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Friday, November 5, 2010

Is it Real? Does it Matter?

Regardless of what I'm writing, I'm a stickler for accuracy whenever possible. With the Internet at our fingertips, we can research from the comfort of our homes, and to me, there's no excuse for sloppy writing. Nothing pulls me out of a story faster than coming across inaccuracies. (For the record, I'm not discussing fantasy or science fiction here, although in those genres, the author still needs to build a world and stick to the rules.)

And, believe me, I'm an 'easy' reader. I don't stop while I'm reading to look stuff up. I put my faith in the author to be within the realm of reality even in fiction. If you write historical fiction, I'm your reader, because what I know about history would fit in a thimble (does anyone even use those anymore?). So if you tell me the Duke of Wherever was carrying a reticule, I wouldn't flinch.

But if you're writing mystery, I trust that you won't have your character thumb the safety off his Glock, because THAT I do know. (That happens to be the most common mistake concerning firearms that writers make—and I've seen some Big Names make it.)

When I was researching Finding Sarah, I wanted to make sure I had the right stars in the night sky when they strolled on the porch after dinner. I spent time with the on line Farmer's Almanac to make sure Randy could point out Cassiopeia to Sarah. As it turned out, I didn't need that scene, but I knew I had it right.



The hardest part of research is knowing what you don't know. I needed to thwart Sarah's escape attempt, but I didn't want her to be a meek, 'wait to be rescued' heroine. How to sabotage her plans? The only vehicle available to her was a stick shift, and she didn't know how to drive one. To further complicate things, I had it parked head into a tree, so she'd have to use reverse.

Unlike the car I learned to drive on, a newer model stick shift can't be started unless you have the clutch depressed to the floor. She wouldn't know this, so I felt that I'd given her a believable reason to have to find another escape route. What I DIDN'T know was that the make and model of the car I chose, a Highlander (as an inside joke, since I began writing with Highlander fan fiction) doesn't come in a manual transmission. Luckily, a crit partner knew this and I was saved the embarrassment of having a glaring error in the story. I doubt my editor would have caught that one, since she was Australian.

And as authors, we can't rely on busy copy editors to fact check all the details. After all, they might not know they don't know it either!

Sure, we take liberties in fiction. As Harlan Coben said, "I get to make stuff up." But I think our readers appreciate it when we try to stay within the boundaries of reality. If they're familiar with what you're writing, they'll give you that mental fist pump. But if you get it wrong, you run the risk that they'll stop reading your books because you've lost that bond of trust.

How about you? Do you simply want to escape when you read, facts or not? Or do you want to believe what you're reading is real? Even when it's made up?

Terry Odell is the author of five romantic suspense novels, all of which are available in both print and digital formats. She also has written numerous contemporary romance short stories, which are available as digital downloads. Please visit her website to learn more, including free chapter reads and behind the scenes peeks, and follow her blog, Terry's Place, where she shares what she's learned (and is learning) about the craft and business of writing. You can also follow her on Twitter and find her on Facebook.

24 comments:

N. R. Williams said...

I once read a story by a famous author who remain unnamed who put fireflies in the mountains of Colorado. We don't have fireflies in the mountains or anywhere else in Colorado, it's too dry. Fireflies thrive in humid locals. I also mentioned the soft lush grass in my high fantasy and a crit partner said, 'Won't it poke her?" Not in the local of my story, but grass in Colorado is dry and does poke. I never read another book by the published author after that. And I got to educate my crit. partner.
Nancy
I posted some contest today if your interested.
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Terry and Nancy,

I do agree with you both: inaccuracies are a turnoff in novels. And I do read lots of books, particularly historical romances that have irritating errors. When I wrote TEA LEAVES AND TAROT CARDS, I did extensive research because I wanted to get the historical details right. Mary Balogh who is an exceptionally knowledgeable Regency author was kind enough to read the novel for me after the initial edit. She still found several small errors that I did correct before the final edit.

Wynter Daniels said...

I definitely want accuracy when I read. My father is a history buff and has been known to write to publishers when he has found inaccuracies in biographies and history books - yes, he's done this several times;-) There's always someone who will find that one inaccuracy, so it's important to get it right.

Terry Odell said...

Nancy - now that I've moved to Colorado, I'm learning a whole new set of 'facts'. And although it's humid in Florida, there were no fireflies there. I remember being fascinated the first time I saw them--I think we were in Virginia

Terry Odell said...

Jacqueline - you didn't need to research your history for me--I'd never have noticed. But it's important to get the facts right because a lot of readers DO know your subject matter--sometimes better than you do.

Terry Odell said...

Wynter - Hubster does that with articles that are supposed to be 'science' but get things wrong. He's written to many a journal/magazine/newswpaper correcting facts.

Alice Duncan said...

