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Editor's Corner:
Does Accuracy Matter in Fiction? - Part I

by Moira Allen

Return to Editor's Corner · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

In this week's Fabulous Fiction column, Victoria Grossack raises the question of the importance of accuracy in fiction. Since she closes with an invitation to readers to respond, how can I resist weighing in?

One reason I couldn't resist was that, when I edited the column, I had just begun reading a book that purported to be historically accurate -- but that, early on, gave me grave concerns about the quality of the author's research. The book, An Illusion of Murder by Carol McCleary, is a murder mystery featuring real-life 19th-century journalist Nellie Bly as the "detective." The book follows Nellie's journey around the world in her successful attempt to beat Jules Verne's fictional "80 days."

When I pick up a book like this, that involves a real-life person in fictional events, I expect the real-life part to be -- well, real. So when, early in the book, a character explained to Nellie that "Julius Caesar" had sought a form of snake charmer/magician to "save Cleopatra" from suicide-by-asp, I nearly threw the book across the room. I suppose it's possible -- but only if someone conducted a séance, because Julius Caesar had already been dead for 14 years. She couldn't have meant Mark Antony (not exactly a name you'd confuse with "Caesar" anyway), since his death preceded Cleopatra's. About the only possible candidate is Caesarion, Cleopatra's son -- but it seems unlikely, as Cleopatra had sent him away prior to her suicide.

Does it bother me? As a reader, yes. Does it matter? Ah, there's the rub, and the question Victoria raises so ably below. Why does it matter? Why does it bother me?

First, there's the obvious answer: It bothers me because I know better. That raises an equally obvious second question: Would it have bothered me if I hadn't? Obviously not. If you wrote a fabulous scene describing the wedding of Wenceslas III of Bohemia and Elizabeth of Hungary, I'd probably believe every word. (Only thanks to a visit to Wikipedia do I happen to know that, in fact, the engagement was off...) But even if I didn't know better, you can be sure that someone amongst your readers will -- and will probably write a severe letter pointing out your historical deficiencies.

Fortunately, I ended up enjoying the rest of McCleary's tale, and I have no reason to believe that it wasn't, in fact, meticulously researched. (In fact, I rather wonder if the Caesar line was due to some overzealous copy editor who had never heard of Caesarion.) However, another reason I didn't throw the book across the room was because, although glaring, the error didn't matter much. It wasn't a key point in resolving the plot. Not so the error of a well known romance author (one who ought to know better) who set her tale in colonial America -- and brought us to a thundering conclusion in which a villain fired not one but two shots from a dueling pistol. Without reloading.

Conversely, I just finished Sherwood Smith's Coronets and Steel, which is set in the fictional Eastern European country of "Dobrenica." (There is a city by that name, but not a country.) While I'm sure that Smith has done some research on comparable countries, it's clear from the beginning that she is not writing about a real place, or real historical people -- and so I'm not the least bit concerned about "accuracy." When I put down McCleary's book, I am assuming that I actually know more about the real Nellie Bly, and the type of sights (minus the spies, terrorists and murders) that she would have encountered in her journey. When I put down Smith's book, I don't assume that I know one bit more about "life" in an Eastern European country than I did before I started.

And there, I think, is the crux of the matter: How the author represents the work. If an author represents a work as being accurate, then I believe it should be accurate. I expect that if I pick up Nellie Bly's own journal, Around the World in 72 Days, I'm going to read many of the same things that I read in McCleary's book. But more to the point, I expect to come away from that book having learned genuine facts and insights about Nellie Bly's world without having to actually read her journal. [Although, inspired by McCleary's book, I am reading it -- ironically, having downloaded this 19th-century work to my Kindle -- and it's quite enjoyable.] In other words, McCleary is promising to "educate" me, in a painless and entertaining way, about a world I might otherwise know nothing about. And by making that promise, she's making a commitment to deliver accuracy.

Accuracy, of course, doesn't have to revolve just around history. If you set a book in London, and represent that it's an accurate depiction of that city, then I expect your details to be accurate. If you tell me an artifact can be viewed at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and it actually resides at the British Museum, I'm going to be annoyed. (In a similar vein, many years ago I visited Alderley Edge in Cheshire specifically to discover some of the sites described in Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen. I didn't really expect to be captured by svart-alfar, but I did expect -- and was able -- to dibble my fingers in the Wizard's Well.)

Accuracy can also involve such issues as what a character does for a living (or for a hobby). If a book involves legal issues, I expect the writer to know what he or she is talking about. I'd be devastated to learn that Margaret Maron's Judge Knott resolved a case in a manner that wasn't, in fact, consistent with North Carolina law. As a reader, I'd consider that "cheating."

I suppose, at its most basic, the issue boils down to that age-old bit of advice, "Write about what you know." When it comes to research, if you don't know, and you can't find out, it's probably better not to write about it at all. The line about Julius Caesar and Cleopatra could have been omitted without making the least difference to the plot. The two-shot dueling pistol, on the other hand, was part of a pivotal moment in the plot, making it all the more important for the author to get it right.

And when writing about what you know, it's important to consider what readers know. In any genre, you're bound to attract many readers who know nothing about your subject matter, and who care even less. But you're also, by definition, going to attract readers who pick up your book precisely because they do know about, and care about, your topic. If you write a mystery series set in a knit shop, you can bet many of your readers will be avid knitters. If, like Victoria, you write about Bronze Age Greece, you can bet that many readers will pick up your book precisely because they love that period of history.

They're going to know if you get it wrong. They will care. And if you fail them often enough, or resoundingly enough, they'll stop reading you altogether. That matters!

Continue to Part II...

Find Out More:

Does Accuracy Matter in Fiction? Part II - Moira Allen

Facts in Fiction - Victoria Grossack

Research Flaws in Romance Novels - Anne M. Marble

Column Archives

Copyright © 2013 Moira Allen

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.


Copyright © 2018 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
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