the truth, because we represent the Truth. Shoddy research tells the reader the writer just didn’t care enough about the facts of the story, or for that matter, about the reader, to present the best possible work possible, one that has been properly researched.

This research extends beyond just facts but extends into human behavior. I wrote two series of novels with a female protagonist. Not being female, it proved to be a challenge. Fortunately, I had three female readers who kept me on track, allowed me to peek in the lodge of women’s shoes (which left me thoroughly intimidated), and corrected me with comments like, “A woman would never say that . . . or wear that . . . or feel that . . . or think that.” I did better than I thought I would but it took a great deal of observation and a willingness to ask for help from that crowd that has two X-chromosomes. I now know what a shell top is (as uncomfortable as it sounds) and tell the difference between spectator pumps and sling-backs. Yes, I have moments when I question my masculinity, but it’s all for the cause of writing.

All that to say, “Let’s get our facts straight, even in fiction.”

(c) Mary Denman
Alton Gansky writes, edits, leads the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference, and produces and hosts Writer's Talk.


  1. I can sing that song in 1 note! I hate to read fiction with misplaced facts. And I know it can be hard. I came close to ruining my debut novel by writing myself into a corner on facts. Fortunately, I was able to save it. But bad or no research will ruin the read. And authors of contemporary novels need to research as much as historical authors.

  2. I just finished "Madame Zee" by Pearl Luke. She freely admits that she has fictionalized the backstory of Mabel Rowbotham, and that it took 4 tries to "get it right".

    Ane, this is what an editor is for. I loved Luke's " knowing that it was right when her editor responded WITHOUT any " howevers"

  3. I'm guilty of writing a gotcha letter! Granted, it wasn't the only reason I wrote and I was also 15 at the time. But I read a book that had students in a one-room school house in the mid-1800s reciting the pledge of allegiance and had recently learned when the pledge was written and felt compelled to point it out. ;)

    Well-researched fiction is a golden opportunity for writers to share fascinating information with their readers (so long as they resist the temptation to over do it.)

  4. If I may, writers can't assume research can always be done with books about the subject. Let's take my sport of horse racing. Even though few readers know the difference between a pony horse and a race horse or a bridle and a halter or a lead rope and a shank, I can assure you those of us who do - slim number that we may be - we will be insulted at your ignorance of our sport. I imagine that applies to other sports and occupations. They have their own languages, and you can't just make a couple trips to the racetrack or other places - or back in history - and expect to catch the nuances or specifics of the multi-faceted arena of choice. It takes time and dedication, and those facts make for good reading.

    Kudos to you, Al, for consulting women on your heroine. It's often very difficult for men to write women and vice versa. It's good to have coaches to keep it real.


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