Friday, January 13, 2012

Fictional Facts (Fast and Fraudulent)

I finally wrote a couple thousand words or so today. It's been a complicated week, with my jobs intruding on my writing time a lot (dang money, having to be made), and I haven't had the chance to write much. I told Matt a couple of days ago that I felt dissatisfied with the way the week was going, that I felt like it was slipping away from me. Now it's Friday night and I've only just gotten the chance to write what I really want to be writing.

I wrote a scene today that took place during the Civil War, and I had a great many details to look up to make sure I wasn't being too horribly disrespectful. A lot of them (what the weather was like in Buckingham County, Virginia on April 7th, 1865) I couldn't find; a lot of them (how many men were in a company and how many in a battalion; whether a corporal was an officer) I embarrassingly couldn't keep in my head long enough to close out the stupid window in my browser.

One of my favorite things about Stephen King's books of short stories is the bit at the end, where he tells you a little about each story's history - how it came to him, what he was thinking about when he wrote it, whether and where it was published (or not), etc. I find some of these commentaries to be more interesting than the actual stories, and one I well remember is for "Dolan's Cadillac", a revenge story about a man who (thpoilerth) buries the mobster who killed his wife inside his own Cadillac, six feet under. He does this by having the guy drive into a trap on a deserted highway and then using highway equipment to cover up the car. King explained in his bonus feature that he tried to fake the facts about how this would occur, how the man would dig the hole and get the car in it and so on. He found after a draft or two that he just couldn't manage it without more facts, so he called his polymath brother and asked him to explain how it would be done. His brother sent him a videotape of himself explaining it, with physics and miniature figures and a pile of dirt.

I'm tangenting a little, but the point emergeth: part of what I remember about this bonus feature (and a few others King has written about other stories) is that King says without shame that he's a very lazy writer when it comes to facts like this. That he generally only bothers to get it right in the very most shallow way possible, the way in which your average layman wouldn't know the difference. He's just not Michael Crichton, he says, and can't be buggered to get all of that crap perfectly correct.

I'm somewhere in the middle. I like things to be right, but I'm certainly not going to lose my mind if it's not - particularly if it's too obscure for anyone to know the difference. Certainly anyone who's ever lived in Greenland is going to contradict plenty of the stuff in my previous book, but come on, I'm supposed to cater to that subset of people? Sure, I'd love to have the thousands of dollars it would require for me to spend two weeks in Greenland fact-gathering, but I don't.

The Civil War is something else again. A lot of people are going to cry foul on a fudge, including some members of my own family. So I tried to get right as much as I could. But when I found myself looking up names of corporals who died on April 7th of 1865 to see if I could get a moderately correct reference in there...yeah, that was too much. It's a horror novel, folks, it ain't scholarship.

I'd love to know what others think about this. Do you think it all has to be perfect for it to be enjoyed? Or can fiction be safely loose and undependable when it comes to facts?


Bret Hays said...

Thorough research can make historical fiction like C.J. Sansom's Tudor-era mysteries more enjoyable, just as literary techniques can make history more engaging. But in both cases the extra effort is a bonus, not an audience expectation. As a reader, you already know what qualities are most important in making fiction enjoyable. And as a writer, you must know that there's no point in catering to nit-pickers.

Casablanca is not diminished for me in the slightest by the fact that there was never anything remotely like a "letter of transit." The setting is appealing, but historical verisimilitude is not the reason anyone watches the film. Don't Stop Believing became no less fun after I learned that "South Detroit" is geographical nonsense.

Even when I'm reading or watching a piece of fiction that bungles facts I know well, I don't necessarily mind. Usually I know the facts well because I'm a fan and seeing the subject matter crop up in entertainment is a thrill. Like how the scene at the beginning of the Boondock Saints where they get up during the church service has several mistakes that even an infrequent worshipper could spot. I notice every time, but I'm having so much fun that I don't care.

One exception would be when errors are used as plot points, or "Dan Brown syndrome." That is annoying.

tanaudel said...

I prefer it if people play fast and loose with the facts. Outright bungling can be irritating, but 'covering it with a line of dialogue' or eliding or vaguely acknowledging a different law of physics works fine for me - even better is bold invention: the fictional islands in the heavily historically-referenced Cryptonomicon, the utterly bizarre and funny 'scientific explanation' at the beginning of Eric Flint's unashamed romp through history 1632. The fictional town of St Helens in Ride a Wild Pony (which should be a real town), Charles de Lint's Newford.

High fantasy writers, too, often go into incredible detail on world building - yet one of the most physically real-feeling worlds at the time I read it was KJ Bishop's The Etched City, and when I mentioned it to her she said that she hadn't 'built' it at all, she had just invented the bits she needed as she went along.

Katharine Coldiron said...

I'm so glad to hear both of you smart people don't usually give a hoot about facts in fiction. (In Boondock Saints, if I knew any better, it would bother me, if only because there's religion weaved all in that movie.) My trouble is that I tend to think authors have actually looked up the things that they put in their novels - little factoids like the month of the year that the most number of people die and whether you can talk coherently after you've just been shot in the head. Some authors do bother, I suppose, but I don't know how to tell the difference between those who do and those who are BSing.

Bret, you're right - completely silly to try to please born nitpickers (i.e. Comic Book Guy). I kind of hadn't thought of it that way.

Kathleen, I'm not awfully surprised by your take on the subject. It's good to know that the segment of my audience that resembles you is just going to want something extraordinary, and hang the rest.

Any dissenters out there?