Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Factual Accuracy in Fiction: does it matter?

Monhegan Island, Maine at night from a fact gathering trip for my work-in-progress

An author needs to create a world that is believable. When I spot factual errors in a book, even if it's fiction, the reality is broken for me. I don't expect perfection, but authors writing outside their personal experiences need to be more careful with the facts. Part of the reason I rarely review Maine novels if they aren't written by locals is that most people from away lack a basic understanding of my home state. If you use summer as a verb, I'm not the right reviewer for your book.

A day out lobstering in Harpswell to research my novel

I once read a "Maine" novel in which the lobstermen were loading their traps onto pickup trucks at the end of a summer day. In the real world, lobster traps are hauled up, the catch removed and then rebaited, but the traps usually remain in the ocean until the end of the season. The same book described a family as being so poor that they couldn't afford to repair their air conditioner. Most Maine residents live without air conditioning. It rarely gets too hot, and we have other priorities like heating our homes through the long winter. Yet another error: using a cell phone to navigate a boat. Once you're offshore, there isn't much reception. More importantly, you need a depth and tide chart to avoid the rocky shoals. Using a phone to navigate the coastal seas is not just inaccurate, it's dangerous misinformation. I didn't review that otherwise well-written book.

Rocky shoals off Monhegan Island

A related problem is not fact-checking. An author may do extensive research but can still get a few facts reversed or jumbled. Here's an example: a protagonist adjusts "aperture speed." In photography you can either change the shutter speed (how long the lens is open) or adjust the aperture (the size of the lens opening). There were other errors in a darkroom scene (eg film being processed in a red lit darkroom instead of in absolute darkness). Most readers wouldn't notice the slip, but I'm a photographer who cut her teeth in a darkroom before switching to digital. It was otherwise a really good book which captured the creativity of the arts. I may review it later.

The flipside of the factual coin is info dumping. Some books, especially historical fiction, are factually accurate to the point where the novel reads like a sixth grade Social Studies textbook. For example: I use my bone-handled knife to skin the seal in the manner that my grandmother once taught me. Nope. The native narrator wouldn't be consciously thinking about something she does everyday. If explanation is necessary for context, have an outsider ask questions. An author needs to be well informed to write believably, but that doesn't mean that the reader needs to be taught everything the author knows. Info dumping breaks the flow of a story and makes me quit reading. Keep your research file separate or consider switching to nonfiction.

Monhegan Harbor in fog

Finding factual errors in published books motivated me to be more careful with my own work-in-progress. Last month I interviewed a police officer for a drunk-driving arrest scene. After I wrote the scene, the officer fact-checked the pages and flagged a handful of errors, which I will correct. For drama, I might allow some flexibility with normal police procedure, but this will be a conscious choice, not a careless accident. My goal is to minimize factual errors to foster reality. (Thank you, Officer Dan Sylvain!)

Monhegan Harbor later the same day

The bottom line: write what you know or ask someone who knows to fact-check.


Rose said...

Good advice, Sarah. I've often been turned off my a book when I find factual errors. Of course, I could read a book set in Maine where the lobstermen brought a truckload of lobsters to sell at the local four-way stop--much like farmers sell sweet corn here--and think nothing of it:)

Sarah Laurence said...

Rose, in my town "the lobster ladies" sell their catch at the farmers' market. The lobsters are caught fresh daily or stored in seawater crates under the dock, but the traps themselves remain in the ocean. An observer could easily confuse the plastic lobster crates with the wire traps (shown above). Thanks for sharing your opinion about factual errors in fiction.

khaki said...

Totally agree. I can't stand it when reading a book and you are going along and it is almost alarming- I am like- wait, that's not right. Ruins the whole experience- at least for me.

☆sapphire said...

Interesting post, Sarah! Yes. I definitely agree with you. Hmm."aperture speed" sounds so mysterious. I hate making mistakes but I've made an awful lot. I think everyone makes mistakes. As for publishing, I guess good editing can catch factual or grammatical errors in copy before it goes out....

Your photos are so beautiful! I particularly love the Monhegan Harbor in fog!!

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Sarah,

Yes, we are absolutely with you on this.

All art forms require one not only to believe but, also, to inhabit a world which may suspend belief at the same time. It is a juggling act which, as you say, if it is littered with inaccuracies cannot hold one's attention and, therefore the plot is lost!

And, again, we are with you on a slavish attention to every detail. For us, such writing slows down the action and interrupts the more important process, for us still least, of drawing out the characters.

Well, who said the life of a novelist was an easy one? Certainly not us! Hoping that your writing is flowing freely whilst you are 'summering' your time away!

Amanda Summer said...

Excellent advice. Love the image of colored ropes.

troutbirder said...

Exactly right. I read a lot of historical fiction and the facts need to be correct. Thus a good story, well written and true to the time and place will hold my attention. "Information dumping" is a new term for me but it clearly fits why I didn't care for some of James Michener's novels..:)

Pamela Terry and Edward said...


A Cuban In London said...

I was with you all the way, nodding my head like mad. it's these little details that give "credibility" to a work of fiction. Yes, we still get that the action isn't real but, please, please, mind the mobile reception blunders! :-)

Greetings from London.