Fact or fiction. Does anybody care?

14 Mar

I care. A lot. I almost fell out of my chair on Sunday, when I read a book review in my local paper. The book is called “The Lifespan of a Fact” and is supposedly the tale of an essay that was sent in for fact-checking, and resulting correspondence between writer and checker.

Here’s a link to the review,  http://www.cleveland.com/books/index.ssf/2012/03/in_the_lifespan_of_a_fact_writ.html

plus you can find other varying opinions at Amazon and other book review sites.

Such a variety of opinions! Wow. How could I not use this for the blog? I get so outraged by writers who care so little for facts or truth in their writing. Whether they write long or short, fiction or non-fiction, it makes no difference to me. Facts are facts and cannot willfully be changed at the author’s whim.  

I still recall the time (just about ten years ago) when I first encountered the phrase ‘creative non-fiction’ and caviled at the concept. I now know it can be done (and sometimes should be – I even do it myself) but I think the reader is entitled to know when this happens. Which comes first — the writer or the reader? 

Quite possibly, this is why “Author’s Notes” or whatever they’re called came into being. The author may need to fudge a historical date for a very good reason, which should be shared with the readers.

Let me digress just a bit to explain. When my first published book (Secret Shores) was written, accepted and put into the publishing system at Berkley, I was not too sure about the next book. It turned out to be Windsong, and was the story of the courtship of the parents of the hero of Secret Shores. Since Jock was of a certain age in his story, I couldn’t very well (or at least I didn’t want to) change that in the second book. This didn’t give me much leeway in getting the parents married (or at least pregnant) even though I was able to change a few dates here and there.

An important date in the creation of Windsong was the Smallpox Epidemic that swept through Indian villages in 1837, which left her a widow. THIS YEAR is not changeable. Period. It was 1837. I was boxed in by both stories, as Jock had to be an American-born citizen, and his home state of Michigan became a state in early 1837. Oh, dear. We made it, but I spent a frantic couple of weeks trying to tie up all the loose ends! This necessarily impacted other events but I did end up making two of the minor characters a bit older than they really were with no difficulty, all of which I clarified in my Author’s Notes.

Had there been an important historical happening at that time, however, I’d not have been able to make that switch so easily.

I think it’s difficult to create dialogue and specific scenes for a historical biography, for instance, especially if the person is not famous. Generally, a good deal of that information pertaining to, say, a President of the US, or the King of England, is in a library somewhere, usually in a collection of papers. If you like research, you’ll know what I mean – it’s great fun to go looking for these sources.

If you want to set a story in San Francisco in 1906, and you don’t mention the great earthquake of that year, you should explain somewhere along the way why you’re not including it.         

A brain freeze can happen to anyone – at any time, and it’s only too easy to mentally grasp a certain date or place for an event that couldn’t possibly have happened at that place or time, for myriad reasons. With luck, this boo-boo will be caught before publication, but if it isn’t, you’d better be prepared to defend yourself.

Then too, I find it terrifically aggravating to choose a book that’s touted as historical fiction set during a given period, only to find that it’s really full of very modern-acting and –talking characters in period costume. They pay absolutely no attention to the mores and manners of that era’s society, just do as they please, regardless. It’s totally not believable, even if it is fiction. Why not just set it when the characters want it to be set?  Beats me.

Excuse me. I’ll get down from my soapbox and go back to my Regency Christmas novella.

I welcome your comments and/or opinions. Cheers! 





3 Responses to “Fact or fiction. Does anybody care?”

  1. Ty Drago March 16, 2012 at 11:37 pm #

    Then, of course, there’s Ben Franklin’s grandsons, Temple and Benji, who were conspicuously missing from The Franklin Affair. I did it because it suited me to exclude them from the story. But, in my defense, I did include a disclaimer at the end of the book, explaining myself! Know just what you mean, my friend!

  2. susan February 6, 2013 at 3:38 am #

    This is another pet peeve of mine. I say another as I posted a pet peeve on a different blog post. Inattention to the social mores and manners of a time period makes it difficult to find the book enjoyable. Exclusion of grandsons is a different matter. There are a number of reasons you might exclude the catalogue of a character’s genealogy in a story, but the scenes and dialogue must be time specific. However, I must say that published writers do not commit this crime nearly as often as Hollywood movies thankfully. Or I have been lucky with the books I’ve chosen to read.

    • susan February 6, 2013 at 3:40 am #

      So yes I care! I want to learn something from everything I read. What I learn may not be historical. It may be a viewpoint on the human condition, but either way it has to factual to the time period. Even thoughts on the human condition, while some cross all periods of time, some are time specific.

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