And never put a eucalyptus tree in California before Jack London imported them! Or a potato in Medieval England. And if you want to be really fussy, don't have your American folks say "hello" to each other until after the telephone had been in use for a long time. Sigh. Sometimes it's difficult to get all these things straight.

Terry Odell said...

Alice - LOL! I remember a Lee Child book where someone was explaining the origin of "Hello" as a telephone greeting to Jack Reacher.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I think authenticity in a novel is crucial. I don't always know if a particular detail is correct, but I can sense that the writer has been careful, so I trust the rest of the story. When I come across a flagrant error, or sense that something seems sloppy or illogical, then I fall out of the story and never finish the book. Writing is hard work in many ways.

Terry Odell said...

Susan, you make a good point. Authors can't know everything (and then there are all the other factors that intervene, like copy editors, etc.). If it's set in modern day, I understand it can be a good two years or more between the writing and publication, so things will change. But it should look as though the author tried

Maggie Toussaint said...

I often have to chomp down on all the research I want to work into my book. I go off on tangents while researching and get enthralled by the interesting facts I find.

Great blog, Terry

Maggie

Terry Odell said...

Maggie, my son used to hate "Dictionary Homework Night." When I asked him why, he said it was because he always got distracted and it took him forever to finish his actual assignment.

C.C. Harrison said...

LOL!! Come now, my fellow authors, let's lighten up! It IS fiction, after all. That's what suspension of disbelief is for - fiction. While I do agree the guns and explosives should be right, and I do tons of research for my own books, I don't get all bent out of shape if the author of a book I'm reading puts Tom's Tavern in Golden instead of Boulder. In fact, I can't think of a single novel I ever gave up on because the author made something like that up.

After all - it's the story that counts. I do what I can to make sure my story is compelling, and I'll always put the story ahead of reality. Isn't one of the first things we all learned when we began writing fiction was that it doesn't have to BE real, it just has to SEEM real? That's my two cents. Good blog, Terry.

Terry Odell said...

CC - yes, it's fiction, but I think the point here was coming across as a sloppy writer who couldn't be bothered to check facts vs liberties taken with reality for the sake of the story. Anyone who watches Castle or CSI laughs at the inaccuracy but enjoys the story. But it can't hurt to make the effort to keep from stretching the truth too far. If a story put the White House in Las Vegas, I'd want a darn good explanation!

Kathy Otten said...

I'm coming in late here, cause I've been working, but even though I'd like to believe I've done thorough research, I worry someone will find a mistake, like the fireflies or the pokey grass and my story will become a wall banger talked about on blogs and Goodreads forever. If you do mess up, I suppose it's like the craft of writing, you do it better next time, and even better the time after that.

Terry Odell said...

Kathy - I think it takes a lot to make a book a wall-banger, but all we can do is our best. The hardest part is knowing what we don't know so we CAN research it.

Sara said...

Nothing pulls a reader out of a book faster than driving into a hole in the story. I once read a book written by an Oklahoma author who referred to a Choctaw Indian living on a reservation getting a monthly BIA check in the mail. The Oklahoma Choctaws had land allotments, not a reservation, and Indians do not receive monthly BIA checks in the mail unless it is payment for land leases or gas and oil leases. It angered me that an Oklahoma author could know so little about the Indians in their home state. But I try not to judge too harshly from fear something just as silly might make its way into one of my books!

Patricia Stoltey said...

I spent quite a bit of time looking up sunrise and sunset times for a specific month for one of my stories. Get something like that wrong and everyone in that state would know...and probably write a letter.

Terry Odell said...

Patricia - when we lived in Florida, there was a negligible difference in sunrises and sunsets. It's important not to generalize that it's the same everywhere (as we're rapidly learning her in the Colorado mountains)

Terry Odell said...

Sara - mistakes like that can be irritating - but you're right. We hope readers will forgive us our errors, so we shouldn't judge too harshly. I'm more critical about an author who creates TSTL characters than one that nails every fact.

liana laverentz said...

I want to escape into someone else's reality. If the facts aren't right, it does bother me. Not enough to write a letter, but sometimes enough to stop reading. I want it to be so real for me that I don't have to stop and think---Hey! What about....? Anything that makes me think when I'm looking to escape is not good :)

Terry Odell said...

Liana, I think you've nailed it. If I'm reading for escape, I want to stay firmly entrenched in the book. Reading for facts is research, and it's an entirely different game. We do have to remember, that we shouldn't use fiction for research--not without checking the facts.

Mohamed Mughal said...

The more truth and facts we can build into the superstructure of our fiction, the more likely our readers are to grant us license to indulge that occasional outlandish twist.

Terry Odell said...

Mohamed - yes, there's the willful suspension of disbelief, but all within limits of the genre, and the 'trust' the author has been able to instill in the reader.